New Zealand needs to do more to protect its freshwater fish - Mike Joy

10 Feb 2015 by The Million Metres team Northland

In case you missed it in a recent article in The Dominion Post and Southland Times, here's Million Metres Streams Project contributor Mike Joy's article about our freshwater biodiversity.

″Over the last few years I have had the pleasure of hosting a number of overseas scientists as part of my position at Massey University.  There is a downside though, in that despite many recurrences I still dread the inevitable embarrassing explanations I have to give describing New Zealand’s numerous failures when it comes to protecting our unique environment and its biodiversity.  They come to study our biodiversity and its management so I cannot hide the facts.

The difficulties begin when I relate that we have the highest proportion of threatened plant and animal species globally, and included in this statistic we have almost certainly the highest proportion of threatened and declining freshwater fish species. 

Not surprisingly they are stunned at this admission and typically their response is to question how this could happen given our world famous environmental legislation: the Resource Management Act (RMA).  ‘Surely in ‘clean-green New Zealand’ there is strong protection for your unique biodiversity, especially native fish?’ 

I then have to explain that no, on the contrary, the RMA has largely been compromised, our freshwater environmental protection weakened over the last few years and our native fish have no formal legal protection, while absurdly introduced game fish species (many of which impact on native fish biodiversity), have complete protection. 

My next cringe is when I describe our Freshwater Fisheries Legislation enacted in 1983.  Like something from a Monty Python script the first paragraph gives total protection to just one of the native fish species: the grayling, but there is a small problem it went extinct in the 1930s. 

The next paragraph of the act continues the Pythonesque theme giving complete protection to the rest of New Zealand’s native fish with one massive exception: if the fish are taken for ‘human consumption’ or for ‘scientific purposes’ then there is no protection.  So in reality there is no practical, legal, or functional safeguard at all for our native fish. 

A typical stunned response from visitors is an incredulous “So you mean to say in 1983 you passed a law to protect a fish that went extinct fifty years earlier, but gave no protection to the rest of the not yet extinct native species, and then to top it off you gave total protection to introduced game fish species?” 

I have to sheepishly admit that all that is true, but that it gets worse, not only do we not protect in law or practice our native and mostly endemic threatened freshwater fish species, we actually commercially and recreationally harvest some of them! 

I explain that annually hundreds of tonnes of our endemic and threatened longfin eels are harvested and exported. In addition, a favourite New Zealand pastime is ‘white-baiting’ - the recreational and commercial catch of an unmeasured annual tonnage of the juveniles of five species of native fish.  Four of the five whitebait species are listed as threatened. 

All these threatened native fish species are sold in supermarkets, restaurants and online (viaTrademe), and for the whitebait there is no assessment or limit on the amount caught.  Whereas, it is illegal to buy or sell introduced trout and this restriction is strictly policed.  

Deluded by the ‘clean-green’ image of New Zealand, the visitors came to learn from us in the hope of taking something home to change things for the better in their country, but instead find that environmental and biodiversity protection is a sham. 

Understandably, they are saddened and frustrated that we didn’t learn from their mistakes.  Almost to a person they tell me that we should be leading the world in biodiversity protection and sustainable food production with our small size, geographic position and beautiful environment. 

I have to completely agree and voice my disgust at the way our political leaders have capitulated to environmental exploiters in the naïve belief in the short-term economic gains claimed from allowing environmental degradation from extractive industries. 

The reality is that the once real ‘clean-green’ image is becoming more of a deception every day with the out of control agricultural intensification and weakening of environmental protection.  Our number one priority should be making sure it is true and honest, not a parody like our freshwater fish legislation.  Our ‘clean-green’ image underpins our economic and ecological future and once it’s gone, you don’t get it back."

This article first appeared in The Dominion Post on 10 February.