Trout fishing's future is at risk, say opponents of a bill wending through Parliament. The proposal seeks to clarify existing law and protect native species, according to those who support the measure.
Reporter Dawn Picken wades through the issues to learn why local anglers feel they're swimming upstream.
Protect or endanger?
The name of the proposed legislation is a mouthful: the Indigenous Freshwater Fish Amendment Bill. The Green Party measure is Government legislation backed by Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage. It seeks to protect New Zealand's native fish like whitebait, eels and galaxiids.
But anglers say the bill as written could threaten non-native fish such as trout and salmon, and endanger recreational sport fishing.
They fear trout could be removed from local streams; a total ban on trout farming could be lifted; private landowners could sell rights to fish on waterways to the highest bidder; trout could become part of Treaty negotiations.
Beloved local pastime
More than 100,000 people in New Zealand buy a freshwater fishing licence each year. Fish & Game officer Matt Osbourne says fly fishing is huge in the Rotorua area, where 13 lakes provide a range of different experiences. While Lake Rotorua is the best-known and most accessible shallow lake, he says trout head to cooler stream mouths like the Awahou and Hamurana during summer, and rainbow trout swim within all Rotorua lakes. "Tiger trout (a brown trout/ brook trout cross) are present in Lake Rotomā only providing a boutique angling experience. Brown trout are present in Lakes Rotorua and Rotoiti only, and these lakes produce some of the largest brown trout in New Zealand.''
About 7 per cent of licences are sold to visitors or non-residents.
Rotorua Anglers Association President Gavin Corbett says his club saw a visit late last year from National MP Todd McClay, who said his party reluctantly supported the indigenous fish bill for its first reading to allow issues to be worked out.
Corbett says, "Every single member of our anglers club has petitioned their Member of Parliament. In the end, it'll come down to whether Eugenie Sage and her followers listen."
The bill could change the way we fish, says Corbett. "From where I'm living in Ngongotaha, anywhere within 20 minutes there are hundreds of places I can catch fish. The bill put in place has a right to be used if it needed to be, I'm not saying it would start to clear the bloody streams of trout, but I'm regarding it as the thin edge."
He told the Rotorua Daily Post last October that Fish & Game had commissioned a report from former Prime Minister and QC Sir Geoffrey Palmer on the bill. In his report, Palmer said he thought the bill's regulatory impact statement was not entirely accurate when it said: "reforms being proposed do not directly impact sports fish but will effectively manage some threats to sports fish". The document asserts aspects of the reforms impact directly and negatively on Fish & Game. Others have the potential to impact sport fish.
Tauranga angler Owen Poad says there may be a dollar cost to the fish bill. He cited figures from the Cawthron Institute (an independent science organisation) stating annual income from fishing licences sits around $400 million. "Changing regulation to an open industry can only come at a cost to itself. If a change in regulation doesn't work, there is no return to how it was and to the New Zealand that we grew up with."
Poad accepts native fish are threatened, possibly due to pollution or chemicals. "But when you're talking about native species, whitebait and eels, there's no restriction on harvesting of whitebait. You can take as much as you can and sell it. With threatened species, the logical first thing to do is restrict catching and sale. That's not being done."
New Zealand has taken a blanket approach to stream management, says Poad, requiring farmers to fence land to prevent livestock from gaining access. "We have strips of gorse, blackberry and weeds growing along the rivers, which become more inaccessible than previously. I don't know what is better than what we are doing, but what we are doing is not particularly effective."
Forestry has also been blamed for polluting waterways. Poad says, "There's no question we're seeing dreadful things done to our rivers from the felling of pine forests." He says waterways that used to have gravel bottoms are now covered with silt, and nitrogen leaches into rivers.
Forestry Owners Association communications manager Don Carson says research shows agriculture does more damage to waterways than pine harvesting. "There clearly needs to be a lot more research than there is on the effects. We would say that year in, year out, plantation forest beside water courses produces less sediment into those watercourses than if you had pasture on those hills."
Federated Farmers spokesman Chris Allen says blaming farmers for all environmental ills is counter-productive and wrong. "If we didn't have trout or salmon in rivers, some native fish populations would be in a lot better place." Allen says many landowners look after native species, "and they don't want a law to get in the way of what they're doing on their land around that."
Allen says we live in a highly-modified environment that includes a successful trout industry. "We've bred them and put them in waterways without asking is their food source counter-productive to native fish? We haven't been very smart about that. Doing nothing is not an option and blaming everyone else is not an option, either."
Attempted fish fix
Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage declined to comment for this story, but wrote in a news release last September that 22 of 56 indigenous freshwater fish species are endangered. "The Conservation Act and the existing regulations dating back to 1983 are inadequate, have gaps and changes are needed.
"The new bill will provide a more complete and effective toolbox to help manage indigenous freshwater fish, taonga species important to iwi, and noxious fish like koi carp. We don't allow kiwi, kaka and other indigenous wildlife to be killed in protected areas and native fish need the same protection.
"Communities are improving fish passage by ensuring culverts don't provide a barrier, planting along stream margins to help restore aquatic habitats and fish spawning sites."
Regulations and trout farming
The Department of Conservation's website says no one has determined yet what regulations will be made or changed using the amended act. "DoC will be doing iwi engagement and public consultation to determine what fisheries management issues need to be better managed, and whether improved regulations are needed to allow that to happen. Work done so far has identified potential improvements to existing regulations in relation to fish passage barriers, noxious fish, and the controls on take of fish."
The University of Waikato's Tim Manukau works with Te Waiora - the Joint Institute for Freshwater Management. Manukau tells Bay of Plenty Times Weekend the biggest threats to native fisheries are man-made. ...Such as changes to our waterways, lack of water quality and quantity, habitat reduction and degradation, migration barriers, introduced pests and over-fishing. Therefore, we all have to come up with solutions. Reducing these threats will not only benefit native fish and trout but all of us in the long run."
Manukau addressed concerns the bill gives the Department of Conversation unlimited power to make rules regarding fish. "DoC has statutory responsibilities to preserve indigenous freshwater fisheries, and protect recreational freshwater fisheries and freshwater fish habitats. DoC has admitted there is a key gap in its ability to make regulations to address some of the threats to indigenous fish. In developing new regulations under the Bill, DoC and the Minister would still need to engage with the wider community and iwi in their development and adhere to the wider provisions of the Conservation Act and any other relevant statutes."
Fishing and Outdoors newspaper sales manager Graham Carter says the freshwater fish bill is so seriously flawed, it must be re-written. "The exposure of this corrupted bill is, we believe, what is needed to put a stop to the current misinformation stating that trout are killing off native fish, when in fact there is more than enough evidence that it is a cocktail of chemicals from industrial farming and local body effluent managed and industrial discharge."
Carter also blames pine harvesting for disturbing waterways. "A deep concern for our members is that DoC is silent on these issues. It is charged with conservation...yet DoC is never seen advocating on the water quantity or quality or on chemical pollutant issues. Habitat quality is the key to conserving whitebait and eels and the myriad of organisms that share their habitat."
DoC says the bill does not open New Zealand to trout farming. "This concern seems to have arisen as a misunderstanding of the fact that the bill clarifies the relationship between new Treaty settlement legislation and Conservation Act provisions. If a new Treaty settlement act allowed sale of trout, that could occur. But no legislation can prevent Parliament passing new legislation, so the bill does not make that possibility more or less likely to eventuate. No Treaty settlements to date have had negative effects on sports fishery management."
Carter remains unconvinced by DoC's reassurance. "It's a private land grab for a public resource, because every river and every water space in New Zealand belongs to the public, so what the trout farming people plan to do is grab that water space for their own special use," Carter says the same thing happened with salmon farming, when iwi claimed water space. "Damage to the tourism industry will be astronomical. It happened in Australia, the US, UK and has destroyed ecosystems."
Manukau says he doesn't believe the bill promotes trout farming or further commercialisation of the native fishery or trout for Māori. "If this is an issue that needs to be clarified, then the matter should be referred to the select committee hearing the bill."
A spokeswoman for Moana New Zealand, the largest Māori-owned fisheries company in the country, says it has no plans to start trout farming.
McClay says while Sage has tried to calm debate about trout farming, "The only way to do so is through re-drafting the legislation."
So are changes to the Indigenous Freshwater Fish Amendment Bill likely? Anglers say they've no idea. "We're fishing blind," says Rotorua's Gavin Corbett.
The bill sits in a select committee and its report is due in June.
Local politicians weigh in on fish bill
Simon Bridges, National MP and Opposition Leader
"The Government's bill, which is being led by the Green Party, would threaten recreational trout and salmon fishing in New Zealand and deter international visitors who come to New Zealand to enjoy the fishing.
"The bill also undermines the role of Fish & Game, the organisation which has managed the fishery for generations.
"The National Party does not support this bill proceeding. Everyone wants to see our rivers and lakes pristine, and indigenous freshwater fish deserve protection, but this is not the way to go about it."
Angie Warren-Clark, Labour MP, Bay of Plenty
"There will be consultation through the select committee process for all interested parties, and any necessary alterations to the bill made then. The bill provides better mechanisms for managing threats to fisheries or management of fisheries.
"The bill does not exclude non-Māori from commercial fishing. Freshwater fisheries are a vital resource for most iwi, who have been significantly affected by decline in their fisheries. Freshwater fisheries are, therefore, key issues in many Treaty settlements.
"It does not in any way change the ability of Fish & Game to manage sports fish, or remove fundamental controls such as the prohibition on sale of trout and trout farming. Some people have been concerned those changes will mean trout farming and the sale of trout will be allowed – they won't. Nor will fish and game councils' control of sport fishing be changed."
Todd Muller, National MP, Bay of Plenty
"I am very disappointed with the proposed legislation. It is increasingly clear that the Government had not considered the raft of issues that are now being exposed. ...The consultation has been non-existent, the drafting very poor, and if it stays as it is I am very confident that the National Party will oppose vigorously."
Todd McClay, Rotorua National Party MP
"I support the need to protect indigenous species, but I'm quite concerned about powers given to ministers around trout and salmon fisheries in New Zealand. [QC Sir Geoffrey] Palmer has done a legal analysis which shows ministers could make decisions to take trout and salmon out of rivers and lakes around the country. That would concern a lot of fisher people firstly, secondly [it] could have a detrimental effect on tourism, particularly through the Bay of Plenty areas.
I think the legislation needs to be changed so that trout also recognised as an important species and that more balance is brought to the legislation."
Tamati Coffey, Rotorua Labour MP
"We need to ensure we respond to fact not hysteria.
"Trout farming and the sale of trout will not be allowed. Nor will Fish & Game's control of sport fishing be changed. This bill does not change trout management.
"This bill will support the Crown to back iwi in the restoration of their local fisheries, protecting taonga species of significant importance to our whānau and hapū.
"Public consultation will be open during the select committee stage, and I encourage all those interested in this kaupapa to make themselves heard during that process."