For all the protestations of affection and respect, dairy farmers seem to be in a class of their own when it comes to the non-negotiability of their environmental responsibilities.

That was made very clear once again last week when the Ministry for Primary Industries announced that it would not be prosecuting anyone over the deaths of potentially hundreds of long-finned eels, which were removed from their habitat and dumped by Hawke's Bay Regional Council workers. The dead and dying eels were discovered by a Napier resident, encased in tonnes of mud that had been dumped on the banks of the Moteo River in February. A video that went viral on Facebook prompted the MPI to investigate, and the council downed tools while it undertook its own review.

Eight months later the MPI said it had insufficient evidence to charge anyone.

Apparently a digger had been used to remove mud and vegetation from drains, which was then trucked some distance and tipped into piles. The people responsible had told the ministry that they hadn't inspected what they were removing, so didn't notice any eels. So that's alright then? No it isn't.


The long-finned eel doesn't enjoy the same empathy displayed for other species, but very large adults, most likely to be fertile females, have become scarce according to Forest & Bird, commercial fishing since the 1960s, pollution and habitat loss all having had an effect. Even if it's not endangered, however, slaughtering them in significant numbers by what seems to be sheer carelessness is surely a breach of the council's obligations under fisheries regulations, and it beggars belief that the MPI can't find sufficient evidence to do anything about that.

Ask yourself, what would happen to a farmer who cleaned a drain and killed a few hundred eels in the process because they didn't inspect what they were removing? They would be prosecuted, no question.

If the best the council can come up with is that its employees didn't look at what they were removing, so didn't realise they were killing eels on a grand scale, it should be held liable. The fact that the ministry took eight months to investigate a very simple scenario suggests that it was never keen to prosecute, and farmers are entitled to take umbrage at that.

This is not the first time we have seen a clear double standards over the liabilities of farmers and others. Earlier this year huge quantities of raw sewage poured into lake Taupō when a slip resulted in the fracturing of a council sewer main. Apparently that was an act of God. Certainly the council wasn't prosecuted.

Maybe there was no point in prosecuting, although the main was precariously close to the edge of the lake, but what happens to farmers whose effluent systems fail? Any farmer whose lack of foresight or action leads to the pollution of any body of water, let alone the country's biggest lake, a major tourist attraction and right in the middle of a town, will be charged and likely fined into near financial oblivion.

Why not a local authority? Who knows, but this latest decision should be a source of great shame to the MPI. While farmers insist that they are doing their bit, at not inconsiderable personal expense, to reduce the environmental impacts of their industry, others seem to abuse the environment with impunity.

The man who posted the video of the eels, and who, with members of his family, spent hours rescuing some that were still alive, had two words for the ministry's decision — "absolute bollocks." And who, apart from those who believe that farmers alone are responsible for every environmental issue in this country, would disagree with that? He had no trouble spotting "tonnes" of eels. The only possible explanations for the council workers' failure to do so would seem to be that they were vision-impaired, studiously avoided looking or saw them and didn't care.

If they were blind they might be excused, but the ministry's decision that it didn't have enough evidence to prosecute is utterly absurd.


The aftermath of all this is equally ridiculous. Now the Hawke's Bay Regional Council has set up a working group, with representatives from the Hastings District and Napier City councils, DOC, local iwi and Hawke's Bay Fish & Game to come up with a new code of practice.

They must be joking. What is required is that anyone who clears a body of water that is occupied by some form of aquatic life takes care not to kill it in the process. How complex can that be?

But no, using your eyes and brains, and taking even a modicum of care, is too simple. What is needed, obviously, is a protocol. Can't go wrong if you have a protocol. Assuming you comply with it. And the council workers who killed the eels might need training to ensure they're qualified and able to do so.

Anyway, from now on the council, Uncle Tom Cobley and all will look at what's living in the drain that is to be cleaned, and if eels are found, the various agencies will look at removing them while the work is done. Best practice, apparently, would be to dump mud on the river bank so any eels that are scooped up can easily return to the water, which most will obviously do.

Just to be sure though, council staff will now check to ensure that none of are stuck and need a hand. One assumes they will be issued with pictures so they know exactly what an eel looks like, and will be trained to get them back to the water whence they came. And the council will be auditing all its "drain work" to ensure that all staff follow the new rules. Great news for the makers of clipboards.

All that, according to the council, will cost "significantly more," but it is "the right thing to do." Damned tooting it is. Not to mention that it's the lawful thing to do. Only a local authority would make a virtue of complying with the law, having failed spectacularly to do so.

Just where any extra cost might arise, and how significant that cost will be, might not be immediately apparent though, unless the eel search and retrieval officers will need to be $100,000 a year-plus, highly-qualified, police-vetted specialists in their field.

Many years ago a small boy watched a dragline cleaning a drain on his parents' farm, and marvelled at the eels that wriggled back into the water after every bucket of mud was deposited on the bank. Some might have died, but many didn't. And there wasn't one person on-site whose job it was to identify anything that might have been an eel, ensure it wasn't stuck, and help it back to the water, if that was required.

Small boys might have sharper eyes than your average Hawke's Bay Regional Council worker, but it beggars belief that no one spotted an eel on this occasion. And it beggars belief that the MPI can't find the evidence needed for a prosecution. This isn't about a lack of evidence, it's about letting people who aren't farmers off scot-free when anyone who is a farmer would be in the gun.

This is not about whether anyone should or should not be prosecuted. It's about one sector of society being held to a much higher standard of accountability than others. In this case, and others, farmers have every right to feel aggrieved. Surely they are entitled to a level playing field, but there is going to have to be a big shift in attitudes if they are ever going to get one.