By Neil Deans
New Zealand is blessed with an abundance and multitude of freshwaters which provide the habitat for an equally diverse array of species, including both native and introduced fish and wildlife. Some of these have intrinsic value; others are also valued because they provide food or recreational pursuit, or are indicators of a healthy environment.
Anglers and game bird hunters have had a statutory interest and involvement in what lives in our freshwaters for over 150 years since Acclimatisation Societies (from which Fish and Game NZ was formed in 1990) were first established. While their early emphasis was on transplanting species here from elsewhere the primary focus of anglers and hunters for over 50 years has been on the protection of the habitats where these animals reside.
Wetlands were appreciated by duck hunters long before these became of wider public interest in the 1980s. The former Auckland Acclimatisation Society, for example, began to buy swamplands (then deemed “wastelands”) in the lower Waikato River catchment in the 1940s. Auckland Waikato Fish & Game now owns more than 2500 ha, actively managed and conserved as wildlife habitat, saving it from being drained for agricultural land development.
The 150,000 Fish & Game-licensed anglers and hunters know that the quality of their recreational opportunities is directly related to the quality of the habitats in which their quarry resides, as well as the access to such areas.
Trout are amongst the most studied fish in the world, and are known to have relatively high water quality and quantity requirements. Trout in New Zealand can grow to amongst the largest in the world. This, combined with the scenic splendour of our river and lake catchments, attracts thousands of anglers annually from overseas. High quality habitats that grow large trout also equate to the public perception of high quality freshwaters; quite compatible with other instream interests like swimming or kayaking.
Successful anglers become attuned to the freshwater environment and ecosystem; they notice whether caddis or mayflies are hatching and being taken by trout and what flow or water conditions are most likely to entice trout to take lures. Because anglers go ‘off the beaten track’ in their pursuit of trout, they notice changes in the habitat and degradation which might otherwise go unnoticed.
It is no coincidence that anglers’ growing frustration with the inability/unwillingness of water managers to address declining freshwater habitats and unsustainable land uses causing this led to Fish & Game’s ‘Dirty Dairying’ campaign of the early 2000s. Although confrontational, this connected trout and their habitats via anglers to the general public’s increasing concern over the sustainability and inappropriateness of some intensive farming practices.
Though such campaigns successfully raised awareness of the issue, the worrying trend in recent years has been that the statutory water managers – the Department of Conservation, Ministry for the Environment and regional councils – are often still failing to address the causes of adverse impacts to freshwater habitats. Hard limits on the use of water and its assimilative capacity through regional plans are essential, providing certainty for both the public and for water users with their consents. Granting consents to use water has been easier than limiting its use through regional plans; often leading to over-allocation of water or its assimilative capacity to process contaminants.
The Land and Water Forum brought interested parties together in an attempt to reach a consensus on the way forward for managing this most precious resource, and it was agreed that setting and holding to limits in water use is crucial to sustainable management. The challenge now is to make this happen in all catchments.
As far as anglers and hunters are concerned, the test of whether we have achieved sustainable management is whether we have access to healthy and abundant stocks of fish and wildlife in our freshwaters. Anglers and hunters will keep watch to ensure that we can still enjoy and appreciate the high quality of our rivers, lakes and streams as a key point of difference between this country and most others.
Neil Deans is the Fish and Game Regional Manager for Nelson and Marlborough with part time national responsibility for freshwater resource management.