The Waikanae Estuary Scientific Reserve should have its scientific designation changed to scenic reserve, says a person concerned about the health of the area.
While a lot of land-based work is happening in the reserve, especially by volunteer groups, it's the state of the lower Waikanae River and estuary that has Chris Turver worried.
Turver, a foundation member of Friends of the Waikanae River, said the Department of Conservation had held stewardship of the estuary under a scientific reserve designation for 34 years and its website still promoted it as an environmental icon.
"But three years ago, under pressure from an Official Information Act request, it disclosed that under its 'ecosystem management unit' approach the estuary was only ranked at 759 out of all its conservation assets.
"By comparison it ranked the genuine environmental icons of neighbouring Kāpiti Island on 21 and Mana Island on 11.
"DoC has now disclosed that the scientific reserve is 'outside of the top 850' and says it only intends to 'work on the top 850'."
He said a later Official Information Act response from DoC had disclosed that following an increase in the number and types of its environmental assets around New Zealand, the value of the reserve had been re-ranked to a rock bottom 1,336 out of 1,375.
"The ranking can't get much lower and justifies delisting the scientific reserve and replacing with a more manageable scenic reserve to maintain an environmental corridor from the mountains-the-sea.
"It has taken a four year crusade to get straight answers and sadly it's unlikely now that DoC's long neglect of the marine environment in the estuary can be salvaged as shingle and sediment steadily smother habitat."
He said a "damning Greater Wellington Regional Council broad-scale habitat report on the state of the estuary in 2015 identified a major loss of marine habitat including 90 per cent of saltmarsh, a complete loss of seagrass beds, a smothering mud buildup limiting food availability for fish and birdlife, and pollution.
"DoC denied there was a problem and since then not one effort has been made to help restore the health of the lower river and estuary within its scientific reserve.
"Worse, DoC's consistent refusal under the Resource Management Act to allow GWRC to extract shingle has led to the growth of huge, raised shingle banks in the lower river which block the natural tidal flow and threaten flooding.
"The irony is that in March 2019, the Minister of Conservation accepted that Waikanae River and estuary were degraded and announced they had been selected as one of 14 waterways to benefit from a $76 million national package to 'restore them to a healthy functioning state.'
"Two and a half years later, a DoC-appointed Mountains to the Sea governance group and steering committee have not told the community what is going on and no restoration plans have been unveiled.
"While good land-based conservation work by volunteer groups is going on upstream, any justification for a scientific reserve in the estuary has long been lost and it should be delisted.
"DoC should simply admit it's all too hard, and stop misleading the public by perpetuating unrealistic expectations.
"The scientific reserve should be replaced by a less-demanding 'scenic reserve' designation to maintain a worthwhile environmental corridor between the mountains, the sea, and Kāpiti Island."
DoC community ranger Steve Bielby said, "Unfortunately, Mr Turver has misunderstood the Ecological Management Unit (EMU) ranking for the Waikanae Estuary Scientific Reserve.
"The reserve's presence on the EMU list confirms its importance amongst the many thousands under DoC's management."
But Turver said the latest ranking showed the reserve wasn't a priority.
Bielby said the reserve was nationally significant, containing a variety of mountains-to-sea habitats.
"The reserve was founded by Sir Charles Fleming because of its special ecological values, which iwi, community groups, Kāpiti Coast District Council, GWRC and DoC continue to support through a range of initiatives.
"These include the Waikanae Estuary Care Group's formal Ecological Plan, the Waikanae ki Uta ki Tai Mountains to the Sea project, and the $8.5m Waikanae Jobs for Nature Project."
Turver said DoC hadn't denied his comments about the state of the estuary.
"Instead a list of projects are listed as success stories, but they are all land based and there is not one single project for restoring the health of the lower river and estuary which are the beating heart of the waterways."
Waikanae Estuary Care Group chairman Robin Gunston said since 2004 the group, with active support from DoC, GWRC and KCDC and the many volunteer members of its local community, had "worked steadily and purposefully towards the restoration of the scientific reserve".
"This is a long-term project which is making significant progress this year with the additional resources available from Waikanae Jobs for Nature.
"There are science-based projects running in the scientific reserve which are for the benefit not only of this community, but for all of New Zealand as we support the Government's Biodiversity Strategy.
"The fact that in the past year some 3600 hours of voluntary effort have been put in by many active members of WECG to achieve its goals shows how committed people are to restore this very special place for the benefits of future generations.
"Nothing is gained by changing the WESR status if one genuinely believes in the conservation of New Zealand's land, flora and fauna."