Photo Essay On Pollution

New Zealand is renowned for its natural environment – beautiful beaches, movie-set mountains and pristine national parks. But though it makes for a good postcard, it doesn’t show the full picture of how we interact with our environment or the risk we run of ruining it for future generations. 

As part of our theme of Impact, The Wireless looks at seven environmental threats the country faces: overfishing, waste, water degradation, fracking, air pollution, pests and erosion. 


The fishing industry contributes an average of over $1.3 billion in export earnings to the New Zealand economy each year and 424,693 tonnes of fish were caught commercially in 2009. Commercial fishing and trawling are thought to have the greatest overall impact on New Zealand’s marine resources and, if unmonitored, have the potential to impact habitats and deplete fish populations.

Tasman Bay in Nelson suffered from major over-fishing in the late 1970s when vast numbers of spawning snapper were taken by pair trawlers in the bay. The region has implemented tight restrictions to prevent this occurring again. 


In New Zealand, land filling is the most common method of solid waste disposal with the most recent annual figure of 3.2 million tonnes of waste being sent to municipal landfills. Programmes to minimise the impact of waste disposal in New Zealand’s focusses on the ‘5Rs’ of reduce, reuse, recycle, recover, and manage residual waste.

Water degradation  

The degradation of rivers and lakes has potential risks for New Zealand’s ecosystems, for the economy, for food gathering and for the country’s international reputation. There have been strong increasing trends in phosphorus and nitrogen, particularly in catchments predominantly in farm land. 

WATCH: We asked your opinions on the quality of water in New Zealand’s rivers. 

Approximately $500 million of government and community money is currently committed to the clean-up of lakes, rivers and streams in New Zealand. 


Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, involves the injecting of chemicals into the earth at high pressure to extract previously inaccessible oil and gas. The practice is controversial, with polarised views about its impact on the natural environment.

In New Zealand, the practice is mostly used in Taranaki and the amount of gas and oil extracted using the method is rising. Exploration has occurred in the Waikato region and could spread to other parts of the country if oil is discovered in significant quantities, though the Christchurch City Council voted unanimously to declare it a fracking-free zone.   

Air pollution

In New Zealand cities, air contaminants are attributed to a high dependence on private vehicle usage and inefficient heating. Higher levels of CO2 in the atmosphere contribute to greater health problems, including respiratory problems, asthma attacks and reduced immunity.  


Stoats and rats pose a growing threat to New Zealand’s native bird population. This year, between $9 million and $12 million will be spent on the largest ever pest control programme covering 700,000 hectares.

The nesting Westland petrel are at high risk of predation and only around 4,000 birds exist in the Punakaiki area of the South Island’s West Coast. Te Papa researcher Susan Waugh is studying the birds and how the deomgraphics are changing over time. 



The Ministry for the Environment says accelerated erosion is “the most serious and the least reversible of soil degradation problems”. Many forms of erosion exist in New Zealand including mass movement due to heavy rain and storms, surface caused by wind detaching soil particles from the surface and streambank that occurs when banks have been cleared of tree cover. 

This content is brought to you with funding assistance from New Zealand On Air.

Cover image from Photo New Zealand.

There’s no place on earth untouched by human activity: This was clear as Lucas Foglia whizzed across the vast, white expanse of Alaska's Juneau Ice Field last summer. He was riding an old pair of skis towed by scientist Uwe Hofmann, who periodically stopped his snowmobile to measure the rapidly melting glacier.

“It was an unforgettable experience,” says Foglia, a photographer featured in WIRED’s December issue. "Being in a place that big and wild made me feel small in a way I had never felt before, yet I knew that humans as a whole were changing that landscape.”

Foglia explores this tension in his stunning new book Human Nature. It features nearly 60 photographs that illustrate the varying ways nature impacts humans and humans impact nature—for better or worse. "It focuses on our relationship with nature, how we need wild places even if they have been shaped by us," Foglia says. "I think of each photo in the book as the tip of the iceberg that hopefully points viewers to the larger story underneath the surface of the image."

Foglia grew up on a farm in rural Long Island. Watching the surrounding fields slowly being swallowed up by housing tracts inspired his work documenting the natural environment—a focus that grew in intensity after Hurricane Sandy slammed into the eastern seaboard in 2012. “Climate change is on the news every day these days, but I realized I didn’t know what the science looked like.” he says. “I felt like photography could clearly describe the process of the science.”

Over the next five years, Foglia trailed scientists in five countries with his medium format digital camera as they took samples of air pollution, studied geysers, and launched ozone balloons into the atmosphere. He also examined governmental efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change. The Singapore Green Plan, for instance, requires developers to include green spaces in new buildings, while the Agricultural Experiment Station in New York helps farmers develop crops that can withstand changing weather patterns (more on that here).

These programs matter not only because people need nature to survive. They also matter because people need nature to thrive. Foglia learned this while documenting the research of David Strayer, a University of Utah neuroscientist who hooks participants up to EEG caps and facial electrodes as they spend time in rugged landscapes. His research shows that unplugging in nature actually increases cognitive function, helping people better solve creative problems. "He said that, in his opinion, time in wild places is part of human nature," Foglia says.

Strayer's idea reverberates throughout Human Nature. It explains the feeling of wonder and freedom Foglia felt while gliding across a remote Alaskan ice field—and further underscores the need to preserve places like it.

Human Nature is out this month from Nazraeli Press.

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