Fishing faithful gear up for trout fight

Fishers across the country are being mobilised to fight planned Government law changes. But do the fears over this supposed serious threat to trout fishing match reality? David Williams reports.

Over the last decade, as the National-led Government curtailed the Department of Conservation’s advocacy, statutory sports fishing body Fish & Game stepped in. It fought for water conservation orders, challenged consents for developments that could have ruined rivers, and joined court cases over water quality. It was trying to protect fishing rights for licence holders, of course. But a welcome byproduct was the protection of some native fish.

With a change of Government, the gumboot is now on the other foot.

Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage has introduced an amendment bill, without proper consultation, to protect native fish. Fish & Game says the bill’s a threat to trout fishing and it undermines its power to manage fisheries. The salt in the wound, perhaps, is Fish & Game has been accused of not fully understanding the changes.

“We’re a creature of Parliament,” Fish & Game chief executive Martin Taylor tells Newsroom. “So if Parliament wishes to change the balance that has existed for the last 150 years, in terms of the status of trout, well, that’s Parliament’s ability to do that. But we’re not going to allow that to happen by accident or without people having full knowledge of what is going on and why it’s going on.”

Extending fish protection

Most of New Zealand’s 56 indigenous freshwater fish are found nowhere else in the world and some species are threatened, endangered and vulnerable. In August, DOC released a conservation status report on freshwater fish. Five are listed as nationally critical, including the Canterbury mudfish, which, the report’s authors say, needs urgent action to save it from extinction.

(In perhaps the best local example of the law being an ass, the only legally protected native fish, the grayling, is extinct.)

Green Party MP Sage said in Parliament last month that the amendment bill will protect native fish everywhere, not just in national parks and scenic reserves. It makes various other changes, including clarifying existing provisions allowing the temporary closure of fisheries, and controls over noxious fish. Sage portrayed the bill as minor and technical – an amended “tool box” to fill gaps rather than making major changes.

National supported the bill’s first reading, with some reservations. The party’s Conservation spokeswoman Sarah Dowie tells Newsroom she wants to know what the bill means for recreational fishers, fish management and any extra powers for DOC. “All of those questions must be answered before we sign up to it.” New Zealand First’s Tracey Martin made it clear in Parliament that her party had similar concerns to National.

Reaction to the bill within conservation circles is mixed.

Forest & Bird says the changes to “outdated” fish regulations are long overdue. Freshwater advocate Annabeth Cohen tells Newsroom some native fish are in trouble because regulations aren’t strong enough to protect them and their habitat. “These regulations start to iron some of these issues out,” she says. “It’s a step in the right direction.”

However, the bill gets only lukewarm support from freshwater ecologist Mike Joy, of Victoria University of Wellington. “There’s some useful stuff in there, don’t get me wrong, but the reality is that they can’t look after what they have already so what’s the chance of any of those nice things being done?”

He adds: “If they actually wanted to do something worthwhile then they would give the native fish the protection that they give to the rest of the wild animals, under the Wildlife Act.”

Rolling out the big guns

Annoyed at not being consulted, and concerned about the bill’s potential impact, Fish & Game sought a legal opinion from former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer. The QC found aspects of the reforms will “directly and negatively” affect Fish & Game. The opinion says it’s important that protection of indigenous fisheries under the bill doesn’t undermine the management of sports fish already enshrined in the Conservation Act.

Fish & Game claims the bill will, among other things: give freshwater management plans, including a minister’s national plan, priority over Fish & Game plans; alter restrictions on the taking, possessing or selling of sports fish under Treaty settlements; and reduce Fish & Game’s right to be consulted over the introduction or release of fish.

Palmer’s opinion says there seems to be no intention to use the bill to override provisions relating to the sale of sports fish and fishing rights. One clause of the bill, however, “creates the legal possibility” that would happen. DOC is already obliged under law to consult the statutory fishing body.

Fish & Game’s Taylor says he’s taken his concerns – and Palmer’s proposed amendments – to the minister. “She’s quite firm in her position. She’s going to leave it up to the select committee process to determine whether there’ll be any changes.”

(Select committee submissions close on October 25.)

Sure, Taylor says, DOC should have powers to close fisheries to save a native fish. “We’re not against the closing of certain waterways under certain conditions. But what we are against is a council working with iwi, or working with DOC, telling us that they believe this is the best way to approach something – and we have the same consultation rights as a member of the public.”

“The bill in its current form is a threat to our interests and we have to respond.” – Martin Taylor

Sage is adamant the bill doesn’t water down Fish & Game’s powers, and it doesn’t alter the ban on the sale of fishing rights or the sale of sports fish. The Conservation Act, she tells Newsroom, already provides primacy to DOC management plans. “No regulations relating to sports fish management are affected by the bill.”

The Minister says Fish & Game wasn’t consulted about the bill because there weren’t any significant changes that affect it. (National’s Dowie says the lack of consultation is another black mark for Sage, after a similar “minister knows best” attitude over a proposed thar cull.)

That’s not what Treasury says, however. A review of DOC’s regulatory impact statement says consultation with iwi and stakeholders didn’t happen because the “time frame did not allow” it. Interestingly, the statement expects strong public submissions about whitebait. It says: “Many submissions will question why more extensive reforms are not being done, notably [the] banning of all or commercial whitebait fishing.”

Taylor says Fish & Game is mobilising its more than 100,000 licence holders. “When you’ve taken the best legal advice, then your governors are honour-bound to follow the implications of that legal advice, and that’s what we’re doing. The bill in its current form is a threat to our interests and we have to respond.”

The Fish & Game boss says the debate should use careful language and rely on science. Rather than being close to extinction, Taylor says many native fish species, such as inanga, are “declining”. Under DOC’s threat classification, that means they have more than 100,000 mature individuals, but there’s a predicted decline of 10-70 percent.

Other threatened species, Taylor says, aren’t being eaten by trout. He adds that “95 percent of the reduction in native fish is to do with water quality”.

Claim shot down

Taylor’s last claim doesn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny, however.

Native freshwater fish specialist Richard Allibone, who contributed to DOC’s recent conservation status report, points the finger at water abstraction, habitat loss, fish passage barriers and trout as the biggest threats to native fish. “For some of them water quality’s just not relevant; they’re not in places that it’s dirty.”

Another issue is water management by regional councils, whose plans sometimes allow water takes despite the problems they cause for fish. There are also questions over councils’ enforcement over habitat destruction.

Allibone, of Dunedin, previously worked on a Fish & Game contract over changes to a water conservation order on Otago’s Nevis River. His work helped prevent a proposed dam being built there because of a rare, native fish called the Gollum galaxiid.

The scientist applauds the amendment bill, saying native freshwater fish management plans should take precedence over sports fish. But he’s disappointed it won’t go further, to deal with issues like deliberate habitat destruction and loss.

It was “silly” of DOC not to consult with Fish & Game over the changes, Allibone says. But he characterises as “bollocks” some claims on Fish & Game’s website, such as the happy co-existence of trout and galaxiids. “I think they’re overhyping it. The reality is we’re [native and introduced fish plans] not going to clash that much, that often.”

Sadly, Allibone thinks perhaps the biggest barrier to native fish protection might be DOC itself. “Until they get more staff resourcing and the political gumption to tackle some of this, it won’t happen.”

Help us create a sustainable future for independent local journalism

As New Zealand moves from crisis to recovery mode the need to support local industry has been brought into sharp relief.

As our journalists work to ask the hard questions about our recovery, we also look to you, our readers for support. Reader donations are critical to what we do. If you can help us, please click the button to ensure we can continue to provide quality independent journalism you can trust.

With thanks to our partners