Anglers worry our world famous trout fishery is being loved to death.
Millions of YouTube viewers watch New Zealand fly fishing videos, hooked on images of our stunning scenery and famously feisty fish.
Anglers travel half way around the world to stand in pristine rivers casting artfully tied flies temptingly close to the jaws of big brown or rainbow trout.
The fishery is estimated to be worth at least $250m a year, but its popularity is raising red flags.
Lobby group Kiwi Anglers First is demanding an overhaul of freshwater fishing management to protect the recreational rights of New Zealanders and restrict visitor access.
There have been heated exchanges on riverbanks as Kiwi anglers compete with tourists, some of whom are ignorant or dismissive of local fishing etiquette.
Tourism New Zealand’s website describes heli-fishing as “a magic carpet” for anglers, but locals don’t appreciate being “jumped” on the river after walking all day to reach a favourite trout pool.
There are complaints of pushy guides aggressively demanding priority for clients paying upwards of $700 a day to experience the so-called “Mt Everest” of fly fishing.
At the other end of the spectrum “trout bums” are the fishing equivalent of feral freedom campers.
Hunkered down beside rivers for days or weeks on end, they sustain themselves by killing and eating trout instead of catching and releasing them to preserve stocks.
This tourism-related pressure comes on top of the growing number of waterways depleted by irrigation, intensive farming, and climate change.
Using surveys of fishers and data from the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA), the Federation of Fresh Water Anglers has mapped more than 100 “dying” rivers that are now deemed un-fishable, or in serious decline.
How to arrest, and if possible reverse the damage, has been hotly debated on the pages of New Zealand fishing magazines and in angling chat rooms.
Freshwater sports fisheries are managed under the Conservation Act by 12 elected Fish and Game (F&G) Councils that cover all but the Taupo fishery.
The later comes under the Department of Conservation’s wing because of the Crown’s relationship with local iwi Ngati Tuwharetoa, and DOC also manages commercial concessions allowing guides to run trips on its estate.
Critics point out there is an obvious tension between the department’s role in protecting indigenous fish, while at the same time managing introduced brown trout that are known to eat them, and earning income from angling concessions.
About 7000 of the more than 138,000 fresh water fishing licences issued last year went to overseas visitors, a number that has steadily increased since the separate non-resident category was introduced in 2013.
DOC admits the true number may be significantly higher because it does not collect residency data for the 10,000-plus day licences issued annually.
F&G uses back country licence endorsements to monitor and manage pressure on 15 back country rivers, and it also operates booking systems on popular fisheries such as Otago’s highly regarded Greenstone River.
Over the past three seasons non-resident anglers accounted for more than half the 7800 back country endorsements and snapped up 60 to 70 per cent of the 180 bookings available annually on the Greenstone.
Southland F&G manager Zane Moss notes growing resentment from Kiwis who can only fish at weekends and arrive to find the banks clogged with tourists.
“We want to manage the habitat and other aspects of the fishery, not do crowd control, which is effectively what we’re being forced into.”
Last October marked the 150th anniversary of the introduction of brown trout to New Zealand, a species that thrived in Southland’s Mataura River and is celebrated by the giant fibreglass trout in Gore’s main street.
Kiwi Anglers First convenor David Linklater says trout and salmon were brought here with the goal of creating a democratically-owned fishery belonging to all New Zealanders, in contrast to Europe where access was the preserve of privileged landowners.
His group, which was set up about 18 months ago in a bid to save the fishery, has about 150 members.
Put simply, he says intensive angling ruins the experience because harassed brown trout feed at night and sulk out of sight during the day.
“No waterway, however small or formerly obscure, is now secure from the tourist influx. There’s been no consideration for the resident anglers at all, it’s just been a free for all.”
Recreational anglers are not the only ones up in arms.
Professional fishing guide Nick King came across three young French men who had flown into a remote back country hut for a three week angling stint, complete with suitcases and tens of dozens of beer.
As well as disregarding the convention of limiting hut stays to two nights, the French party did not have hut passes or back country endorsements on their fishing licences, the latter a breach carrying a maximum fine of $5000 and potential confiscation of their gear.
“They don’t realise that our fishery is exceptionally fragile and on certain rivers, eating one trout is like eating 1 per cent of the fishery, ” says King.
“They have no idea they’re stomping all over our culture. The worst offenders are the Europeans and they’ve now been labelled Euro-trash on our rivers because they’re that badly behaved.”
Fellow guide Zane Mirfin says we are danger of “loving our rivers to death” and the guiding industry is not blameless when it comes to dwindling fish stocks.
“I call it the sparrow effect. If you chuck a piece of bread on the ground, two dozen sparrows flock in and peck it to bits; that’s what happens to the rivers.
“As soon as one guide catches a few fish somewhere, all these other guides descend on it.”
He is disgusted at the ethics of guided convoys that deposit anglers the length of a river and return day after day.
“They don’t think of the consequences of their actions, the harm they are doing to the resource.”
Outing fishing IP
Anglers are notoriously secretive about their favourite fishing places, but that intellectual property is increasingly difficult to protect.
Google has become the ultimate guide and use of drones to scout a river for the presence of other anglers is not unheard of.
Fishing and hunting writer Peter Ryan has good reason for his policy of never naming angling spots in his columns and books.
“The moment a location appears on a chat room in Pennsylvania or Sweden, it’s toast for five years.”
A tech-savvy angler on the other side of the globe can use a proud “look what I just caught” photo on Facebook to find out where it was taken.
Fishing guide Mike Kirkpatrick, also a talented photographer, says smart anglers posting cell phone photos online turn off their meta data so GPS coordinates are not recorded.
He also avoids fishing shots with distinctive geographic features in the background so overseas anglers can’t use Google Earth to pin point the area.
Are we selling our fishery up the river?
Under the Conservation Act it is illegal to sell trout, but their commercial exploitation occurs through sales of fishing gear and DVDs, professional guiding and fishing lodge accommodation.
The fly fishing films and videos made by Te Anau-based Gin Clear Media get millions of views on YouTube. Each year its RISE Fly Fishing Film Festival screenings attract 15,000 movie-goers in 16 countries.
Founder Nick Reygaert realises that in encouraging overseas anglers to come here, he is in a sense part of the problem.
But he is also frustrated that Tourism New Zealand (TNZ) and central and local government fail to recognise the value of the trout fishery.
He says they aren’t doing enough to protect it by helping fund F&G which survives solely on sales of fish and game-bird hunting licences.
“They absolutely have their heads in the sand.”
TNZ could not put a value on earnings generated by fly fishing but in 2011 DOC estimated the Taupo fishery alone was worth about $70m annually, and F&G says the total for the country is probably at least $250m.
Despite its official newzealand.com website carrying more than 40 articles on angling, a TNZ spokesman says they stopped “actively” promoting fly fishing several years ago, instead targeting “high net worth individuals” who stay in lodges.
Carl McNeil co-owns the Swift Fly Fishing Company in Wanaka, a boutique producer of handcrafted fly rods, and he says the big spending anglers are mostly Americans, with a growing number of Russians, and a sprinkling of Aussies.
“A gentleman who comes and purchase our rods paid his helicopter bill for flying around last season and it was $70,000 alone.”
Montana-based Yellow Dog Fly Fishing Adventures sends thousands of anglers around the world and programme director Bessie Hudgens says New Zealand is on their “bucket list” once they’ve cut their teeth on less challenging South American rivers.
Although she won’t reveal numbers, since adding New Zealand to itineraries in 2015, bookings here have grown significantly and her clients find our rivers refreshingly uncrowded.
“Honestly, compared to some of our rivers out in the western US where a single boat ramp can see up to 50-plus groups on a hot summer day, New Zealand feels truly primeval to most anglers.”
However, she acknowledges our rivers also contain far fewer fish per kilometre, so it doesn’t take as many anglers to create pressure, and the fisheries therefore require a more sensitive approach.
American civil engineer and keen angler Chris Russell has made four guided trips here over eight years, the most recent in January.
He says the biggest change is the absence of Kiwi anglers on back country rivers, which appear to have been largely taken over by tourists.
Russell still reckons New Zealand offers the best trout fishing on the planet, but he warns we need to be proactive in protecting our fishery as it gets more crowded.
“I think the fishing outdoor culture is slowly being lost because the unguided foreign anglers are unaware of the unspoken etiquette that maintains the experience for everyone.”
Those DIY anglers are a real concern, particularly the so-called trout bums living on riverbanks and fishing intensively for long periods.
Kirkpatrick says dairying has done way more damage than overseas visitors, but that budget-style tourism is unsustainable.
“We’d rather we have one person coming spending $10,000 than 10 trout bums coming spending $1000 each. It’s earning the same amount for the country but has 10 times the footprint.”
Fixing our fishery
Having researched Canadian attempts to resuscitate threatened trout fisheries, King’s solution is to call time on unfettered access for foreigners and commercial interests.
He is promoting a plan that would see F&G classifying at-risk rivers.
Options could include residents-only fishing at weekends, guides banned from some stretches of water, and tourists allowed into certain areas only if they were guided.
F&G charges non-residents $165 for a full season adult licence ($38 more than for residents) but King says that’s not nearly enough.
He suggests visitor licences be limited to three weeks on a catch and release basis, and a premium charge $1500 for wider access in line with what occurs in parts of North America.
“This is about the long game, if we want to have something to be proud of in 50 years time, we need to make a move now and it has to be dramatic.”
Enforcement is important too and King says in Alaska the French trio he came across would have been hauled off to jail in handcuffs.
“With a Fish & Game fine, once they leave the country, that’s the end of it and they know that.
“Us New Zealanders are too soft … the social media chain goes back [saying] they never do anything, they’re pathetic.”
F&G does not have a central database and when Stuff/ asked for statistics on fishing offences it took weeks to pull together figures held by its regions.
Of 149 offences detected last season, 29 were prosecuted, and a spokesman emphasised that warnings were given for minor infringements and court action was reserved for serious offences.
King shrugs off suggestions he is xenophobic and his ideas have won support from angling groups.
“The rot is now very far advanced,” according to Linklater. “We need a totally new system to control tourist angling because it’s just completely broken.”
He says DOC and F&G have failed to handle the increasing commercialisation of the fishery through an explosion in guiding and tourism, and change is imperative.
So how would visitors feel about being hit up with higher licence fees and angling limits?
Sydney-sider Simon Milne has fished here regularly for 25 years and in a letter to Fish & Game New Zealand magazine he urged against going down the protectionist route and pointed out bad behaviour was by no means peculiar to foreign anglers.
“Treating [them] as pests at the bottom of the totem pole and discriminating against them in a range of ways as proposed will put them off coming. Strict, fair and well enforced regulation will not.”
Chris Russell, on the other hand, would happily pay three or four times the current licence fee, which he says worked out to be a small percentage of the total trip cost.
The gamekeepers’ view
New Fish & Game chief executive Martin Taylor agrees the trout fishery is in a fragile state, and because of the degradation of water quality throughout the country, some anglers had to travel further to get the same experience they enjoyed a decade ago.
He is satisfied with the service provided by the organisation’s 274 mostly volunteer rangers, and while he does not favour increasing licence fees for overseas visitors or limiting their fishing, that could change.
“If the evidence is there that something needs to be done, then Fish & Game will do it.
“We have public access to great areas and that’s something we should cherish and maintain.
“Countries like Canada and North America have private property rights that would make your hair stand on end.
“People can come in and buy whole rivers and whole stretches of rivers and we’re lucky that’s not the case here.”
President of the Federation of Freshwater Anglers Graham Carter begs to differ.
He says access is being limited as more property owners charge fees for fishing parties wanting to cross their land, do exclusive deals with guides, or halt access altogether.
In his view F&G lacks political clout and the current structure is too fragmented with 12 autonomous regions reporting separately to the Minister of Conservation.
Like F&G, DOC recreation manager Richard Davies is taking a wait and see approach,
He concedes that Kiwis accustomed to having remote areas to themselves are noticing increased use of conservation land by both New Zealanders and internationals.
“The extent to which is this a big problem, versus just being a change is where the jury is out.”
King and angling groups have a beef with the fact that the 130 members of the New Zealand Professional Fishing Guides Association (PFGA) automatically come under a single DOC concession.
On the grounds it was commercially sensitive, DOC refused to reveal what the association paid for the bulk concession that covers up to 180 guides, and allows them to run trips for three days per river catchment at hundreds of locations nationwide.
King, who is not an association member and holds his own individual concessions, says the bulk agreement is like “letting the weasel run the hen house,” and argues that other tourism operators, such as helicopter companies, do not enjoy such wide access to the conservation estate.
PFGA president Serge Bonnafoux defends the agreement and says guide payments are based on their use of DOC land.
But one point members of the angling community do agree on is the need for compulsory licensing of fishing guides.
The guides’ association conservatively estimates up to 400 guides are working here, including overseas operators who quietly nip into the country and work illegally without appropriate visas or DOC concessions.
Over the last two years DOC has received just four formal complaints about illegal fishing guides but there wasn’t sufficient information to take further action.
In January Immigration New Zealand refused entry to an individual who had previously worked illegally as a fishing guide, but has not taken any prosecutions.
Bonnafoux says some overseas guides skirt the rules by pretending to be members of fishing parties, which is unfair on Kiwi guides who have to pay tax and meet certain standards.
Association members must be New Zealand residents, have a current first aid certificate, an audited health and safety plan, and public liability insurance.
They carry an emergency locator beacon and take a maximum of two clients per guide to avoid losing them in the wilderness (as has happened in the past).
New Zealand’s weather and geography can prove challenging for those unfamiliar with it, and lack of knowledge about local fishing conditions can also damage our reputation if clients return home dissatisfied.
Angler Peter Ryan recalls an approach from an overseas guide whose client hadn’t touched a fish all day, despite being festooned with $5000 worth of American fishing gear.
“This guy was having trouble with the wind, they were tricky conditions. He saw me catch a fish and basically marched up and said ‘how did you do that?'”
Former Conservation Minister Maggie Barry turned down a joint F&G and guides’ association request for a compulsory licensing regime because it failed to make a good enough case.
They were given 15 months to come up with an amended proposal and when it is ready DOC will advise new Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage on its merits.
Carter for one hopes DOC acts quickly. “They say they’re going to do something and it takes years – it’s like trying to push a kilo of butter up hill with a hot knife.”