Exclusive deals lock out Kiwi anglers

BERNARD CARPINTER AND JOHN HARTEVELT
Last updated 05:00 06/01/2011

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Kiwi anglers are being "locked out" of top fishing spots by businesses cutting expensive deals with private landowners, angry fishermen say.

In a growing number of "exclusive capture" deals, mostly in prime backcountry, "large sums" have been paid to landowners for the sole right to fish on their land, the New Zealand Federation of Freshwater Anglers says.

Rich foreigners and celebrities, including former United States president Jimmy Carter, actors Liam Neeson and Timothy Dalton, and former Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser, pay thousands of dollars for guided helicopter fishing expeditions on New Zealand's most prized trout rivers.

But there are now fears more access will be lost to ordinary Kiwi fly fishermen – thought to number about 100,000.

The Government says the deals are the "legitimate right of a property owner" but it has asked the new Walking Access Commission to try to negotiate for open access "where there is access restricted".

Federation president Jim Hale said parts of rivers in the North Island and South Island had been captured by "unscrupulous commercial interests".

"It is practised by those who have captured these trout fishing waters for their own financial profiteering, even though the running water and the fish within them do not belong to them.

"We will fight this scourge wherever we find it, with whoever is involved, with all of the determination and resources at our disposal," Mr Hale said.

Most New Zealand anglers respected farmers' properties and stock, but farmers had the legal right to stop anyone crossing their property.

The "Queen's Chain" rule allowing access to riverbanks did not always apply, he said.

Mr Hale, a Manawatu farmer, singled out the upper Rangitikei and Mohaka rivers in the North Island as among those affected. "This is a slow creeping cancer and we've decided to put a stake in the ground and say `no more'."

The Rangitikei was one of New Zealand's top trout-fishing rivers, but more and more of it had been locked away in the past 20 years, he said.

Fish and Game Manawatu regional manager Phil Teal said his organisation was also worried about the loss of good fishing spots to ordinary anglers. "About 39 per cent of the fishable waters of the Rangitikei have some manner of restrictions on them," he said.

About 12.5 per cent of these waters ran through land controlled by the New Zealand Defence Force and about 20 per cent through private land where owners restricted access, he said.

Fish and Game was seeking information from landowners to identify how much of the river had been locked up for commercial operations.

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Walking Access Commission operations manager Ric Cullinane said: "Private property rights are real and important and need to be respected, so the owner of a property has the right to permit access at his or her discretion."

It would be illegal to sell fishing or hunting rights, but this was not necessarily what was happening.

The commission could only try to negotiate with landowners to lift exclusive-access deals. It would be up to the Conservation Department to prosecute if fishing rights were being illegally traded, he said.

Agriculture Minister David Carter said although there were probably more, he was aware of fewer "than a dozen" places where the deals were in place. He personally felt it was the legitimate property right of an owner to sell exclusive access for fishing.

"... the owner of the property certainly has the ability to restrict access and therefore to maximise the economic potential of a fishing spot to the advantage of that property owner."

However, he had asked the commission to negotiate more open access, including offering cash enticements to landowners.

Tongariro Lodge, near Taupo, is one of the upmarket fishing operations that attract wealthy visitors from around the world.

Lodge guide Tim McCarthy said the trout fishing industry was worth more than $60 million a year just for the Taupo region.

Most of the lodge's guests fished in nearby rivers that had free public access however, he sometimes also took fishermen to the Rangitikei by helicopter.

"Some of the landowners let fishermen on to their land and some don't."

- The Dominion Post

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