Wairarapa Moana literally means “sea of glistening water” and was among the first areas settled in New Zealand with sites dating back some 800 years. Fish and waterfowl were plentiful, but the major draw card was tuna – the native freshwater eel. Tuna could be caught in vast quantities during their seasonal migration to the sea, and the catch could be dried for storage or trading. Seasonal eeling settlements dotted the edge of Wairarapa Moana with several permanent settlements on the surrounding higher ground.
In the 1840s sheep farmers started arriving in Wairarapa and began leasing land from Maori landowners. Leasing was soon made illegal by the Crown, which was only interested in purchasing land from Maori and selling it to settlers for a profit.
Land was sold, but Maori retained the flood-prone areas crucial for eel fishing, and the lakes themselves. When the outlet to the sea was blocked, the lakes and wetlands filled up. Between February and April this process was called the hinurangi, which was important for tuna preparing to migrate over two thousand kilometres into the South Pacific to breed.
There were several decades of disagreement between Maori fishers and Pakeha farmers over opening the mouth of Lake Onoke. One wanted high water for fishing and the other dry pasture for farming. This was resolved in 1896 when the title of the lakes moved into Crown ownership. The transaction is now subject to a Treaty of Waitangi claim.
Farming prospered on the fertile land around the lakes, although seasonal flooding still hampered production. This problem was tackled throughout the 20th century with drainage and stop banks, although large floods could still wreak havoc.
Several generations of government engineers had pondered the flooding problem. In the 1960s a project got underway to divert the Ruamahanga from flowing into Lake Wairarapa and connect it directly with Lake Onoke, enabling flood waters to escape quickly. This was finished in the 1970s allowing 40,000 hectares to be farmed more intensively. Since then many sheep and beef farms around Wairarapa Moana have been converted into more profitable dairy farms. These farms are the economic powerhouse for South Wairarapa District.
Wairarapa Moana today remains a richly diverse and wild place as well as being severely compromised by many threats to its ecology and water quality. The third largest lake in the North Island, it is home to more than a hundred native and exotic bird species, rare plants and native fish species and is still revered by Maori as a source of wellbeing for the region.