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Getting wet, wild and wise for whitebait Sian Carvell, Evan Smith, Teoti Jardine, Kirsty Brennan.

Ōtautahi/Christchurch children are discovering a whole lot more to the tiny, transparent, wiggly fish than meets the eye - and that these fish need our help.

Kirsty Brennan with students

Six schools in Ōtautahi have been delving into the life of a special native fish called īnanga (Kāi Tahu: īnaka), or whitebait, as part of Investigate: Īnanga, an inquiry learning programme that we run for primary schools.

The students have been investigating important questions such as ‘why are these fish so special?’, ‘where do they live?’, and ‘why is the population in decline?’

From there, the children have their say on what can be done to protect and restore īnanga habitat and numbers.

“Whitebait are very special to other animals in the waters and above, like birds,” explains Ava, a Year 6 student from Banks Avenue School. “They are important because they help other animals to survive.”

Teoti Jardine giving a kōrero to the tamariki

Teachers and kaiako welcomed our programme’s educational resources and support, too. They said that they loved that the programme engaged students with the local environment and īnanga.

The teachers also really valued how the support team, consisting of a teacher and scientist, made it easy for them to take part. We gave them teacher support material and student workbooks for the approximately 300 students involved.

“There are not many opportunities available for our school to participate in science learning experiences, so we are happy to participate!” one teacher said.

Kaiako and akonga finding īnanga eggs

We use the Whitebait Connection’s National Īnanga Spawning Education Programme as one of our place-based resources, as it provides a rich authentic context to learning about īnanga and science in their backyard.

One of the things we most enjoy about Investigate: Īnanga is where the field trip takes place. The programme is based in the east of the city, within the Red Zone, in a special place called the Mahinga Kai Exemplar (MKE).

Building the kids’ knowledge and understanding at school sets the scene nicely for the field trip to the MKE, where they get to take a hands-on look at īnanga habitat and eggs. Nothing really beats being out there and seeing, hearing, touching - and getting wet feet!

“The trip to the waterway was extremely engaging for the students,” another teacher told us. "The children loved seeing the eggs – which were so small! – and the habitats they had been learning about.”

Teoti Jardine giving a kōrero to the tamariki

The Mahinga Kai Exemplar is unique, which is what makes it so special.

After the February 2011 earthquakes, Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, Ngāi Tūāhuriri, Avon Ōtākaro Network and the Waterways Centre for Freshwater Management agreed to work together to restore mahinga kai values in Ōtautahi. So our joint aim for the MKE is to restore and enhance water quality and biodiversity, including īnanga spawning (egg-laying).

In 2016, the Whaka Īnaka science project found thousands of īnanga eggs among the banks of the MKE, revealing the area as a major īnanga spawning site, dubbed ‘the Love Zone’. This was when part of our team at EOS Ecology first invited children to connect with the natural environment through place-based learning experiences, which our new Investigate: Īnanga project is continuing.

Tess, a Year 5 student, explains what she and other children have learned:

“Let’s imagine that there is a river connected the sea… we start in a place called the love zone, so-called for it is where adults will breed," she says. "The love zone is in a place with a mix of saltwater and freshwater. The breeding spot can move place for high tide. How many eggs do you think a female whitebait can lay? Up to 3000!”

īnanga eggs

In our team, Kirsty Brennan is the EOS Ecology scientist and Whitebait Connection coordinator. She loves working with the children, and seeing and hearing just how excited they get!

“We can see the kids connecting with their environment through their excitement for what they find,” she says. “They are able to see first-hand what they have been learning about and why it is important in their lives.”

We also believe that giving children an active role in the MKE restoration is key to making sure the site continues to develop and succeed. 

Already, we’ve see the children use their experiences to come up with innovative actions for protecting and raising awareness about īnanga. Their creations have included letters to the editor, īnanga creative dance, filmmaking, and designs for fish-friendly flood gates.

The team looking for īnanga eggs on the river bank

“It is amazing to see the site develop and come alive again since the quakes,” says Teoti Jardine, Kaumatua of the Mahinga Kai Exemplar, who is also in our project team.

“As the new plants mature, the birds return and habitats increase - including for īnanga, a taonga [treasure] species. Seeing the kids there learning and exploring in ‘their place’, well it is just magical!"

So if you are living in or visiting Ōtautahi, please come and visit ‘our place’, the Mahinga Kai Exemplar. We’re out there, doing our thing to protect īnanga, and we hope you can too!

Read the poem 'Īnaka Kōrero' by Teoti Jardine.

Read a story about this project’s predecessor.

Students at īnanga egg-laying site

Photos: supplied by the authors.

About the project

Avon Ōtākaro Network logoTe Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu logoEOS Ecology logoInvestigate: Īnanga is co-run by Avon Ōtākaro Network Incorporated, Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, Ngāi Tūāhuriri and EOS Ecology, with support from the Unlocking Curious Minds contestable fund.

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Unlocking Curious Minds

Unlocking Curious Minds supports projects that excite and engage New Zealanders who have fewer opportunities to experience and connect with science and technology.

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