The parlous state of freshwater fish protection in New Zealand is finally being addressed by our Government.

One of the saddest and most ironic stories in New Zealand conservation history is about the only native fish with full legal protection, the New Zealand grayling. It achieved that rare honour by governmental decree in 1951.

This legal protection was maintained when the regulations were reviewed in 1983, but the bitter irony is that, even in 1951, the grayling was presumed extinct, as it hadn't been seen for two years. In the Whanganui Regional Museum, a single stuffed grayling sits as a stark reminder of a treasure lost for all time.

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More than half our remaining freshwater native fish are now endangered but previously our government has moved only when it was too late. How different that is from the significant penalties that exist for killing, damaging or interfering with birds, marine mammals and even giant weta. Anyone so inclined can shoot non-native birds quite legally, although there are some restrictions applied to introduced game birds such as pheasants and mallard ducks. For native birds, on the other hand, protection is normally the rule.

Dive into the local rivers and the law does a reverse somersault. Ecosystem invaders from North America and Europe, the rainbow and brown trout, have extensive regulations to preserve their stock, but our amazing endemic long-finned eel is plundered and exported overseas for pet food.

Trout are prime suspects in the extinction of grayling and they continue to hoover up the lion's share of the freshwater food chain, squeezing what is available for the adult inanga, kokopu and koaro that whitebait turn into.

Trout gain particular prestige from being associated with a sport that attracts wealthy tourists from overseas as well as New Zealanders who can afford a trout-fishing licence.

When Thomas Tawha took trout from a spawning stream in 2015, he was sent to jail for a year. This was subsequently reduced to six months. However, there would have been no penalty if he had instead netted a sack-full of 80-year-old long-fin eels on the one breeding trip of their lifetime.

Margie Beautrais
Margie Beautrais

The parlous state of freshwater fish protection in New Zealand is finally being addressed by our Government. Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage is now steering a bill through Parliament to bring some protection for indigenous freshwater fish.

Public submissions have closed, but we can keep writing to our Members of Parliament, who will be involved in parliamentary debates during the second reading of the bill.
Of course, legal protection for fish will not be enough when their habitat is endangered in itself.

Healthy streams run through healthy landscapes, with more trees, less fertiliser and less run-off than is now the case. Besides cutting back on the fishing, we urgently need to redouble our efforts to clean up New Zealand's waterways.

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Our generation needs to show the same commitment that we devote to saving native birds.

It's high time we put some effort into protecting our remaining native fish to ensure their continued survival.

Margie Beautrais is an educator at Whanganui Regional Museum