Recently, rather quietly on the international fly fishing front, there was a request for feedback regarding a proposed winter closure of low elevation brown trout water through Canterbury region of the S Island of New Zealand because the trout populations are suffering, crashing. For far too many years, Amelia & I have been silent on what we have been seeing as we’d rather focus on the positive, the wonderful fly fishing the S Island has to offer.
The truth is that every year the past 5 years, we’ve lost 4 or 5 small tributary streams to the agriculture industry. It is simply wreaking havoc on both the west and east sides of the island. When I wrote a short email reply as a licensed angler in New Zealand when feedback was requested, they asked for a 150 word email reply to include in their email newsletter. Unfortunately, I couldn’t keep 10 years of pent up frustration to a mere 150 words. Like it or not, there are severe issues throughout New Zealand. Here’s what we shared, what I sent in to Fish & Game a couple of weeks back. I doubt it’ll end up being used or included as it is rather direct.
“I must apologize for the timing. I saw the latest email come out with anglers highly in favour of a winter closure on these waters. I fully appreciate the sentiment but find it misplaced. I must apologize as no email on the issue can be 150 words. The following comes not as a foreigner who is taking pot-shots at your country. No. If you are familiar with my home province of Alberta, Canada and the oil & gas industry we have here, no doubt you’ve heard of Alberta oilsands, then you know our landbase has immense pressures placed upon it. And as my wife & I have walked over 1000km per year of the tiniest of tributaries throughout the entire Canterbury Region the past decade, we see so many grave issues that the future of trout through the region is in serious peril.
But, to the point of winter closures, the first question that has to be asked: what is the Fisheries Management Objective? Is the objective to slow the rate of angling harvest because it is proven that anglers are the sole cause, or even the #1 cause of deterioration? Doubtful. Or is it desperation in just keeping the few remaining fish in the water – that limited, crippled trout stream habitat that is left through Canterbury? Or is the objective to stop the eroding habitat caused by decades of neglect and abuse by the Ag industry, to stabilize habitat, and to then increase its quality so that fish stocks can rebound? But, we’re talking angling regulations which are controlled by vastly different agendas, gov departments, and ideals than that of the agriculture industry. You see, anglers want to know that managers aren’t simply casting aim at anglers when the extreme habitat issues are far and away the main culprit. Centuries of agriculture with the more recent demands of intensive livestock use for new and varied uses and markets simply aren’t sustainable.
Before I continue, as owner of the Alberta Fishing Guide Magazine here in Alberta, Canada, as well as spending a great deal of energy the last 25 years on Fisheries Management issues in my home province of Canada, I’d like to share what my home province has studied, compiled, and shared. The Alberta FSI (Fish Sustainability Index) Maps. There was a great deal of time involved in developing these maps and managers had to dig deeply into archives to determine the historic populations of various native species in Alberta. Let me be succinct in pointing out the differences between historic and present day populations and why the majority of ranges of both bull trout and arctic grayling have been extirpated vastly from their native ranges: habitat erosion. In our case it has been done through extensive road construction and sedimentation of our waters in the oil & gas and logging industries, with the issue compounded by logging and oil & gas explorations and development opening up the forest canopies in and about our waters, thereby warming them and changing their morophology. Anglers had an initial role to play in harvest, however, catch & release and closures simply aren’t seeing any rebounding of stocks due to extreme habitat changes. Done differently, the entire E side of the S Island is essentially undergoing the same. Your fisheries, with habitat changes and alterations occurring as quickly as they are, are rapidly deteriorating to the same as the maps for Alberta’s Bull Trout & Arctic Grayling. When in stream habitat precludes trout, what has New Zealand to replace them? Where will anglers go and what becomes of the pressure on those remaining waters? That’s your future if you allow fish habitat to continue to be eroded. Anglers are not remotely the main cause of trout stock depletion – if there was suitable habitat the stocks would rebound with even the simplest of catch & release regulation. Where anglers are responsible is in our collective apathy in allowing extreme habitat change to occur and perpetuate. Yes, even as a foreigner, I love these waters as my own, and find it difficult to not voice concern. (continued below maps…)
The notion to close waters to angling places the responsibility of the trout population change on the anglers. Having walked over 1000km per year of tiny tributaries and main rivers through the region on our annual 2 to 3 month trip to fly fish the S Island each year this past decade, I assure anglers are not the main reason the trout populations are crashing. Every year we’ve lost waters to the agriculture industry as they dredge and train the water course (ie, straighten the course and dump piles of shingle as bank stabilization which then is eroded and fills the course with sedimentation); rip out the stream flow and temperature regulating willow and bush canopies thereby opening the stream to direct sunlight and rapid thermal heating; creation of gravel traps with little monitoring or regulation of operations; and literally moving spring creeks hundreds of meters from their original location.
You see, a stream can only carry so much biomass held in trout per km. And that carrying capacity has to allow for spawning, rearing, juvenille habitat, as well as the adult life stages and processes. If you remove, alter, or eliminate any of these then your carrying capacity is diminished. In so many cases we’ve witnessed such alteration that there is simply no hope of a future with trout. Sure, you certainly may find migratory trout moving up to spawn, but over time a stream’s ability to pump its regeneration will have impact and those fish will not be able to return.
The #1 example I can give anyone is the Percival River near Hanmer Springs. The land owner was allowed to absolutely nuke the meandering, willow lined, cold water habitat by ECAN. We have video that shows hundreds upon thousands of juvenille brown trout residing in the countless shaded pools. Of course, in a good day’s walk you could engage 40 or 50 adult browns throughout the entire season. Today, the stream has been straightened, many willows removed compared to what was there, the large gravel trap a pump of sedimentation, and so little water of any depth now exists. Gone are the multitudes of juvenilles as they were, and long before Christmas it is difficult to find more than 15 adults from the confluence with the Waiau to the hwy bridge. The Percival is but one example of an alarmingly long list of streams in the region. Look down valley along the Waiau and every single tributary that is a pump to the Waiau’s trout population suffers similar impact. And that’s just the Waiau. The issue is the entire length of the island. You simply cannot continue to destroy key parts of the life stage habitat requirements of trout and not impact carrying capacity. And you can’t simply say “they’ll spawn elsewhere, mate”. The fish have told us where they need to spawn and rear before moving to the main rivers. If you kill the arterioles, the whole of the body dies. The main rivers only have trout because they have places to spawn and rear. Sedimentation, removal of niche and micro habitats, massive increasing of in-stream temperatures, and a poor dissolved oxygen content… these, far moreso than the endless green sludge of cattle effluent draining the fields, these are what is truly killing these waters.
Perhaps the greatest of ironies in agriculture is the need for water and irrigation, not so much that they need water but why. As we’ve seen countless times, farmers train their wee tributaries on their land to straight lines. They remove the willows that give definition to the stream course, that give anchoring to the shingly gravel, that provide critical thermal cover, then row mounds of shingle to the edge. This new, straight stream course sheds water as quickly as possible off their land. Of course, without any vegetation higher than a match stick as cover, the land now warms, bakes, and is starved for water as the draws and springs are dry. But now they beckon for water and suck it through the endless parade of pumps that have popped up across the landscape from every available source. The rate of increase of numbers of pumps sucking water out at an unprecedented rate, even in extreme droughts as experienced Oct – Dec, 2015 is shocking. They want dams and irrigation canals. But, what if they had left their lands with some riparian areas and worked within the boundaries of what the land itself is capable of producing? Much like water has a carrying capacity for trout, a land base naturally has a carrying capacity for growth. It’s patently obvious where the long term is headed in both cases of water and land on the S Island.
But to blame anglers for the loss of habitat that is driving trout out of these waters? No. The government is punishing the people who value these waters. There are many tools Fisheries managers can use. Closures are one. Why not Catch & Release – but only on the provision that anglers walk the entire lengths of these waters with camera in hand and identify the insults and changes to these waters. Then, and only then, will the government understand who is truly responsible. The S Island is in serious trouble.
Even those that only fish the spine of the island, those wonderful beech forest, back country waters, need to pay attention. You simply cannot ignore the connectedness of the high country trout and low country trout – don’t be fooled by your mouse influenced, trophy beech forest trout. These same fish are connected to the lowland stocks. With the movement between various waters and to the sea, all habitat has to be considered critical (but not absolute in all cases, of course). When many of the lowland rivers are devoid of fish sometime this decade, do you not think that the migrating fish numbers will not also dwindle? And when the lowland waters are trout free, do you not think the angling pressures on those back country waters will increase? The writing on the wall in front of you. Blaming anglers is not the way. There are a vast array of tools Fisheries managers can use but when the agriculture industry continues to pound away at habitat, it’s an endless losing battle and certainly disheartening for management. A change in mindset needs to occur in the Ag industry, but also in the fisheries community. Otherwise, precluding anglers from winter fishing is step 1. The next steps without an embracing of C&R will see full closures – closures that will be ineffective without stopping the habitat insults. But, without anglers out on the waters, who is going to notice and document those? And you likely won’t ever fish there again because stocks simply won’t return – as we here in Alberta can attest to with many of our grayling and bull trout streams. Don’t think for a second those maps aren’t your future.
Last year we shared the following video as an example of the ag industry. As an update to the following video’s call for help in the petition, the application for the dam was denied. That doesn’t preclude that project to be reapplied for at a later date or other projects on many similar waters to have applications made.