About Manukau Harbour
Often overlooked as the treasure it truly is, the Manukau Harbour is the second largest harbour/estuary in New Zealand, nearly five times bigger than the Waitemata.
With a foreshore that hosts countless flora and fauna, constantly changing sandbars and mudflats, and fringes of mangrove swamps, it’s one of the most important environmental, cultural and recreational treasures/taonga for the Auckland region.
The growth of industry, housing and roading now places pressure on the once pristine and bountiful harbour and it is under threat. Yet it remains beautiful, a recreational haven, a unique habitat for tens of thousands of birds, and a place with great economic potential.
The Manukau Harbour story
The Manukau was a critical natural waterway for Māori due to its portages to the Pacific Ocean and to the Waikato River. It was also a valued fishing ground, and the site of many villages built around its volcanic cones
and shores. European settlers arrived in 1835 and the harbour – Onehunga in particular – was a key strategic location for transport and military purposes.
Great change came with the rapid growth of population and industry in South Auckland through the second half of the 1900s. The Southern Motorway opened in 1955 as far as Wiri, and the Mangere sewage treatment plant opened in 1960. Today, infrastructure sites in the area include Auckland Airport, Mangere Wastewater Treatment Plant (MWTP), North Island Main Trunk Railway line (NIMT), state highways, the Waikato Watermain, the Vector High-pressure Gas Line, the Marsden Point to Wiri oil pipeline, the Wiri Oil Depot and the aviation oil pipeline to Auckland Airport.
Today the harbour edges in many areas are also densely occupied by roads, industry, housing, agriculture and farmland. Each leaves its mark on the Manukau Harbour.
The Mana Whenua perspective
The Manukau Harbour and its streams represent significant cultural value to the various iwi and hapu and to Aucklanders as a whole. The connection with the Manukau Harbour is a reflection of the important role that this special place plays in Auckland’s history and community. All receiving waters have cultural significance to local iwi due to the mauri (life force) of the water, as well as historical significance.
Mana whenua regard the Manukau Harbour as a significant taonga (treasure). It is also seen as a pataka kai or food bowl for the whanau, hapu, iwi and wider community that call its shoreline and surrounding environs home. Mana whenua have a natural role as kaitiaki or guardians of the harbour and the wider environment.
In 1982 Nganeko Minhinnick (now Dame Kahurangi Nganeko Minhinnick) and Te Puaha ki Manukau brought claims to the Waitangi Tribunal relating to the deterioration of the Manukau Harbour and its environs. The Waitangi Tribunal's Manukau Report of 1985 found that the Crown had failed to recognise Treaty rights to land and traditional seafood resources and had not provided the protection promised.
This report also stated that an affirmative action plan was needed to clean up the harbour. It laid a foundation to forge new relationships between Maori living near the harbour, local government bodies, businesses and the wider community.
A precious habitat
Among the best-known species that make their home in the Manukau Harbour are the world’s smallest dolphins, Bronze Whaler sharks and migratory birds (Bar-tailed Godwit, the Turnstone, the Lesser Knot and the Curlew Sandpiper) that travel tens of thousands of kilometres each year to spend the summer on the harbour’s edge. But there are also dozens of lesser-known but no less important species that make their homes here.
Manukau Harbour’s extensive sand and mudflats provide a rich source of food for shorebirds and waterfowl. At times they host up to 50,000 birds, including the threatened New Zealand Dotterel and Godwit colonies.
The Manukau is also a highly productive marine environment. Around 25% of the national commercial catch of Mullet is sourced from the harbour, and it is well used by recreational and commercial fishers. The harbour is a nursery for several shark species.
A subspecies of Hector’s Dolphin, the Maui Dolphin is the world’s smallest dolphin. It is among the rarest dolphins in the world. Today, Maui Dolphins are most likely to be seen between Manukau Harbour and Port Waikato.