Peeling Back the Skin on the South Island: Fishery at a Crossroads
Friday, April 29, 2016
New Zealanders have some tough decisions to make if they want to retain their world-class trout fishery.
As drought, dams, and intensive dairy farming take their toll on the frontcountry streams and rivers, more and more anglers are being pushed into the mountainous backcountry, placing unprecedented pressure on those fragile watersheds. It's a formula - if left unchecked - for disaster.
Even as I write this the Kiwi government is taking the unprecedented step of closing dozens of prime South Island trout streams to try and salvage the fisheries. But well-intended or not, that's a Band-Aid: the chief culprit is simple overpopulation. To wit: there are more than five million dairy cows in New Zealand, which amounts to a cow-and-a-bit for each of the country's four-million inhabitants. Those cows produce four times the amount of milk consumed by New Zealanders, so the excess is exported - mainly to Asia in powdered form. Last year, China alone imported almost one billion pounds of powdered milk from New Zealand.
So what, you ask, does that have to do with fishing? Well, lots ... Each of those cows - not to mention the country's 30 million sheep - consume huge amounts of water and feed each day. Water is siphoned from freshwater sources throughout the farmland, and to ensure steady supplies dams are popping up with more proposed yearly. Rivers I fished for trophy brown trout just three years ago are now dry, their streambeds churned by ATV tires in place of spawning fish. Most biologists think they'll never come back, even if the water does.
I'm not begrudging New Zealanders' right to a healthy economy and strong international trade. Heck, here in North America we fly-fishers face our own economic bugbears: oil and gas development; mining; logging; hydroelectric power generation; and, yes, farming and its related consequences. We face our own tough decisions. But as with many tough decisions - tough choices - the answer lies with compromise. Sometimes a project is best left unbuilt (Alaska's Pebble Mine). Sometimes it's inevitable if we're to maintain a reasonable standard of living and safety (Alberta's Oldman Dam).
Unfortunately, as the fishing diminishes over much of the South Island's foothills and plains, the pressure on the backcountry is increasing proportionately. People paying thousands of dollars for that 'trip of a lifetime' still expect to catch big trout, and the fact is that most of the trophy trout are on the "tops." I spoke with several guides there who bemoaned the number of helicopters setting down on alpine meadows, and based on my experience I've never seen so many boot-prints in the riverside sand.
Many of the locals I met in the course of my travels this year are downright resentful of international fly-fishers. In one rural pup I was brusquely told: "Why don't you go fish for rainbows in the North Island lakes? We don't need any more pressure around here."
Well, I have good news for him: after many enjoyable years of fishing in New Zealand, I don't intend to return. I won't say 'never,' because that's a foolish thing to say, but I will say that the South Island has run its course. Part of it is the deteriorating fishery there, to be sure, but it's a lot more than that: I want to branch out and explore new (to me) trout fisheries in other parts of the world. Maybe try kayak fishing on B.C.'s Sunshine Coast. Maybe have nothing to do with fishing whatsoever, during that winter hiatus.
Dave's talking about a Gould's turkey hunt next spring - an intriguing prospect ... Maybe some Mearn's quail on the side. In the meantime, I want to thank all the friends, acquaintances, and businesses that reached out and helped me fall in love with New Zealand. A few really big fish, too; I hope your future is secure, and that those clear pools you call home somehow escape this mad dash some call progress.
As always, for the best that Canadian Rockies' fly-fishing has to offer, book your next trip with Dave Brown Outfitters. Our season is filling up fast so we suggest moving quickly!