Shocking aerial photos reveal the country's precious remaining wetlands continue to be destroyed by development, and environmentalists are calling for urgent action.

About 90 per cent of the soggy refuges - vital for supporting plant and animal life - have vanished in New Zealand's short history of human habitation.

Home to an abundance of species like shorebirds, eels, whitebait, mangroves and kahikatea, our wetlands once stretched across 2.2 million hectares of countryside - but by 2018 that had dwindled to 249,776ha.

This aerial photo shows wetland loss on private land in the West Coast region from 2001 to 2016. Photo / Forest & Bird
This aerial photo shows wetland loss on private land in the West Coast region from 2001 to 2016. Photo / Forest & Bird

Since 2013, more than 13 per cent had been damaged or destroyed.

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Southland lost 1000ha in just the past decade.

To mark World Wetlands Day, Forest & Bird has released a series of aerial images showing examples of wetlands on private land completely or partly disappearing from 2001-2016.

This aerial photo shows wetland loss on private land in the West Coast region from 2001 to 2016. Photo / Forest & Bird
This aerial photo shows wetland loss on private land in the West Coast region from 2001 to 2016. Photo / Forest & Bird

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"With more than 90 per cent of New Zealand's original wetlands already destroyed, what's left is incredibly important," Forest & Bird freshwater advocate Annabeth Cohen said.

This aerial photo shows wetland loss on private land in the Wellington region from 2001 to 2016. Photo / Forest & Bird
This aerial photo shows wetland loss on private land in the Wellington region from 2001 to 2016. Photo / Forest & Bird

Along with being home to wildlife, they play an important role in cleaning and regulating the flow of fresh water - often referred to as nature's "kidneys" - and will be increasingly vital in countering the effects of climate change like droughts and floods.

About a third of remaining wetlands are on private land, where they are most at risk of being cleared or drained, often to be opened up for livestock.

Retaining wetlands was beneficial not only for biodiversity, but also in farming environments, Cohen said.

This aerial photo shows wetland loss on private land in the Wellington region from 2001 to 2016. Photo / Forest & Bird
This aerial photo shows wetland loss on private land in the Wellington region from 2001 to 2016. Photo / Forest & Bird

"Wetlands filter and process nutrients, and are also like giant sponges regulating water flow, soaking up excessive water during heavy rain and then releasing it slowly in times of drought."

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The proposed National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management, currently under consideration by the Minister for the Environment, was essential in setting stronger rules to protect the remaining wetlands, Cohen said.

"Wetland destruction happens insidiously over time. It may start with a few access roads, followed by some drainage ditches, then a bit of vegetation clearance.

"Little by little our wetlands dry up and disappear. We may not even notice the loss until we look at aerial images from 10 or 15 years ago."

This aerial photo shows wetland loss on private land in the Waikato region from 2001 to 2016. Photo / Forest & Bird
This aerial photo shows wetland loss on private land in the Waikato region from 2001 to 2016. Photo / Forest & Bird

The Government would host the International Wetlands Conference in October, and Cohen said it was a "national shame" the rate and extent of wetland destruction in New Zealand was so high.

"Now is the time to put nature first and finally implement rules to protect wetlands and the animals that live there, before it's too late."

This aerial photo shows wetland loss on private land in the Waikato region from 2001 to 2016. Photo / Forest & Bird
This aerial photo shows wetland loss on private land in the Waikato region from 2001 to 2016. Photo / Forest & Bird
This aerial photo shows wetland loss on private land in the Northland region from 2001 to 2016. Photo / Forest & Bird
This aerial photo shows wetland loss on private land in the Northland region from 2001 to 2016. Photo / Forest & Bird

The National Policy Statement on Indigenous Biodiversity - also being considered by the Government - would also promote restoration and enhancement of wetlands, Cohen said.

"We can have healthy wetlands full of native birds and fish that protect our rivers and coastlines from the worst effects of climate change now and into the future, but only if the Government gets smart and acts now."

Auckland's wetlands extent before human occupation. Image / Forest & Bird
Auckland's wetlands extent before human occupation. Image / Forest & Bird
Auckland's wetlands extent today. Image / Forest & Bird
Auckland's wetlands extent today. Image / Forest & Bird

Minister of Conservation Eugenie Sage said between 1996 and 2012, New Zealand lost about 71,000ha of indigenous habitat - mostly in areas of lowlands, wetlands and coastal habitats.

"We must protect what we have left of these unique environments."

Minister of Conservation Eugenie Sage said Government had aligned its freshwater, biodiversity and climate work programmes to protect and restore remaining wetlands. Photo / File
Minister of Conservation Eugenie Sage said Government had aligned its freshwater, biodiversity and climate work programmes to protect and restore remaining wetlands. Photo / File

The Government had aligned its freshwater, biodiversity and climate work programmes to protect and restore remaining wetlands, she said.

Environment Minister David Parker was leading work on a National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management, and Minister Nanaia Mahuta and Sage were working on the National Policy Statement on Indigenous Biodiversity, with a proposal open for public comment until 14 March.

This aerial photo shows wetland loss on private land in the Canterbury region from 2001 to 2016. Photo / Forest & Bird
This aerial photo shows wetland loss on private land in the Canterbury region from 2001 to 2016. Photo / Forest & Bird

Proposals in the freshwater reforms would require regional councils to identify and map all existing natural inland wetlands, monitor their health, set policies to protect them, and think about how to make restoration easier.

Through the National Environmental Standards for Freshwater, there were also proposed restrictions on the most destructive activities to inland and coastal wetlands – such as drainage, damming, diversion, water takes, reclamation, or disturbance of the bed, and clearance of indigenous vegetation.

This aerial photo shows wetland loss on private land in the Auckland region from 2001 to 2016. Photo / Forest & Bird
This aerial photo shows wetland loss on private land in the Auckland region from 2001 to 2016. Photo / Forest & Bird

Alongside that there was support for community groups supporting wetland restoration, and farmers to fence off streams and plant river banks and steep slopes to prevent erosion and sediment pollution of rivers and wetlands, Sage said.

"The Government's freshwater policies on fencing, setbacks from waterways, fish passage, and protecting wetlands and estuaries, will all have significant direct benefits for biodiversity."