Waikārapi or Vernon Lagoons


The ponds, marshes, lagoons and tidal estuaries fed by the Wairau and Opawa Rivers had always been the richest year-round food resource in the Cook Strait area.  Major fighting pā were built there to protect the resource, and battles were fought over its ownership.

Vernon LagoonsVernon Lagoons   Colin Davis, Department of Conservation, South Marlborough Area Office
Click image to enlarge

During a period of relative stability in the mid to late 1700s, Rangitāne created a network for the husbandry and harvesting of fish and birdlife by digging more than nineteen kilometres of canals and channels to link natural waterways. The work began under Patiti and Te Whatakoiro, and was completed the following generation under Nganga, Te Whatakoiro’s son.

Skinner in 1912 drew on previous surveys and accounts as well as Rangitāne’s traditional history, obtained from kaumatua:

Vernon LagoonsVernon Lagoons  Colin Davis, Department of Conservation, South Marlborough Area Office
Click image to enlarge

The Canals were dug out with the ancient Maori KO – wooden spade – with the help no doubt of stone adzes in the harder clays. The spoil was placed on a kind of hand-cart or stretcher, made by stretching or plaiting on to a frame made out of Manuka saplings and tops, a flax mat, which when full was lifted up by two or more men or women and carried away … At regulated distances the Canal banks had buttresses left projecting a little into the channel and narrowing in the passage along the waterway. These were left for fixing eel traps and other fish nets when the fishing season was on. In close proximity to the ‘trap’ buttresses, were sand pits into which the traps and nets were emptied. The old method of killing tuna (eels) was by sprinkling fine dry earth grit or sand. … Another use, and probably their principal one, was for the capture of the innumerable wild fowl that bred and frequented the lagoons … During the moulting season, which was for the putangitangi or Paradise duck the months of January, February and March, the birds being unable to fly were easily taken by hand in the narrow water lanes and cross drives. … The parera or grey duck moulted in April and May, and were dealt with in the same way … The birds were potted down in their own fat and stored in ipus, calabashes, or vessels, made from the bark of the totara tree, and also from the giant sea kelp, and put away in the whata or village storehouse for future use. ...

A closely regulated and scientific method of game laws, which, under the dread of the universal law of tapu, none dared or even thought of infringing, left them ever full and abundant game preserves, more than sufficient for their utmost wants. No waste was permitted, although there was such an abundance. All this is now changed. … The clear cut Waterways and Canals still remain to show the Pakeha what engineering skill and enterprise was possessed by the old time Maori.1

Skinner noted that the 10-12ft wide and 2-3ft deep canals required the excavation of over sixty thousand cubic yards of soil. He rued indiscriminate shooting and poaching by Pakeha which had destroyed the resource.2


Updated April 2020

Sources used in this story

  1. Skinner, H D (1912) “Ancient Maori Canals, Marlborough, New Zealand”. Journal of the Polynesian Society,  21, 3, pp.105-108
  2. Mitchell, H & J (2004) Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka: A History of Maori of Nelson and Marlborough. Vol I pp.91

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Further sources - Waikārapi or Vernon Lagoons


  • Anderson, P.W. (1977). Bibliography of scientific studies of the Wairau Lagoons and surrounding coastal region, South Island, NZ. Wellington: N.Z. Oceanographic Institute. (Miscellaneous Publications: N.Z. Oceanographic Institute, 81) 
  • Deans, Neil & P.R. Clerke. (1993). Wairau Lagoons: issues and options. Nelson, N.Z.: Dept of Conservation, Nelson /Marlborough Conservancy 
  • Elvy, W J: (1957)  “Kei Puta Te Wairau:  A History of Marlborough in Maori Times” Christchurch : Whitcombe & Tombs, pp,35-38, 74-79.
  • Kennington, A.L.(1978) The Awatere : A district and its people. Blenheim, N.Z.: Marlborough County Council, p.19
  • Knox, G.A. (1990) An ecological study of the Wairau River estuary and the Vernon Lagoons. Nelson, N.Z.: Department of Conservation, Nelson/Marlborough Conservancy
  • Mitchell, H & J (2004) Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka:  A History of Maori of Nelson and Marlborough: Volume 1: the people and the land. Wellington, N.Z.: Huia Publishers in association with the Wakatu Incorporation, 91-93.


  • Adams, C. W . (1900) Notes and Queries. Journal of the Polynesian Society Vol 9, p. 169
  • Carkeek, W. (1960). Te Rauparaha: Part 2: South Island raids and the arrival of the "Tory".  Te Ao Hou, 31
  • Hansford, David. (2004, November) The troubled waters of the Vernon Lagoons. Forest and Bird,314, p.28-31
  • Peace, M.(1993) Wairau lagoons : important wetlands under threat. Forest and Bird, 267, p. 34-38
  • Skinner, H D (1912) Ancient Maori Canals, Marlborough, New Zealand Journal of the Polynesian Society,  21, 3, pp.105-108.

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