When progress clashes with the environment

21:34, Dec 01 2013
toy run
GOOD CATCH: A snapper caught by rod within sight of Nelson Cityon Monday.

In a modern media world we are constantly bombarded with environmental messages.

Last Friday's Nelson Mail was a real extravaganza of all things environmental, although as a fisherman, of most personal interest to me was the front page news of a large fish kill in the lower Maitai River from a suspected chemical spill.

Now a week later, the answer may not be so clear cut and the small ocean-going pilchards may well have died from freshwater shock, perhaps driven inshore and upriver by the recent kahawai frenzy in Nelson Haven.

Whatever the reason it's pretty much academic to local trout anglers because the Maitai River has been the equivalent of what seems like a fishless wasteland for more years than I care to count.

As a schoolboy, I stalked the riverbanks of the Maitai with friends and our fly rods, learning our craft as anglers. They were halcyon days and the river was flush with trout that were willing targets for boyhood anglers.

The density of trout was something to be marvelled at still, and one of my boyhood heroes, and later fishing guiding mentors, the late Ron Mackay, even used to fish the Maitai River in his work lunch hour. On one legendary session he even caught 47 trout in a single lunch break, although one suspects that his Nelson City employer was probably not watching the clock too closely.


The Maitai River holds a place in the history of New Zealand trout fishing as was one of the first rivers to be stocked with brown trout and opened as a sport fishery within New Zealand.

In W C R Sowman's classic book Meadow, Mountain, Forest and Stream - The Provincial History of the Nelson Acclimatisation Society 1863-1968 the Maitai River features prominently. In 1867, Oswald Curtis, superintendent of the province, gave the Nelson Acclimatisation Society permission to build a fish hatchery on the current site of what we now know as Queen's Gardens to hatch Tasmanian brown trout ova. It was a fabulous success story and with the Maitai River only metres away it was a foregone conclusion where the first trout release was going to be.

In the Examiner newspaper of May 24, 1870, it was reported: "The growth of trout in the Maitai is extraordinary. On Saturday last, a splendid fish, fully eighteen inches in length and estimated to weight upwards of two pounds, was seen in one of the holes of the river, a little above the Nile St bridge, and attracted quite a concourse of people.

"As the spawn from which this trout was raised was bought from Tasmania less than two years ago, the size of this and other fish which have been seen in the river is highly satisfactory, as showing the suitability of our streams for trout, and promise of sport given the angler in a very few years."

Boy, have things changed since then. The 20th century was the golden age of the New Zealand lowland trout fishery, with quality fish stocks, improved equipment, increasing prosperity, better roading, transport, access, technology, and information opening up the fly fishing world.

However in recent decades, the vigorous economic growth, development, and opportunities which allowed us to enjoy our fishing more have also come back to bite us with declining environmental quality, and in extreme examples, eco-system damage and lowland fishery failure.

Alas, the Maitai fishery unravelled over time and while there are still some trout, it would take an extreme optimist to suggest that the fishery is even a mere shadow of what it was prior to the building of the Maitai Dam.

No-one can blame the Nelson City Council because it needed water for the people of Nelson but the decline of the Maitai fishery was a major loss to the junior anglers of the province as a safe training ground with numerous and willing trout. Fast forward to 2013, and the Nelson Trout Fishing Club of which I'm a member has no junior members any more.

Interest in the sport is waning as it all becomes too hard and the lowland trout fishing resources of Nelson, Tasman, and Marlborough arguably continue to slide year by year.

Some innovative club members have even formed a trust and developed a fish-out pond alongside the Waimea River which is periodically stocked with hatchery-raised rainbow trout for supervised fishing instruction with youth and children. It's been a great success, which I salute, but it's still a sad day when local rivers aren't good enough to teach youngsters how to fish for trout any more.

It's a familiar story throughout New Zealand and around the world and I'm sounding like Dr Seuss's character, the Lorax, by describing the tragedy of the public commons where competing economic forces degrade water resources, and fisheries that are important to us all.

One of my own personal highlights this year was meeting Nicole Foss, an international sustainability expert (theautomaticearth.com). Nicole's presentation was chilling and fascinating, all at the same time, and she painted a picture of the world we now live in as being created by a turbocharged cocktail of cheap energy and unlimited credit, the likes of which the world has never seen.

Nicole predicts this clash of economy versus environment will lead to severe global hardship in the years ahead. We can always learn from history too and I've just finished reading the book Collapse - How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond.

It's an amazing history lesson of how environmental collapse has happened many times before in ancient civilisations and modern societies with recurring themes of deforestation, pollution, water degradation, soil erosion, salination, and climate change to name just a few. It's a highly educational view of the future that should be compulsory reading for all members of Parliament, and especially government ministers.

Back to fishing, though, and there's always hope. At a recent Trout Fishing Club meeting guest speakers Rasmus Gabrielsson and Rob Holmes of Nelson's Cawthron Institute described their new scientific model to predict New Zealand stream health and productivity.

It was an exciting presentation explaining the development of a simple numbering system that dumbies and decision-makers alike can understand.

Unfortunately Rasmus did point out that some streams around New Zealand will probably never come back from the brink as the cycle of nutrients like nitrates can take many decades, if at all, to purge from the environment.

Not all our fisheries are tipping over and our current Tasman Bay snapper stocks are probably the best they have been in 30 plus years through good management after commercial exploitation caused a catastrophic collapse in the 1980s.

Out fishing on Monday with brother Scott, and Gary Rae of Incite - Resource and Environmental Management Consultancy, we enjoyed very modest success but at least the fish are out there in the ocean now. We even got a big surprise with a groper caught in 30 metres of water over a mud/sand bottom within sight of Nelson City which was a highly unusual but most welcome bycatch bonus.

I just hope we can get our act together on fisheries and water management so our kids and grandkids can enjoy the thrill of a fish struggling on their line too. We're all in this together and we'll need to work constructively with others, whether as individuals, families, communities, organisations, industries, businesses, bureaucrats and politicians.

At a recent Fish & Game Council barbecue, chairman Owen Baigent read out a story that goes some way to explain the current environmental malaise we now find ourselves in: "This is a story about four people - Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody.

There was an important job to be done and Everybody was asked to do it. Everybody was sure Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about that because it was Everybody's job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realised that Everybody wouldn't do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when actually Nobody asked Anybody."