Published On: Tue, Oct 8th, 2019

Canterbury Low-Land Trout Fishery Pollution – Not All Doom and Gloom 

Canterbury Low-Land Trout Fishery Pollution – Not All Doom and Gloom 

According to John Kent, as they say in Texas, the locals refer to their water as, “too thick to pour and too thin to plough?”

Canterbury Low-Land Trout. Cattle polluting a waterway is not something you see very often nowadays. A big improvement over the past 20 years.

Cattle polluting a waterway is not something you see very often nowadays. A big improvement over the past 20 years.

Many Canterbury anglers will find this piece about the state of our Canterbury low-land trout fishery interesting. It is sort of coming to you third-hand in that it was first published in my old Southern Fishing & Boating magazine back in March 2001, in a regular column penned by Wayne McCallum, who was then the North Canterbury Fish and Game Council’s Environment Officer. Wayne, in turn, had taken the opportunity to pass on a submission given to Environment Canterbury in February 2001 by well-known trout author and environmental advocate, John Kent. Wayne McCallum wrote at the time, “In his submission, John neatly summarised the crisis facing Canterbury’s waterways. I thought his submission deserved a wider audience, so an edited version is presented here.”

Now back to 2019, I (Allan Burgess) ask these questions; has much changed with the Canterbury Low-Land Trout Fishery? Have we seen any appreciable improvement?

The answer depends to a fair extent on who you ask. Judging by the winter closures of the Eastern Region trout fishery in Canterbury over recent years, and the steady reduction of bag-limits to protect what’s left of the fishery, one would assume that the decline has continued unabated. I’m sure that public awareness of issues like poor water quality and over-abstraction from our rivers for farming is better understood by more people today than was the case 20 years ago. Intense dairy farming in Canterbury has been blamed for much of it. I want to take this opportunity to point out that many dairy farmers have gone to great lengths and considerable expense to contain waste from their cows within the bounds of their properties, as they must.    

The Deterioration of Canterbury Rivers – submission to Environment Canterbury by John Kent 2001

South Island Trout Fishing Guide by John Kent 2009 edition

South Island Trout Fishing Guide by John Kent 2009 edition. In my opinion, this book, and the North Island version are the most comprehensive trout fishing guides ever published in New Zealand. 

I am a retired general I practitioner with a life-long interest in the environment and trout fishing in particular. I joined the Canterbury Anglers’ Club in 1950 and have held a trout fishing licence for 52 years. I have lived 30 years in the North Island and 35 years in the South Island. I am an author of several trout fishing books, including the North and South Island Trout Fishing Guides.

In my research travels for my guidebooks, I have visited or fished 700 streams and rivers and 150 lakes in New Zealand. There are very few places in New Zealand that I haven’t visited or fished. The problem I would like to discuss is the deterioration of Canterbury’s low country trout fishery. As councillors in Environment Canterbury, I know you are greatly concerned with environmental issues. I have immense respect for the hard work you do. However, right, at this moment at a time of remarkable change and development, you have an incredible responsibility to make the right choices. There is a real crisis concerning water use and pollution.

In travelling overseas since 1968, I have looked at polluted streams and rivers in the USA, Great Britain and Europe and been proud that we in New Zealand promote a clean, green philosophy. But as an angler with over 50 years experience, I have seen the gradual demise of our low country streams and rivers throughout all New Zealand to the point where many have been irretrievably damaged. Find me a stream to fish in the Waikato that is not polluted or silt-laden unless of course, it flows through the native bush!

Now in Canterbury, traditional dry-land farming is rapidly being replaced by intensive dairying, requiring irrigation and many tones of soluble fertilisers. Marginal strips along waterways have not been protected, the stock is even today not kept out of streams and one cow urinating and defecating is equivalent to five people performing the same function. Very little has been done to protect the vulnerable spring creeks and headwater spawning tributaries. The Waimakariri, Rakaia and Rangitata rivers are regularly flushed clean by mountain rains and snowmelt. Not so the vulnerable low land spring creeks and streams that provide so much pleasure for local anglers.

Many of these waterways have already suffered serious degradation but because few people know about them or are not immediately affected, little has been publicised. As the decline is both innocuous and incremental, the problem as yet has not become a political issue. There are 14,000 full season anglers in the North Canterbury Fish and Game Council region and this doesn’t include the kids. Rather than create a fuss, most anglers now don’t bother to fish Canterbury’s low country streams but drive into the high country or cross to the West Coast to fish. How sad.

I would like to offer just a few examples of stream deterioration based on personal experience.

1. In less than 30 years, the once-famous Selwyn River fishery has been reduced to a polluted trickle. R K Bragg in his classical book New Zealand Fishing Flies devotes a whole chapter to Canterbury Lures so much were they in demand during the 1950s. Twenty-nine are displayed in colour and all were designed by local anglers for the Selwyn River. These lures have virtually disappeared, as have most of the Selwyn anglers. The yearly trout-spawning run is now less than 300 trout as compared to 40000 in the 1950s.

2. Harts Creek has intermittently run silt-laden for the past four years due to stock entering the upper reaches. The deterioration even over the past five years has been catastrophic. Weed beds have been destroyed.

Fast forward to 2015. Harts Creek is a great success story of what can be done by those committed to making a difference. Check out this video – Allan Burgess. 

A short video from Waihora Ellesmere Trust, celebrating the work of the Harts Creek and Birdlings Brook Streamcare Group and their success at cleaning the waterway which flows into Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere. Thanks to WWF and ECan for supporting the making of this video.

3. Lakes Ellesmere and Forsyth are full of phosphates and nitrates from farm run-off and both fisheries are now eutrophic in summer and are a shadow of their former self. Ellesmere is now so dirty that even the sun cannot penetrate the water.

4. The Irwell River ran dry in the 1998 drought, in part due to the drought but also due to water abstraction especially from the aquifers supplying it’s spring-fed source. Trout have yet to return to the middle and upper reaches. Patti, my partner, and I had great pleasure three years ago in boasting about this wonderful spring creek so close to Christchurch that we entertained Mel Kreiger a world-famous American angler by taking him to the Irwell.

Here is an article written by Charlie Mitchell about the state of the Irwell River. It first appeared on Stuff.co.nz on 30 April 2017. That is 16 years after John Kent wrote this submission to Environment Canterbury. Obviously, things hadn’t improved much at that stage. Take a look at the photographs and you’ll know what we are talking about: Once a world-class Canterbury fishery now rivers of green.

5. The once very popular dry fly stream, the Ohapi out of Temuka is now permanently silt-laden and the weed beds destroyed. Nobody knows whether any trout exist because they cannot be seen. A drainage contractor I met on the stream four years ago confided in me and told me personally about the deer farmers responsible.

As already mentioned, most of these are small low country streams that seldom flood and flush. Once polluted they are extremely difficult to restore. It is a long, expensive and difficult task to be retro-active in restoring waterways such as these. It is far more important to be proactive and protect these streams long before irretrievable damage has been done.

However, Canterbury is not alone in ruining its waterways. I can give many examples in the North Island especially from intensive dairy farming areas where the rivers and streams are heavily polluted and silt-laden. This is not just a Canterbury problem but in my opinion, we are now faced with a very real crisis
in this province. Unless measures are taken to keep stock out of waterways, retain marginal strips to soak up fertiliser run-off, cow shit and leachate from silage stacks and carefully monitor water abstraction both from streams and aquifers we will rapidly follow the Waikato and Taranaki scenario. We will have no recreational trout fishing in low land Canterbury or North Otago.

The streams that run through a farmer’s land are not his or hers; they are public property. If poor land-use practises have damaged those streams, putting some sub-species at risk, repair of the damage is the responsibility of those who caused it; not the taxpayer. It is really a question of philosophy.

Is destroying the environment of Canterbury a reasonable sacrifice to make in order to increase farm production and profits? New Zealand has been promoting its clean, green image overseas but one doesn’t need to look very far to realise that this is also a sick joke considering many of our small streams are now a cesspit. Doesn’t destroying our beautiful streams and spring creeks count towards our clean green philosophy?

Other recent proposals by developers are to dam the Rangitata and Hurunui rivers and lower Lake Coleridge by 9m. In the USA the Core of Engineers has been busily engaged in many states dismantling dams in order to attempt to restore salmon and trout fisheries. The cost of doing this restoration work is prohibitive for a small country like New Zealand. We simply do not have the resources to restore small streams and rivers. How does $30,000 per kilometre of stream sound? That is what it costs in the

USA! Once destroyed, they have gone forever. Thank God much of our high country is still clothed in native bush. What about our incredible worldwide reputation as the best country in the world to visit for trout fishing? How long will this last? Doesn’t eco-tourism count or will our waterways end up like those in Europe and many parts of the USA. In Texas, the locals refer to their water as being too thick to pour and too thin to plough? We are not too far away from that right now!

Now that my grandchildren are growing up where will I take them fishing? Maybe I’ll just explain that the decision-makers, planners, land developers and farmers ruined the Canterbury streams simply to pursue the almighty dollar. Perhaps another trip to the West Coast before the dairy farmers over there ruin their rivers! Maybe our grandchildren should just sit in front of the television and watch fishing programmes rather than go fishing!

All this seems a bit like doom and gloom but unless I felt there was a glimmer of hope, I would not be wasting my time today in addressing this council. The problem is much too large for cash-strapped fish and game councils. Much will depend on the decision-making and philosophy of Environment Canterbury.

To me, conservation means wise use. I am not anti-development unless the environment is sacrificed in the process. It is vitally important for this council to first recognise that there is a serious crisis. Then the council must move quickly in using both statutory and non-statutory powers to protect the headwaters and waterways under its jurisdiction and follow up with regular measures to enforce these statutes.

Changes in land use and water conservation and control must be more carefully monitored. What an exciting challenge in the near future for this council. What an opportunity to show other councils that Environment Canterbury really does care about the environment! In the very near future, I sincerely hope this council makes those wise decisions necessary to protect and restore our streams and spring creeks on the Canterbury Plains before they are lost forever to future generations.

Well done John! I couldn’t have stated the issues better. The more anglers who bring their concerns to the attention of Environment Canterbury, the more likely they are to act positively in their interest. Deep rivers, clear streams. Wayne McCallum 2001.

About the Author

- Fishingmag.co.nz website editor.