Since 2016 conservationists have been concerned a dam has impacted the food source of the critically endangered fairy tern. A court case has led to its removal last week. Photo: Supplied

Fairy tern advocates are happy their legal battle to get a dam illegally built on public land removed has been successful

After years of contention, an illegal dam built on public land by a golf course developer has gone, but a bridge built by the developers will soon replace it. 

The dam on Te Arai stream blocked the passage of fish critical to the survival of New Zealand’s endangered fairy terns. 

There are fewer than 40 fairy terns left. One pair has used the stream mouth in the past to raise their young and after the breeding season the birds gather there to feed on fish.

Since 2016, the New Zealand Fairy Tern Charitable Trust has been trying to get the dam lowered to its original status of a low gravel ford but had been unsuccessful. 

Frustrated, the small trust took the matter to the Environment Court.

“It is a shame that it was left to a small community trust to get it removed, while the authorities whose job it is to protect the environment and the public interest let it happen,” said trust convenor Heather Rogan.

Three different agencies are involved. 

The dam was located in an Auckland Council reserve, the stream banks are part of a marginal strip under the management of the Department of Conservation, and the bed of the stream is managed by Land Information New Zealand.

The dam in 2019 shortly before the court case. Photo: Farah Hancock

Judge Jeff Smith’s decision noted the lack of action by various agencies. 

“Given the critical nature of the fairy tern population and related inanga breeding at Mangawhai, we are surprised that none of these departments have taken action.”

The dam was constructed by the Tara Iti golf course development company associated with US billionaire Ric Kayne. It enabled some vehicles to cross the stream and was directly below a water intake for the golf course. 

The trust technically lost their case for an enforcement order against Auckland Council, but the Environment Court decision made it clear a solution needed to be found quickly by Auckland Council, the Department of Conservation, and Land Information New Zealand.

“The situation has now arguably continued for something in the order of five years, we agree with the trust that the matter has now become critical. We have already expressed our concern that the relevant government departments and the council have not acted sooner to investigate and monitor the situation and devise appropriate solutions.”

Dam goes down, bridge goes up.

After delays, the dam was fully removed last week. 

“We’re very pleased that finally the dam has gone. It should never have been put in in the first place,” said Rogan.

After the years of battle, she wasn’t able to witness its removal as the road into the reserve was closed. She thinks this was due to logging in the area. 

Department of Conservation staff were also not present when the dam was removed.

“The department does not consider there is any need to directly supervise a third party concession. DoC has appointed a consultant to monitor the work, paid for by the applicant, Te Arai North Limited,” said Department of Conservation operations manager Kirsty Prior.

Rock walls, installed by the developers in 2016 when the dam’s height was raised considerably and the stream narrowed, remain in place. These are unsuitable for inanga to spawn on, said Rogan. 

“Their upper parts are to be covered with sand and coconut matting, then planted, but rocks at the base will remain so that area will be no good for spawning.

“The end result is not quite the restoration to a natural stream we had hoped for but at least whitebait and other fish will be able to get upstream for spawning.”

The development company, Te Arai North Limited (TANL) now has permission to build a bridge over the stream on public land. It declined on Monday to comment on the dam or bridge.

Rogan said she believes the purpose of this is for “residents in their subdivision south of the stream to drive through the reserve land to the golf course, instead of having to use the public road nearby”.

Conditions for the bridge include signage to ensure the public knows it’s not a private bridge and public access is to be allowed unless the bridge is closed for maintenance or safety purposes.

From what she understands of its construction, Rogan thinks the bridge won’t impact the stream.

Worryingly, a number of dead fish and eels have been found in the stream in recent days, including “Grandma eel”, well known to locals. The dead fish do not appear to be physically injured.

Auckland Council’s manager of regulatory compliance, Steve Pearce, said that news was concerning and staff had visited to inspect the area. 

“We have also discussed the situation with council water engineers who think that local bad weather may have been a factor in the changes in water quality. If anyone witnesses issues like this please call the council on 301 0101 so we can investigate.”

Rogan hopes whatever is causing the deaths is resolved before fish spawn and birds come to feed. 

“I think it will take a couple of years for that fishery to recover. Eventually it will but it might take a little while.”

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