Myth: New Zealand has one of the best environmental records of any country in the world.  We are 100% Pure compared to the rest of the world!

Reality: Our water quality is declining and we have the highest proportion of endangered species.

NZ environmental performanceWe have marketed ourselves as ‘100% pure’ and ‘clean and green’, and while that may have once been true, it is far from reality now.  Many countries are making a greater effect to combat environmental issues than what New Zealand is currently doing.

Water quality has declined in the past two decades, corresponding with dairy intensification.

One study put us at the worst out of the countries measured for the proportion of endangered species [1]. Around one-third (2,788) of all plants and animals are listed as threatened or at-risk and a further one-third are listed as ‘data deficient’, so numbers could be way worse if the resources and scientists were available to investigate further [2].

NZ poor performance

The number of threatened freshwater fish species has grown rapidly over the last few decades from around 20 per cent in the early nineties to 74 per cent now (out of the 51 native freshwater fish) [3] (Figure 2). Additionally, New Zealand’s only mussel and freshwater crayfish (koura) are threatened. Data in the New Zealand freshwater fish database shows that if native fish continue to decline at the rate they have for the last 40 years, then they will be extinct by the year 2050 [4].

NZ threatened freshwater fish

Figure 2: Changes in the proportion of threatened native freshwater fish in New Zealand 1992-2013.

These statistics show that our water quality is declining and not adequate for the freshwater life that naturally lives in them.

The plight of these native freshwater species reveals even more about how conflicted freshwater policy in New Zealand is, as none of these species have any protection under law. Bizarrely, the New Zealand Freshwater Fisheries Regulations 1983 [5] offers no protection to native fish apart from specific protection for one species: the grayling – which went extinct in 1930! If it wasn’t wacky enough to have passed a law to protect a fish species that went extinct fifty years earlier, then the fact that we have given introduced trout (which compete with and predate our native species) complete legal protection by not allowing them to be brought or sold, adds insult to injury.

In a 2013 New Zealand report on public perceptions of the environment, the following was found [6]:

  • Water issues were rated as the most important environmental issue facing the country;
  • Rivers, lakes, and groundwater were judged to be the worst managed environments;
  • Rivers,  lakes, and marine fisheries were perceived to be in the worst state;
  • Farming was perceived to be one of the three main causes of damage to freshwater by over half of the respondents, and was considered an important cause of damage to several other resources too.

Threatened ecosystemsNew Zealand has lost over 70 per cent of its indigenous vegetation and is still losing it fast (Figure 3). There is less than one per cent of indigenous vegetation left in lowland Canterbury. The amount of native habitat area within agricultural lands decreased from 53 per cent in 1950 to 8 per cent in 2002 [7]. Additionally, 68 per cent of New Zealand’s terrestrial ecosystems are listed as threatened.

Endangered ecosystems

Figure 3: Indigenous vegetation cover remaining in New Zealand.

We must protect and clean up our waterways so we can reclaim the title of ‘clean and green’.

Mokihinui River

Figure 3: An example of a pristine New Zealand river: the Mokihinui River, North Westland.


[1] Bradshaw, C.J.A.; Giam, X. and Sodhi, N.S. (2010). Evaluating the relative environmental impact of countries. Plos One, 5:1-16, Retrieved from here.

[2] Seabrook-Davison, M. (2010). An evaluation of the conservation of New Zealand’s threatened biodiversity: management, species recovery and legislation. A thesis presented in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Ecology at Massey University, Auckland, New Zealand. Retrieved from here.

[3] Goodman, J.M. et al. (2014). Conservation status of New Zealands freshwater fish, 2013. DoC, NZ, Retrieved from here.

[4] Joy, M. Squandered E-book. Download here.

[5] New Zealand Legislation. Freshwater Fisheries Regulations 1983. Retrieved from here.

[6] Hughey, Kerr and Cullen (2013). Public perceptions of New Zealands Environment. Lincoln University. Retrieved from here.

[7] Moller, H., MacLeod, C. J., Haggerty, J., Rosin, C., Blackwell, G., Perley, C., Meadows, S., Weller, F., & Gradwohl, M. (2008). Intensification of New Zealand agriculture: Implications for biodiversity. New Zealand Journal of Agricultural Research, 51(3), 253-263.

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