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Investigating īnaka: kindy kids become kaitiaki

Pre-schoolers and primary school kids in Christchurch are discovering what īnaka are and why these fish need our help.

Another kindy kid with īnaka in the classroom tank

450 of our youngest learners in south Ōtautahi – from tiny tots at Cherry’s Early Learning Centre to Year 4 tamariki at Te Pā Rākaihautū – have been finding out how to help īnaka (īnanga/whitebait) bounce back after some big changes to their local river.

“The 2011 earthquake has changed the Heathcote river quite a bit,” says project lead Kirsty Brennan at EOS Ecology.

“The spots where the adult fish lay their eggs, and the īnaka start their lives, have moved downstream because the quakes made the land lift, which has changed tidal flows. The fish lay their eggs in the vegetation of the riverbank, which is often impacted by humans.”

Tamariki at the river

The 7 and 8-year-olds at Te Pā Rākaihautū have instead been doing some of the research that helps environmental scientists, like Kirsty, keep an eye on the ‘Love Zone’, a special part of the Healthcote/Ōpāwaho river where īnaka spawn (lay their eggs).

Parent Hākui Terina says, “A lot of our kids have eaten whitebait fritters but don't know where they come from! It's also really good to get them to start thinking about how important our environment is.”

The tamariki have been measuring parts of the riverbank that Christchurch City Council recently stopped mowing, thanks to other students telling them that the īnaka need long grasses.

Measuring the height of the plants

At each part of the river, the students measure and give a score for more than ten different features, including how steep the bank is, how tall the plants are, and how easy it is for the fish to swim from the sea to lay eggs there.

Then the tamariki add the scores together to get an overall idea of how suitable that part of the river is for īnaka spawning and whether it could be improved.

Measuring the slope

"I liked measuring the angle [of the river bank]," says Tangaroa, 7.

“I liked looking at how tall the plants were,” adds Amazon, 8.

7-year-old Te Kiko says, “I liked writing down what we found and getting the [total] number at the bottom of the sheet.”

Students adding up the score sheet

The score changes with each site. In this case, one of the sites got a total score of 95, with two others a close second and third.

“A score of 90-120 suggests that this is a good spawning site,” Kirsty explains. “But it’s important to ask ‘how can we make it even better?’ The ideal habitat [living place] for īnaka eggs needs the right mix of a number of different things, but often it's not too hard to improve.”

Tangaroa adds, "I like doing this because I don't want the fish to die."

Kindy kids playing in their īnaka stream

At Cherry’s Early Childhood Centre, the under-fives there were given different tasks that also helped the īnaka, including looking after the fish in a dedicated tank in their classroom.

Rowena Pottinger says that she and her team of staff at Cherry’s also created a new ‘stream’ in one corner of the centre’s outdoor play area as a space for the children to learn about these fish and their habitat. The children play with plastic cut-outs of īnaka in the area and explore what it means to make the stream a ‘good’ place for the fish to live.

Rowena with kindy kids

“It’s great seeing just how much knowledge about the fish these kids have absorbed,” Rowena says “When they talk to us about the fish, they say the Māori name - ‘īnaka’ - rather than call them whitebait, because we taught them that word first.”

Once the īnaka had grown big enough in the tanks, the students at Cherry’s met with the other schools by the river to play games, share stories and release their īnaka back into the river.

Kindy kid with īnaka in the classroom tank

About the Project

EOS Ecology logoWhitebait Connection logoThis Whitebait Connection project, called Environment Investigators, is run by EOS Ecology with support from the Unlocking Curious Minds contestable fund.

In 2018, again with support from Unlocking Curious Minds, EOS Ecology and the Whitebait Connection are teaming up with the Avon Ōtākaro Network to engage more young learners about īnaka spawning in their local waterway.

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