Our river's fish could do with at least an apology

Last updated 07:46 26/03/2010

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There was an unusual story this week with a New Zealand connection and a message. It featured a small Native American tribe called the Winnemem Wintu.

OPINION: In the 1940s, in the place where the Winnemem Wintu originate from, a dam project was given the go-ahead and blocked the McCloud River, home to the Chinook salmon.

Seasonal salmon runs were obstructed and ever since the fish have dwindled in number and failed to thrive. Like the salmon, the Winnemem Wintu tribe has also faced a declining population. In recent times the tribe lost federal recognition from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and faced numerous legal battles over sacred sites. An analysis of the tribe's plight led the chief of the Wintu to make parallels with the fate of the salmon: "What happened to the salmon happened to us. The fish have been diminishing in numbers, and so have we."

The Wintu believe they have failed their duty to protect the salmon and it has been divined by their chief that they must make amends. This is where the New Zealand connection comes in.

The United States Government did recognise that damming the McCloud would have a devastating impact upon on the native salmon. So Chinook salmon eggs were bred in their millions with batches shipped around the world. One batch ended up in the Rakaia River in the South Island. Known in New Zealand as quinnat salmon, they have prospered.

After massive fundraising efforts, representatives of the Winnemem Wintu tribe arrived in New Zealand and on Sunday they will resurrect the middle water salmon dance which has not been performed in more than 60 years.

A four-day dance ceremony will be conducted to symbolically atone for failed guardianship, a broken covenant and a dammed river. It will perhaps represent a new beginning, blessed by far flung fish.

I thought how lucky for the Winnemem Wintu and the Chinook salmon that the fish were not relocated in the Manawatu River. The Manawatu River is a special kind of filthy. When tests were carried out upon 300 rivers and streams across North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand by the Cawthron Institute they measured oxygen changes in water.

Anything over eight is considered unhealthy and a measurement of 0-4 is considered healthy. The Manawatu River measured 107. The only comparable pollution reading was for a site in Berlin, downstream from a sewage outfall, which read 59. Four councils take a daily dump into the Manawatu River and cubic metres of treated poos and wees flow into the river. Palmerston North City Council alone has a daily discharge allowance of 46,600 cubic metres.

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All up, more than 100,000 cubic metres of treated waste and industrial effluent are permitted to pour into the Manawatu River every day.

The story about the Chinook salmon and the Winnemem Wintu may seem far-fetched to those who do not share a world view of the relationships between humans, fish, birds, trees, stones and sky being fundamentally interrelated and cosmically intertwined. The more popular perspective is that we have no relationship at all. That we can pump cubic metres of crap every day (I wish that was a metaphor) into a river and there will be no consequences.

Tui Brewery has been polluting the Mangatainoka River, right here, since 1889. They choose the cheapest option which is to dump their nutrients, yeast and sugar into the water. And as they pollute our river to get that competitive corporate edge, they project a different kind of story. They project a fake Kiwi la-la land, using our familiar icons and lovable stereotypes, to make us feel good about ourselves. We drink it up.

Fonterra, New Zealand Pharmaceuticals and Tui have all applied for consents to dump industrial effluent into the river in the past few years. New Zealand Pharmaceuticals has just applied to discharge more heavy metal into the river, even though its own testing shows that it already exceeds permitted chromium levels.

You've got to wonder which is more of a fantasy, the Winnemem Wintu with their apologies to the salmon, or the feel-good but "yeah right" approach to our never-ending natural resources? Someone is most certainly in la-la land. And I don't think it is the people who have come halfway across the world to apologise to the fish.

- The Dominion Post


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