Decade-long project to restore Kaipara Harbour finally underway after $300 million pumped into it

The work to clean up the country's largest natural harbour is paying off as $300 million has been pumped into restoring the Kaipara as part of a decade-long project.

For the past 26 years, Willie Wright has felt the weight of one major responsibility - to save the Kaipara.

"The biggest risk to the Kaipara Harbour is actually waiting for somebody else to fix it," Wright told Newshub. "I just can't turn my back on her."

Growing up near the harbour, Wright witnessed its full potential.

"We had massive scallop beds, pipi beds, tuatua beds, oyster beds, mussel, kutai," said Wright, the Kaipara Moana Remediation (KMR) manawhenua relations lead said. 

But now, it's a different story. 

"It's just about all gone It's a hard pill to swallow when you're losing all your food and kai from the harbour.

"Our snapper are mutating, because of the sentiment load in the water column. Their gills are becoming too thick for them to breathe." Wright said. 

The Kaipara is the largest harbour in New Zealand, spanning the Northland and Auckland regions.

It has a catchment of over 640,000 hectares, which falls within the bounds of five different councils.

"There was just a myriad of different agencies that had some sort of management over the harbour," Wright said. "Not one of the management regimes was actually consistent with each other."

A few years ago, the KMR project was set up. It's a rare but powerful partnership between Mana Whenua, local and central Government, landowners and the wider community.

"Our job is to protect and restore the harbour," KMR Pou Tātaki's Justine Daw told Newshub. 

In Mangakura, on the eastern shores of the harbour, there's no hiding the pollution - with 700,000 tonnes of sediment running into the Kaipara each year, with a large portion of it coming from farmland.

But many owners are already on board to take action, with the KMR now working with more than 350 of them.

"They're fencing off their wetlands, restoring their wetlands. Wetlands are amazing - they're like the lungs or the kidneys of the landscape - they really help reduce sediment flows into the harbour," Daw said. 

So far, 300 kilometres of fencing has been completed or committed to date. 

Work to stabilise land is also underway and almost 430,000 plants have been put in the ground. 

"They can already see a difference in that moana. It's clearer, the fish are coming back, the shellfish are coming back," Daw said.

They're success stories early on in this decade-long project. But Daw and Wright both know the work will take generations.

"I'd like to think that my grandkids will start to see some of the benefits of a healthier and cleaner harbour," Wright said. "Swimmable rivers, drinkable water and the like.

"You won't get this brown muddy water - I'd like to think it'd be blue."