Shining a Light on Fragile Fisheries

South Island Southflyfisher

Hi, Michael here from Southflyfisher.

If you know me, you know I love to fly fish. Heck, I live to fly fish. For me, my favourite fly angling is chasing sighted large wild brown trout in New Zealand’s rugged South Island backcountry rivers. Last year (2020) I fished these catchments than any other year in the past decade.

Wilderness fishing means multiple tent nights cooking by headlamp, backcountry huts with candles flickering as we scan tattered fishing magazines. This time bestows our busy lives some space to throw light on the big issues that don’t win enough airtime during our daily hustle & bustle.

For me, the thoughtful pauses during these long starlit evenings and relaxed morning starts as the sun stretches out its rays across the river valley crystallise how important being out in the backcountry is for our souls, and to be thankful that I discovered fly fishing as a youngster.

40 years on from when I cast my very first pheasant tail nymph, I am incredibly fortunate to have an amazing natural fishing resource available just a short drive away. Of course, this is framed with real concerns about declining fishing quality, the environment and just how fragile all of this is.

Metaphorically speaking …

When I was growing up in provincial New Zealand, I was a keen boy scout. For campsite lighting, we had these big blue Gaz-branded gas lanterns, also some kerosene-fuelled ones. You would fit a silk fabric sack called a mantle over the jet and upon lighting, it would rapidly burn up leaving metallic salts that formed a skeletal oxide web encompassing the flame. This caused a very bright light that could been seen for a long distance. But if you damaged this extremely fragile shell encircling the central flame, the lantern would not light and was rendered inoperative.

New Zealand’s backcountry fisheries are a bit like those gas mantles. When they’re working well, they shine a bright beam out internationally – across social media platforms and media channels, radiating into our national tourism advertising, illuminating guiding businesses, drawing anglers flocking towards the light.

But they are as fragile as the gas mantle. Interfere with them, damage them, and they will disintegrate right in front of you, leaving a fishery that is incapable of living up to its promise.

The coming fishing season starts in a couple of weeks. It looks like another quieter start with very few non-resident licences expected to be issued, at least until 2022. I fish right throughout the South Island and last season I definitely noticed less angling pressure where I typically fish, compared to the past.

However this is only a temporary aberration. Not soon enough for weary local fishing guides and frustrated inbound anglers, but such is the strength of illumination on New Zealand as an ultimate wild brown trout heaven, it is expected that when the international borders do open, surely by October 2022 (this is merely a guess at this time), increased pressure will undoubtedly quickly return to our treasured backcountry fisheries. And unfortunately in this metaphor, pressure does not make diamonds.

A Spike in Resident Licences

Increasing challenges for pressure-sensitive backcountry waterways cannot be placed solely at the feet of international anglers. Last year (2020/21) New Zealand saw a boom in new resident licence sales, although less than the record 2014/15 national licence sales that peaked at around 80,000.

For Fish & Game, the country’s statutory manager of all things trout and salmon, this was welcomed with open arms. Nationally, income from fishing licences was higher than the previous year (2019/20). New sales cancelled out the gaping hole of lost non-resident licence income. Resident licence sales grew by such a degree that it absorbed the expected income loss from non-residents (around 12%) with total income up around 1.8% increase on the previous year. Good job, New Zealand residents. You financially supported your local fisheries management and governance during a critical time.

With non-resident licence sales taken out of the equation, resident licence sales were up 13.2% nationally. West Coast region, for example, achieved a staggering 35% resident growth compared with the year prior, and all other South Island regions showed an increase in resident sales also (Otago 13.1%, Southland 13.3%, Central South Island 14.1%, North Canterbury 8.6%).

It is noted that this national licence sales growth doesn’t directly flow into a proportional increase in angler pressure on our backcountry fisheries. Many of these new anglers would have targeted lowland and still waterways. But there will be some increased impact in the remote streams as well.

In the Nelson/Marlborough region, around 25% of their fishing licence income is derived from non-resident licence sales – the highest percentage in the country. Of course, with the borders closed, the region had very few non-resident licence sales, around 61 last season.

Should last year’s phenomenal growth in resident licence sales transfer into licence renewals this season – and be sustained into the 2022/23 season – this growth in riverside traffic, compounded with the pent-up demand from the wave of inbound anglers expected when our borders reopen – our rivers and particularly the backcountry fisheries will experience the greatest wave of anglers ever seen. Potentially even greater duress than ever before in our short colonial history and at a time when other factors, including greater climate impact on habitat, are converging to cast a foreboding shadow of darkness over our remote wild fisheries and over sustainable fish replacement. The mantle could easily be broken.

Limit Angler Access

New Zealand Fish & Game knows that it needs to execute broader regional strategies to protect backcountry fisheries ahead of the curve. Whatever their tools are (and it’s a very complex space), these strategies need to be implemented by 1 October 2022.

This means we only have the coming season to measure, debate, decide and implement. At least we’re not starting from Ground Zero, with a number of measures already being trialled, such as Controlled Fisheries and beats. There will be derision of change as expected, from many uneducated oafs, and from Statler and Waldorf* at the NZFFA.

Of course it is completely natural for us to expect that 100,000 anglers should be able to fish alone on kilometres of prime angling riverbank without anticipating a single one of our fellow fly fishers, or a guided party, to consider it appropriate to explore the same catchment on the same day. If this isn’t realistic, and of course I am being facetious as it is a ridiculous notion, then implementing additional access restrictions is entirely sensible.

Sure, limiting access will impact me more than many other anglers, but it’s the price we all have to pay for having these amazing fish gifted to us 100 years ago.

If you do consider sole occupancy of a wilderness New Zealand river to be a reasonable expectation, then I can only imagine that you, like me, have been availing yourself of the isolated wilderness we have been privileged to experience over the past season. You and I have maybe this current season left to treasure this isolation. I’ll try to avoid your boot prints in the river gravels, but in future, all bets are off.

We should start by a comprehensive sharing of the Fish & Game data on their Back-Country Fisheries (BCF) programme and setting of baseline data. This system of Controlled Fisheries, Ballots and Beats has good potential to be extended more widely. My one caveat is that the necessary requirement to Name more historically great high country rivers than we already have leaves me colder than a failed river crossing. Naming of known rivers should only happen when they’re shipped into intensive care and on the ventilator. Perhaps there are some first aid tools that can be applied prior.

There are a range of tactics available to Fish & Game including limiting the number of consecutive fishing days (by angler or more radically by catchment), working with NZPFGA on strategies to limit guided fishing days per month per river section (I’m particularly thinking of a few North Canterbury high country rivers here). I’d like to see them working with DoC on more designated Wilderness Areas (no tracks, trails or helicopters) and widening the zones to exclude some current landing sites.

Any controls on angler access should affect resident and non-resident anglers equally, as is fair, however I can easily see the merits in considering specific Non-Resident versus Resident licence conditions (without being xenophobic) on some popular rivers that are frequented by overseas tourists. This would allow working Kiwis to enjoy these rivers also via limited entry ballots for resident full season licence holders only for specific parts of the season.

Whatever tools the Fish and Game Council can deploy to protect the fishing quality and quality of fish in these pressure-sensitive waterways should be analysed, popularised, communicated widely and if acceptable, implemented urgently.

Alongside these vital initiatives, we need to ramp up efforts to educate on fish handling, angler etiquette, better beat processes and other systems.

We all, resident anglers and non-resident anglers, need to be working closely with our Fish & Game regional councillors to ensure we don’t stumble into October 2022 without some definitive changes to sensitive river access in play, or it might be just lights out for some of our favourite fragile fisheries.

* Statler and Waldorf are a pair of elderly Muppet characters best known on The Muppet Show for their cantankerous opinions and shared penchant for heckling. They are referenced here because of their self righteous jeering of the entirety of the cast (regardless of intent, ability or effort) and their performances from their balcony seats.

After years of destroying delicate gas mantles, Southflyfisher (@southflyfisher) got himself a decent torch and lived happily ever after.


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