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Spotlight on health of Lake Ellesmere

Press release
October 30, 2007

Spotlight on health of Lake Ellesmere

The condition of Lake Ellesmere (Te Waihora) is not as critical as initially feared although scientists admit the lake’s once world-class trout fishery is “terminally ill’’.

Comments two years ago by Environment Court Judge Jeff Smith about the poor state of the lake led to media reports that the lake – the fifth largest in New Zealand - was “biologically dead’’.

The judge’s findings that the lake was eutrophic, full of nutrients to the point where animal life is not sustainable, and green in colour prompted environmental groups to renew their call for action to clean up the seaside lake and sparked new scientific studies into its ecological health.

This week the result of those studies are being presented at a special symposium at Lincoln University. The Waihora-Ellesmere Living Lake Symposium, which begins on Wednesday and runs through until Saturday, will bring together the current state of knowledge and new research on the lake and its catchment and chart a way forward for the waterway, which is considered one of the most important wetlands in New Zealand.

Professor Ken Hughey, who chairs the conference organising committee, says the findings of the various studies conducted over the past two years show that Lake Ellesmere is far from dead.

“In many parts it is quite healthy,’’ Professor Hughey says. “The one bit that may be ‘terminally ill’ is the trout fishery.

“The bird life in the main is doing really well. There are more native bird species recorded at Lake Ellesmere than any other habitat in New Zealand.’’

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Professor Hughey says the prolonged period of dry summers in Canterbury and the growing demand for water for irrigation has affected water flows into the lake. In order to prevent any further degradation, lake levels and the riparian margins need to be better managed.

Options for augmenting flows into the lake will be among the issues discussed at this week’s symposium. Any such option is likely to cost millions of dollars, although many of the other measures are relatively cost effective.

“We need to do what we can in a cost-effective way to maintain and enhance those values that make Lake Ellesmere such an important wetland,’’ Professor Hughey says.

Canadian Larry Hildebrand will be the keynote speaker at the symposium. He has worked for the Canadian government for the past 30 years on coastal and ocean management and law, teaches integrated coastal and catchment management in several countries, and is a technical expert for organisations such as UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme).

Other keynote speakers include Dr Bryan Jenkins, Environment Canterbury’s chief executive, and Dr Hamish Rennie, a senior lecturer in resource management law at Lincoln University.

Professor Hughey says this week’s symposium is an example of how the community, through the Waihora Ellesmere Trust, Ngai Tahu, scientists and management agencies such as Environment Canterbury and the Department of Conservation can all work together on a common conservation and sustainability cause.

“Some big questions remain to be worked on but we’ve a far better understanding now of the issues affecting the values of Lake Ellesmere than before and that means we can start to make progress,’’ Professor Hughey says.


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