Lakes are widely used for recreation – boating, fishing, swimming, waterskiing and enjoying the natural setting. Lakeside property is prized, and high prices are paid for homes with a lake view. Lakes Taupō and Rotoiti are popular holiday spots in the North Island, while Wānaka and Wakatipu are among the favourites in the South Island.
Native eels are found in most lakes, especially shallow ones such as Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere) and Lake Wairarapa. Eels were an important food source for Māori living nearby.
Because most native New Zealand fish are elusive, 19th-century settlers introduced brown trout (from England) and rainbow trout and salmon (from the USA) to offer better sport for anglers.
At first the trout thrived in New Zealand’s rivers and lakes, and became a major tourist attraction. But in the early 20th century it became clear that the size and health of fish was declining, especially in Lake Taupō and the Rotorua lakes. It appears that the rise in trout numbers lasted only until they had eaten the small native fish and insects in these lakes. The introduction of smelt (a small native fish) as a food supply, and restocking of some of the lakes with trout, has largely restored the fishery.
Fish and Game New Zealand is legally responsible for managing freshwater fisheries in most parts of New Zealand, which has been divided into 12 regions for that purpose. A licence is required for freshwater fishing, and the revenue is used to fund fisheries management. Although a licence may cover the whole country, each region has its own rules. A separate licence is needed at Lake Taupō, which is administered by the Department of Conservation.
Skating and curling
New Zealand winters are not cold enough for the larger lakes to freeze over, but smaller lakes and ponds sometimes freeze over in the southern South Island, and are used for ice skating.
The traditional Scottish sport of curling was introduced to Otago by gold miners, and nine clubs were established by 1900. Later, indoor skating rinks allowed New Zealand curlers to practise regularly, and to compete at international level.
Game birds include several species of duck, shelducks, black swans and pūkeko, and several species of upland game such as quail, pheasant and partridge. The first weekend in May marks the traditional opening of the duck-shooting season, and is eagerly awaited by hunters. Major waterfowl hunting lakes include Wairarapa, Whāngāpē (Waikato), Te Waihora/Ellesmere (Canterbury) and Waituna (Southland).
A hunting licence from Fish and Game New Zealand is required, as all gamebird management is funded from licence fees. As with fishing there are 12 regions, each with their own regulations (with local variations about dates and bird species).
All game birds belong to the Crown until legally taken by a sportsperson with a valid licence. Birds must be shot on the wing, and not on the water.
Boats of all types, from steamers to yachts, kayaks and fizz boats, are used on lakes for recreation or transport. Before roads were built, boats were a significant form of transport. The SS Earnslaw was first used in 1912 on Lake Wakatipu, ferrying sheep, cattle and passengers, and continues as a tourist attraction based at Queenstown.
Several lakes are used for rowing, and there are world-class facilities at Lake Karapiro (Waikato) and Lake Ruataniwha (South Canterbury).
After the Second World War a shortage of electricity led to the building of hydroelectric dams on rivers and lakes throughout New Zealand. Most of the major river systems were affected, including the Clutha, Waikato and Waitaki rivers. By the late 1960s there was growing concern about the rapidly decreasing number of unmodified rivers and lakes.
There was widespread public protest about a plan to raise the level of Lake Manapōuri (in Fiordland National Park), to provide electricity for an aluminium smelter. The project was dropped in 1972 after a change in government.
A chain of hydroelectric dams and artificial lakes was also planned along the Clutha River. In 1993 the Clyde Dam was filled to form Lake Dunstan, flooding apricot orchards and part of the town of Cromwell. Since then no more large hydroelectric dams have been built.