Project to determine health risk from contaminated ‘wild kai’


NIWA is leading a new three-year research project to investigate the contaminant levels and risk to Māori health associated with ‘wild kai’ – food gathered from the sea (kai moana), rivers (kai awa), and lakes (kai roto).

9 November 2007

This is the first time the impacts on Māori of low level, accumulative environmental contamination (such as mercury) in wild kai have been investigated.

The ultimate aim of the research is to improve Māori health by identifying, quantifying, and communicating the risks associated with the collection and consumption of wild kai.

This is a joint project between NIWA, Dr Gail Tipa (Tipa & Associates), and three iwi/hapū. The New Zealand Health Research Council is funding the project.

What is this project about?
Wild kai, gathered from the sea, rivers, and lakes, is central to Māori lifestyle, but is susceptible to contamination.

Māori from three iwi/hapū will identify species, locations, and quantities of kai moana, kai roto and kai awa consumed. NIWA will test the kai to determine the levels and types of contaminants to which Māori are exposed. The research team will also trace the food chains to determine the pathways of potential contaminant uptake by tangata whenua.

Expected outcomes
Traditionally, Māori had their own knowledge systems of how the environment contributed to health and spiritual well-being. Major outcomes of the research will be a generically applicable risk assessment framework, and risk communication strategies targeted at Māori. The research will be of interest to the wider Māori community (outside the three participating iwi/hapū), non-Māori, and public health providers in New Zealand, as well as indigenous peoples worldwide where fish and shellfish constitute a major part of their diets.

Background: related research projects 

The project builds on previous research undertaken by NIWA, Ngāti Hokopu, and Te Rūnanga o Awarua, which investigated the relationship between Māori and aquatic environments, documented how these relationships had been modified, and how this affected the spiritual and emotional health of the two hapū. The purpose of the research was to identify where health improvements might be made by revitalizing and enhancing the relationship between tangata whenua and the coastal marine environment. Key findings of the research included:

  • Ngāti Hokopu felt that their kai moana and the associated aquatic environs were polluted, and was directly impacting upon their spiritual and emotional well-being.
  • Te Rūnanga o Awarua felt that their kai moana and the associated environs were being degraded by exploitation of resources, and that this directly impacted on their spiritual and emotional well-being.
  • For both hapu key processes in maintaining the relationship between tangata whenua and the natural environment have been substantially degraded.
  • This has resulted in increased difficulty in exercising kaitiakitanga.

NIWA is also working with Te Arawa on traditional food species in the Te Arawa (Rotorua) lakes. This project aims to provide science-based guidelines and tools within a management framework, which will assist Te Arawa in managing the Te Arawa lakes customary fisheries sustainably, which is consistent with their tikanga and kawa. Focus species include koura (freshwater crayfish), kakahi (freshwater mussel) and the native fish koaro, smelt and tuna. An increase and revitalisation of traditional collection/consumption of such species is likely to be an outcome from this research. As many of these lakes record elevated levels of some heavy metals (due to natural geothermal activity), Te Arawa have expressed some concerns regarding the potential health risks of any increased mahinga kai collection/consumption and have initiated a survey of selected contaminants in kai.



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Archived on 12 April 2019