Coastal and Freshwater news

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11 March 2020

A new ‘how-to’ video aims to help regional councils and citizen scientists assess stream habitat quality

A video demonstrating how to carry out stream habitat assessment has been developed to support the work of regional councils and citizen scientists in monitoring stream habitat.

Initiated by regional councils and developed by Cawthron Institute, the video shows how to carry out the Rapid Habitat Assessment (RHA) protocol, which is a method used to record key aspects of habitat features, and provides a single ‘habitat quality score’ for a river reach. The score indicates the general condition of physical / structural stream habitat.

“Aquatic life is dependent on various features of stream habitat and riparian areas. Knowing what types of habitats are present, in what amounts and how these habitats might be changing over time is vital to understanding overall stream health,” says Robin Holmes, Freshwater Ecologist at Cawthron Institute.

Developed by Cawthron in partnership with councils across New Zealand, the RHA is now used by almost all regional councils during routine monitoring, and increasingly as part of farm environmental planning. The protocol was developed to help with national standardisation of stream habitat assessment and is designed to complement water quality and macroinvertebrate data collected as part of national State of Environment monitoring.

“The strength of the RHA protocol is in its simplicity – a single stream reach can be assessed in 20 minutes, with no specialist equipment required,” says Dr Sandy Haidekker of Hawke’s Bay Regional Council.  

“However, councils recognised there was a need to develop a training tool with a set of habitat assessment instructions and score cards for use in the field to standardise the way the RHA is used, and to improve the quality of the data”.

MBIE’s Envirolink scheme granted funding to create the video as a training tool for council staff, however there was recognition that farmers and citizen science groups could also use the protocol to monitor stream restoration efforts and create a benchmark for future endeavours.

“We have increasingly seen highly motivated community groups and farmers wanting to assess waterway health and plan and assess stream rehabilitation, but they are unsure about what stream health indicators to measure and how. This video provides a simple, easy-to-follow assessment protocol that can be used by anyone passionate about better understanding stream habitat,” says Roger Hodson of Environment Southland.

There has been a real push over the last decade to standardise river and stream assessment and monitoring.

“We’ve seen this happening for measuring the quantity and quality of water in rivers. However, monitoring the shape and structure of stream and river habitats has been largely missing at the national scale,” says Holmes.

“The RHA protocol ensures that consistent stream habitat assessments can be undertaken quickly, and because it is used across the county it will provide loads of data to assess local and national trends over time”.

There is still work to do in terms of how citizen scientists might feed their assessment results into more formally established agency-based monitoring, but for now they are encouraged to use the protocol to measure stream habitat on an annual basis, ideally in summer months when flow is low.

“The RHA protocol is a great way to track the impact of stream restoration efforts such as fencing and planting along waterways – you can’t demonstrate if there’s been any improvement unless the data is collected,” says Holmes.

There is also further work to do in developing an assessment protocol that looks beyond current habitat state to understand what ‘pressures’ a river or stream might be under, for example, nearby land use.

Click here to find out more about the RHA protocol and to access the videos.