What is the MCHI?

The Marine Cultural Health Index (MCHI) monitoring toolkit enables Ngāi Tahu to establish restoration targets and sustainable mahinga kai (the practice of customary food-gathering) harvest strategies within their taiāpure, mātaitai, and other coastal protection areas.
The toolkit, incorporates a range of environmental indicators, based on local and traditional knowledge. It may be used to assess and record:

  • the current ecological state of Ngāi Tahu’s rohe moana (coastal marine area over which Ngāi Tahu exercises its kaitiakitanga
  • changes in marine ecosystem health over time, and
  • effectiveness of local fishing rules and reseeding strategies.

Why is it needed?

Ngāi Tahu have expressed a wish to be able to assess the health of their own harvest resources, without relying on scientists or outside officials to tell them how to manage their resources. This toolkit gives voice to community members to collectively manage their own resources, by using traditional and local knowledge.
Theoretical and empirical evidence from around the world emphasise the importance for participation of local environmental guardians in goal-setting, compliance, and monitoring of natural resources for sustainable management.

The development of a simple and repeatable environmental monitoring tool encourages locals to participate in ways that reflect their cultural values and that triggers their individual and social wellbeing.

Despite a growing trend to include Traditional Ecological Knowledge (Mātauranga Māori) when investigating environmental indicators, we could not find any examples overseas or elsewhere in New Zealand where indigenous peoples’ values are used in a manner that allows a formal aggregate score of marine environmental health to be reported.

The semi-quantitative monitoring method used by Ngāi Tahu to assess stream health (a Cultural Health Index for the assessment of the health of streams and waterways), which has now been modified to assess marine ecosystem health, is therefore a world first.

How was it developed?

This toolkit was derived from local and traditional knowledge of 100 community representatives. The team selected the top 30 indicators based on community interviews, to include in the MCHI toolkit.

The community survey is to be conducted both for a benchmark state (historical time period) chosen by the surveyor, as well as the current state, and should be repeated consistently to build an accurate database of the site’s overall environmental and cultural health.

The MCHI toolkit is divided into four sections:

  • Key Cultural Indicators,
  • Habitat Threats & Quality Indicators,
  • Benchmark Questions, and
  • Survey Results

The Key Cultural Indicators are set in a hierarchical structure, leading to final scores (0-4) that signal varying degrees of alerts.

How can it make a positive impact?

All survey data can be sent to Toitū Te Whenua for entry into the Ngāi Tahu State of the Takiwā database, where overall site assessments will be archived and analysed. Once the prototype MCHI has been sufficiently field-tested, it will be fully incorporated into the Ngāi Tahu State of the Takiwā database itself.

The vision of Ngāi Tahu is that the MCHI will become a tool that allows communities to independently, inexpensively, and robustly assess the state of their rohe moana.

Once tested, the MCHI may be adapted and applied to coastlines around the country. Community members will be able to easily record and begin compiling an archive of observations. As more people use the MCHI, records of long-term changes in environmental health can be used to support additional management actions and restoration activities. Comparisons between areas can also shed light on the health of New Zealand’s marine environments as a whole.


Chris Hepburn, Marine Sciences Department, University of Otago
Office: 310 Castle Street, Room 144  |  Tel: 64 3 479 7462  |  Email: chris.hepburn@otago.ac.nz