Links of interest for

New Zealand : Chatham Islands


The Chatham Islands are an archipelago and New Zealand territory in the Pacific Ocean made up of ten islands within a 40 km radius, the largest of which are Chatham Island and Pitt Island. Their names come from the ship HMS Chatham of the Vancouver Expedition, whose captain William R. Broughton landed on November 29, 1791, and claimed possession for Great Britain after the First Lord of the Admiralty, John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham. The Chatham Islands name Rekohu in the indigenous language, Moriori, means Misty Isle. Sealers and whalers soon started hunting in the surrounding ocean with the islands as their base. It is estimated that 10 to 20 percent of the indigenous population soon died from diseases introduced by foreigners. The sealing and whaling industries ceased activities about 1861.

The islands are roughly 800 km east of Christchurch and have officially been part of New Zealand since 1842. Local government on the islands, uniquely within New Zealand, involves a council established by its own Act of Parliament in 1995. The Chatham Islands Council operates as a district council with regional council functions, making it in effect a unitary authority but with not quite as many responsibilities as the others. Until the 1980s the Chathams were in the Lyttelton electorate, but since then they have formed part of the Rongotai general electorate, which mostly lies in Wellington. In the 2010 local government elections, Chatham Islands had New Zealand's highest rate of returned votes, with 71.3% voting.

The first human habitation of the Chathams involved migrating Polynesian tribes who settled the islands and in their isolation became the Moriori people. The belief as to their origins was overturned late in the 20th century. The former belief, which arose in the 1800s, was that the original Moriori migrated directly from more northerly Polynesian islands, just as with the settlement of New Zealand by the ancestors of the Maori. However, linguistic research indicates instead that the ancestral Moriori were Maori wanderers from New Zealand. The plants cultivated by the Maori arrivals were ill suited for the colder Chathams, so the Moriori lived as hunter-gathers and fishermen. While their new environment deprived them of the resources with which to build ocean-going craft for long voyages, the Moriori invented what was known as the waka korari, a semi-submerged craft, constructed of flax and lined with air bladders from kelp. This craft was used to travel to the outer islands on 'birding' missions. The Moriori society was a peaceful one and bloodshed was outlawed by the chief Nunuku after generations of warfare. Arguments were solved by consensus or by duels rather than warfare, but at the first sign of bloodshed, the fight was over.

On November 19, 1835, a British mercenary ship carrying 500 Maori armed with guns, clubs and axes arrived, followed by another ship on December 5, 1835 with a further 400 Maori. The Maori came from two tribes, the Tama and Mutunga. They proceeded to massacre the Moriori, who are thought to have numbered about 2,000, cannibalise the dead and enslave the survivors. After the invasion, Moriori were forbidden to marry Moriori, nor to have children with each other. All became slaves of the invaders until the 1860s. Many died in despair. Many Moriori women had children by their Maori masters. A number of Moriori women eventually married either Maori or European men. Some were taken from the Chathams and never returned. An all-male group of German Lutheran missionaries arrived in 1843. After a group of women were sent out to join them three years later several marriages ensued, and many members of the present-day population can trace their ancestry back to the missionary families. The last full-blooded Moriori, Tame Horomona Rehe, better known as Tommy Solomon, died in 1933. At the time his death was widely viewed as the end of the line but 50 years later, as a Moriori revival started to gather pace, a statue of Tommy was erected as a symbol of that rebirth.

The Moriori community is organized as the Hokotehi Moriori Trust. The Moriori have received recognition from the Crown and the New Zealand government and some of their claims against those institutions for the generations of neglect and oppression have been accepted and acted on. Moriori are recognised as the original people of Rekohu. The Crown also recognised the invading Maori tribe: Ngati Mutunga as having "indigenous" status in the Chathams by right of 160-odd years of occupation. Modern descendants of the 1835 Maori conquerors claimed to share in ancestral Maori fishing rights. This claim was granted. Now that the original population, the Moriori, have been recognized to be former Maori - over the objections of the Mutunga - they too share in the ancestral Maori fishing rights. Both groups have been granted fishing quotas. In January 2005 the Moriori celebrated the opening of the new Kopinga Marae (meeting house), which acts as a focal point for their culture and a place to tell visitors their tragic story.

The population of 650, including members of both ethnic groups, only inhabit the two main islands. The town of Waitangi is the biggest settlement with some 200 residents. There are three primary schools on the Chathams, at Kaingaroa, Te One and Pitt Island but no secondary school, so the majority of youngsters go to boarding school in New Zealand. The islands are generally hilly with varied coastline including cliffs and sand dunes, beaches and lagoons. The livelihoods of the inhabitants depend on agriculture, with the island being an exporter of coldwater crayfish in particular, and increasing tourism.

Renewable Energy & Eco Housing

Chatham Islands Electricity Ltd has been seeking sustainable options to augment or replace existing network distributed diesel generation. Key objectives are to lower current costs, provide long term price security, and reduce environmental cost. Wind and hydro options have been evaluated and this commissioned report  considers both stand-alone and integrated generation systems. Because wind is a plentiful resource and micro-hydro plant more site specific, there were strong drivers to prioritise wind development. In July 2010 CBD Energy completed its renewable energy project with installation of two 225kW wind turbines and associated control systems, which it has integrated with the local electricity grid and diesel generation plant. The turbines are expected to supply 47% of the islands’ electricity, reducing diesel use by around 300,000 litres each year.

Prior to this development Telecom New Zealand completed a major upgrade on Chatham Islands phone network including installing a new digital microwave system. Solar panels and wind generators were used to power the system in order to minimise the need to run a trailer mounted diesel generator. The Department of Conservation also made a number of changes to reduce its energy use on the islands as outlined in this leaflet.  In May 2009, they installed a 5.8 kW photovoltaic solar electricity generation system that is integrated into the local grid.

A proposal put forward by Chatham Islands Marine Energy Ltd to install a shore-based device to capture wave energy was awarded $2.16m (subject to conditions including receiving resource consent) in July 2010 under the government’s Marine Energy Deployment Fund. The project will see the construction of an oscillating water column to power two 110 kW Wells turbines. The device will be installed on the southwest coast of Chatham Island and will be able to supply another quarter of the island’s electricity needs.

Interestingly, in 2010 a representative from Chatham Islands Marine Energy Ltd visited Chile to assess the potential for a wave energy project on Robinson Crusoe Island in the Juan Fernandez Archipelago. As a result of damage caused by the tsunami and earthquake in February that year, the Chilean government was looking at options to rebuild the infrastructure on the islands including using renewable energy projects. Electricity for the island’s 600 inhabitants and tourism ventures is currently supplied by generation using diesel, which has to be shipped from the mainland. As there a number of strong parallels between the Chatham Islands and the Juan Fernandez Archipelago, it was concluded a wave power plant based on the Chathams model could be suitable for installation on Robinson Crusoe Island so a cooperation project has now been started.     

The first homes in the Chatham Islands were insulated in 2011 under the government’s ‘Warm Up New Zealand: Heat Smart’ programme. The project is being administered by the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority who aim to insulate as many of the 264 occupied homes on the island as possible by the end of summer 2012.

Waste Minimisation & Recycling

The Council provides refuse disposal at Te One, Kaingaroa and Owenga. Existing landfills are provided and maintained within 20km of at least 75% of the population. A Solid Waste Management Plan was adopted in June 2005 after full consultation with the community. Council received funding in 2008 from Government to implement the strategy approved and has already received $659,000 government grant to begin work on sites selection and acquisition.

Water Management & Security

More than 30 lakes and well over 80 small permanent streams occur on main Chatham Island. Te Whanga, an extensive shallow brackish lake/lagoon, is also a significant feature of the landscape contributing close to 20% of the total island area. Water quality is monitored at 21 sites on Chatham Island four times a year by Environment Canterbury scientists. The Council operates a public water supply to consumers in the Waitangi village and the quality has improved since the introduction of a water treatment system. In the past, the drinking water had low salinity and salt is now added to soften it and reduce scaling of hot water cylinders. Conserving the groundwater aquifers under Tikitiki Hill was another reason for the introduction of the treatment system. The improved monitoring and control of water supply ensures that the aquifer can be watched closely to avoid high water use. During dry periods there is a demand for stock water, which puts added pressure on the supply and this had to be resolved to protect the aquifer. On Pitt Island, household water is supplied via overhead tanks that collect rainfall.

Extensive Agriculture & Organic Food Production

There are about 60 farmers including part timers on the Chatham Islands. The single most limiting factor local farmers face is transporting their stock in good condition to market in New Zealand. In 2011 a young islander Delwyn Tuanui, who believes the future of farming lies in branding their meat products distinctively under a Chatham Island name and potentially processing their beef on the island, was awarded a scholarship. As an agricultural student in Australia he made a start by focusing on Blue Cod as processors on the island are already in place to get their very distinctive product into international markets. Delwyn procured a trial sample of frozen Blue Cod and spent three weeks walking the streets of Melbourne, speaking personally to head chefs and telling them the story of his island. Feedback was excellent with many saying they would put the fish on their menus as long as it was fresh. He then researched the requirements for importing fish into Australia, arranged a Chatham Island processor as a supplier and lined up an average of 12 restaurants a week to take the product. He is now keen to look at the opportunities for exporting and marketing red meat as well as other products under a Chatham Islands food brand.

Other opportunities exist for agricultural entrepreneurs. The 8,400 acres Waitaingi West Station is currently being marketed as a potential organic rural settlement. It was in 1960 that the vendors, two brothers who were born to farmers in Switzerland, migrated to New Zealand and decided to pool their savings and purchase the property. They then set about establishing the largest fleece sheep station in the region that had a flock of over 10,000 animals. It operated as a very successful and profitable sheep farming business (adopting a completely organic approach) for the following 45 years, but due to the invention of synthetics the global wool market prices began to plummet. That combined with increasing production costs made wool farming a far less attractive proposition, and as they had no desire to embrace a new challenge at their age decided it was time to retire. However, they had been looking at carbon credit forest options, on quite a large chunk of the land, and growing specialist crops such as quinoa. As such, there is enormous potential for new owners to maintain and develop an organic lifestyle.

In October 2010 the introduction of bladder kelp to the fisheries quota management system for the first time and allocation of property rights could herald the start of another industry for the Chatham Islands. The new allowable commercial harvest of 1,238 tonnes for the southeast of the South Island and 274 tonnes for the Chatham Islands is conservatively set for the size of the resource, but at a level to support initial economic development. New Zealand Kelp Ltd has been among those exploring commercial options for bladder kelp. The company first started harvesting it over two decades ago as food supply for farmed paua in the Chatham Islands.

New Zealand bladder kelp is cut at sea and returned to processing sheds in Christchurch where the seaweed is laid on racks in a drier for human consumption or dried outside for agricultural purposes. Cool drying is important to maintain the bioactive properties of the seaweed as well as the colour and taste. The dried seaweed is then milled in an automated milling and sieving system to produce three size grades of kelp powder, the basic material for NZ Kelp's range of products. The most well known is Valere kelp pepper that can be used either as a condiment shaken directly onto food or as a seasoning in cooking.

NZ Kelp is looking into increasing its processing capacity as a result of the increase in allowable harvest levels. Dried kelp is rich in iodine, potassium and other minerals, which make it a unique food product for human consumption. The company recently teamed up with a boutique cheese maker to trial the development of specialist kelp cheeses only to find that the antibacterial properties of the kelp consistently killed the cheese cultures. Heating the kelp before adding it to the cheese has fixed the problem and the company is now producing some stunning new cheeses. Bladder kelp is used as a fertiliser around the world. As well as being high in mineral content kelp is rich in growth promotants such as auxins, gibberellins and cytokininins that are important for plant growth. As an organic fertilizer, the market for kelp fertiliser in New Zealand is high. The current challenge for NZ Kelp is to add a stable kelp-based liquid fertiliser to their range of products.

Looking out into the future, as the New Zealand bladder kelp industry grows, commercial development is likely to expand into even more value added products through increased processing of the kelp. To date there has been little research on the functional properties of New Zealand bladder kelp. Internationally bladder kelp is processed to create an important source of alginates. These are complex sugar-based chemicals derived from the cell walls of the plant. They have emulsifying and stabilising properties that have many applications in the manufacture of medicines, plastics, paints, paper clothing and processed foods. Finally, preliminary studies have indicated that bladder kelp is a potential biofuel. Kelp has a high rate of growth and its decay is quite efficient in yielding methane, as well as sugars that can be converted to ethanol. It has been suggested that large open-ocean kelp farms could serve as a source of renewable energy and avoid "food versus fuel" issues and irrigation costs.


Locally owned Air Chathams fly to the Chatham Islands four to six times a week depending on the time of year, departing from Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Napier. Air Chathams also run a Cessna 206 service between Chatham and Pitt Island. Black Robin Freighters offer a regular cargo service departing the ports of Timaru and Napier. 44 South Shipping also offer a service to Napier.

Sustainable Tourism & Niche Marketing

Chatham Islands tourism is based around a 'host system', the hosts providing everything from accommodation to guided tours as there is no public transport and limited public amenities. They will often also arrange for permission to visit sites on private land. For example, Hotel Chatham is centrally situated in the main settlement of Waitangi and offers a variety of walking tours, fishing trips and shark cage diving. Pukekohe Travel run 8-day trips to the islands over the summer months. The Chatham Islands Wild Food & Music Festival is one of the biggest events held on the island.

Biodiversity & Protected Areas

The natural vegetation of the Chatham Island was a mixture of forest, scrubby heath and swamp, but today most of the land is fern or pasture covered, although there are some areas of dense forest and areas of peat bogs and other habitats. Of interest are the macrocarpa (cypress) trees, with branches trailing almost horizontally in the lee of the wind. The islands are home to a rich biodiversity including about 36 endemic plants adapted to the cold and the wind, of which Chatham Islands forget-me-not and Chatham Island tree daisy are among the best-known. The former grows to more than a foot in length and width, and its late-winter heads of blue flowers are somewhat reminiscent of a hydrangea. The kopi tree is believed to have been brought by the Moriori to practice tree carving. A small reserve protects the remaining dendroglyphs of figures and symbols carved deep into the thick-skinned bark of this evergreen.

The islands are a breeding ground for huge flocks of seabirds and are home to number of endemic birds. The best known species are the Magenta Petrel and the Black Robin,  both of which came perilously close to extinction before being subjected to conservation efforts. In 1980 there was only one breeding pair of robins left but today there are about 200 birds on the  Rangatira and Mangere nature reserves to which public entry is not permitted and numbers are thought to have stabilised. The petrel, or taiko, was believed to be extinct until it was rediscovered in 1978 by the marvellously named ornithologist David Crockett. There are 16 known breeding pairs and a population of less than 150 making them, according to the Department of Conservation (DoC) among New Zealand’s most endangered species. Local landowners Liz and Bruce Tuanui have put a protective covenant on the 2.5ha of their land at Sweetwater where taiko burrows have been found. The Taiko Trust, set up by Crockett, has built a predator-proof fence around the area as part of an intensive recovery programme.

Other endemic bird species are the Chatham Island Oystercatcher, the Chatham Gerygone,  the Parea or Chatham Islands Pigeon, Forbes’ Parakeet, the Chatham Islands Snipe and the Shore Plover. The Parea got down to just 40 birds in the late 1980s, and even though numbers are now up to about 500, they’re still considered endangered. The Chatham Albatross breeds only on The Pyramid, a large rock stack in the archipelago and subject to a species recovery plan. A number of species have also gone extinct since European settlement, including the three endemic species of rail, Chatham Islands Raven and the Chatham Islands Fernbird. However, Buff Weka introduced to the Chathams from Canterbury in 1905 have prospered in the absence of mustelid predators, which is fortunate as the subspecies has been extinct in its original eastern South Island range since the 1930s. While weka are protected in the rest of New Zealand they can be legally harvested in the Chathams and even be eaten at the local restaurant. There are also a number of endemic insects while mammals found in the waters of the Chathams include New Zealand Sea Lion, Leopard Seal and Southern Elephant Seal.

The islands sit on the Chatham Rise, a large, relatively shallowly submerged part of the Zeralandia continent that stretches for 1000 km east from near the South Island. In July 2009 a research vessel from the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research undertook an 18-day voyage along the Chatham Rise. A bounty of new species, including a new coral dubbed ‘Rasta’ because of its long white dreadlock-like branches, were found on this deep marine biodiversity survey of seamounts on the Chatham Rise. Scientists also discovered a tiny squat lobster measuring 1cm across and specimens of sea urchin commonly known as ‘Tam O’Shanters’ because of their similarity to the Scottish hat. The fishing industry has already wiped out the commercial viability of the orange roughy along the seamounts of the Chatham Rise. Now the area is being targeted by miners due to the presence of multi-billion dollar rock phosphate resources that can be scraped off the seabed.

Much of the natural character of the Chatham Islands is protected in a network of areas set aside for conservation. Mangere and Rangatira (South East Island) are nature reserves managed by DoC. Now free of introduced predators and herbivorous mammals, they are the last refuges for some species. They are managed to protect threatened endemic fauna and flora and to restore the indigenous habitats for those animals and plants. Visits are generally for management purposes and by permit only. The main threats are fire and the potential arrival of cats, rodents, possums, hedgehogs and weeds. Biosecurity is taken very seriously in New Zealand and a Biosecurity Officer employed by Environment Canterbury now works with Chatham Islands Council to implement its Pest Management Strategy.

On Chatham and Pitt there is a single nature reserve (Tuku); seven scenic reserves (Canon-Peirce, Harold Peirce, Ocean Mail, Henga, Te Awatea, Rangaika and Pitt Island); one national historic reserve (J.M. Barker (Hapupu) for  the dendroglyphs; two Historic Reserves (Kairae and Taia) and four conservation areas (Chudleigh, Tangepu, Green Swamp and Nikau Bush). The focus of DoC management is to protect and restore natural ecosystems, indigenous fauna and flora and cultural heritage features. Public walking tracks and interpretation panels are maintained in Henga, J.M. Barker (Hapupu) and Nikau Bush reserves. A permit is required to enter Tuku Nature Reserve. People may visit other areas so long as they first obtain permission to cross private land en route and abide by the Environmental Care Code.

Many areas of privately owned land are protected for conservation on both of the main islands. The number has been steadily growing in the last few years until they now outnumber Crown owned protected areas. Most are legally covenanted in perpetuity and have management agreements with DoC. Planting, stock exclusion, weed control and animal-pest control are all part of their management. The Nature Heritage Fund has provided funding for fencing, survey and legal costs for most of these areas. Other projects like dune restoration have been undertaken by the Chatham Heritage and Restoration Trust.  Several other areas are legally protected for 25 years under the Nga Whenua Rahui programme. The QE II National Trust also provides opportunities for legal protection of private land (Open Space Covenants in perpetuity). Whatever mechanism is used, ownership is retained by the landowners and public access is by their permission.

Integrated Development Planning

A Discussion Paper produced in 2006 reflects the thoughts and recommendations of two visiting social scientists to the Chathams. They left the island impressed by the level of passion that residents felt for their community and lifestyle, as well as determination to retain and enhance their unique way of life. However, they also recognised the challenges facing the island and went on to propose 12 areas where change and innovation could enhance community and economic development. Throughout their Discussion Paper the term ‘Task Team’ is used which is simply a group of enthusiastic locals, usually 6-10 in number, who come together for a defined research, planning and/or implementation purpose over a defined period of time (usually less than six months). The authors’ first recommendation was that a local Task Team be constituted to formulate a practical ‘bottom up’ community development action plan. To support this recommendation the authors organised various meetings where animated discussion took place around a series of checklist documents. Two in particular – What does a healthy community look like? and Twenty clues to creating and maintaining a vibrant community that appear as appendices in their Discussion Paper – would still serve as valuable tools for any island community Task Team in the world to utilise. 

The authors’ further reflected that for a community of just over 700 residents, the Chatham Islands appeared to be over serviced with development groups. They recommended that residents examine whether there are smarter and more effective ways to organise and utilise development funds and structures. In particular, the merits of an amalgamation of roles and resources between the Chatham Islands Enterprise Trust and the Chatham Island Council should be explored.

The Chatham Islands Enterprise Trust was established in 1991 to promote the economic development and well-being of the islands. The trust owns and operates the islands infrastructure companies including electricity, airport, ports and forestry and their activities are guided by a final 2009 strategic plan. The Chatham Islands Council has produced a long term community plan 2009-19 entitled Vision Chathams as it reflects the programmes and desires of the people for the provision of a better future. It sets out key issues for the next ten years and highlights the importance of taking a sustainable approach to securing the preservation and protection of their unique environment and its natural resources for future generations.

Climate Change Mitigation & Adaptation Measures

The National Institute of Water & Atmospheric Research prepared a report on Chatham Islands Climate Change for the Ministry for the Environment  in 2005. Amongst the key findings, annual mean temperature has increased by about 1.0C at the Chatham Islands over the past 100 years, and annual rainfall has increased by about 10%. 1998 was the warmest year on record. There is no clear evidence to indicate whether there will be either an increase or decrease in the size of storm surges in the next 50 years. The highest storm surge experienced in the past 25 years appears to be about 0.55m. The Chatham Islands climate is affected by year to year variations in the state of the El Nino Southern Oscillation. El Nino periods tend to be cooler and drier than normal, and La Nina periods warmer and wetter. This variability will be superimposed on top of the climate change trends. It is not yet possible to say how El Nino events might change in their frequency or severity under global warming.