The Lake

Te Waihora is the largest lake in Canterbury/Waitaha and the fifth largest lake in New Zealand. Situated west of Banks Peninsula/Horomaka, it is an important link in the chain of coastal lagoons and estuaries along the east coast of the South Island/ Te Waipounamu of Aotearoa/New Zealand.

Te Waihora is an area of cultural, natural, historic, recreational and commercial importance to many people. It has been described as the most important wetland habitat of its type in New Zealand. Internationally, it is important for the many migratory wader bird species that visit the wetland, as well as for threatened indigenous species, the diversity and high proportionate population of bird species and for the many indigenous fish species it supports. The importance of Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere margins, which support more than 80% of the region’s remaining saltmarsh habitats, has been recognised with the inclusion of vegetation values in the National Water Conservation Amendment Order 2011.


Tee lake

Te Waihora lies within the Ngāi Tahu takiwā and is also situated within the Canterbury Conservancy of the Department of Conservation (DOC). The rūnanga who share the responsibilities of kaitiakitanga (stewardship) include Te Taumutu, Te Ngāi Tūāhuriri, Wairewa, Koukourārata, Ōnuku and Te Hapū o Ngāti Wheke. Representatives from these rūnanga make up the Te Waihora Management Board, an advisory body for Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu. The Board’s composition is in recognition of whakapapa, kaitiaki roles and the flax-roots local knowledge of the Te Waihora environment held by the Board members and their respective Papatipu Rūnanga.

Following decades of poor land use and poor nutrient and water allocation management, the loss of mahinga kai – a precious tribal taonga – was a core part of the grievance outlined in the Ngāi Tahu claim to the Waitangi Tribunal.


The Tribunal strongly recommended the return of Te Waihora to Ngāi Tahu together with significant and committed Crown action to restore Te Waihora as a tribal food resource (Chapter 17, Waitangi Tribunal 1991). The Tribunal also recommended that a percentage of fishing quota be allocated to Ngāi Tahu, that Te Waihora be returned as an eel fishery and marine areas be set aside for mahinga kaimoana (traditional food gathering). In the settlement of 1998, the bed of Te Waihora was returned to Ngāi Tahu.


The late Aunty Ake (Maria Johnson) of Taumutu remembers seeing flounder swimming on the bottom of Te Waihora. “The lake was a beautiful place to me … you could see the shingle bottom when I was a young kid. You could see the fish in the water, now you can’t see anything and it smells.”