The paragraph below appeared in my email inbox recently, advertising a fishing film festival.
“Gin-Clear Media’s Backcountry: South Island is the feature film of the festival. The South Island [of New Zealand] has vast tracts of some of the most intact, undisturbed natural areas left on our planet—these last truly wild places deliver beauty and isolation in spades but it is the allure of giant trout in crystal clear water that draws anglers from around the globe to this treasured land.”
What struck me the first time I read this were the words ‘intact’, ‘undisturbed’, ‘natural’ and ‘wild’. New Zealand’s south island back country is all of these things. It is steep, remote, rocky, isolated and free from the influences of man and development. Except that giant trout are not ‘natural’ or ‘wild’ in these landscapes. They have been added. And only very recently. And since that time the delicate balance of these river ecosystems has been greatly ‘disturbed’.
In a continent that split off from its nearest neighbour 85 million years ago, New Zealand has been slowly evolving its own unique species of trees, shrubs and grasses. In the absence of any land-based predators, many of the birds lost the need to fly and started walking. The fish started to change too. Because New Zealand is steep and there are so many waterfalls along the rivers, some of the freshwater fish developed the ability to ‘climb’ up rocks. All of these are amazingly cool traits. And even after all this time New Zealand still only has a tiny number of native fish, less than 40. By comparison Australia has 280.
The flip side is that a lot of these cool fish are in big trouble. In particular the non-migratory smaller fish (Galaxias). The huge trout NZ is famous for need to eat a lot to grow to this size and maintain condition. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that any small fish that strays too close to a trout lie will quickly become the next meal. Watch a big trout burst out from behind a mid-stream rock and you quickly appreciate that they are superb hunting machines. Similar to Australia, trout are only part of the story behind the decline of native fish. Land clearing, sedimentation, dam walls and water extraction all play a part. But the back country of the south island has virtually none of these things (neither do many of the alpine and sub-alpine streams in Australia). It is still natural, intact and wild. And yet research like this tells us that pretty much anywhere trout grow bigger than 15cm, the native fish disappear.
Now the purpose of this post is not to start a ‘kill all the bad trout’ campaign. I’ve been to New Zealand and hiked up into the back country and caught some magnificent trout. Five rainbows of 4 to 5 pounds each in one day is something that I will remember for a long time. So is the moment when one those trout was plucked off the bank as I landed it (no net) by a long-finned eel that must have been six foot long. You can read the full post here if you wish. Trout and salmon have been breeding freely in New Zealand since their introduction in the 1800’s. To try to ‘get rid of them’ would be a hugely expensive and time consuming task – not to mention, unpopular.
No, the purpose of this post is to make us anglers think about what we are talking about when we describe ‘wild’, ‘natural’ and ‘undisturbed’ places. To me these are the places where the trees, shrubs and grasses are the same ones that have been there for millions of years. The insects, frogs and birds are the ones that evolved to feed and breed in the vegetation. A natural and intact place is one where the fish, whether they be a species of Perch, Cod, Trout or Salmon, have been eating those insects, frogs and smaller fish in balance forever. As the influence of man spreads across the world, these places are exceedingly rare. The paradox is that many of the last truly natural places are under threat due to the historical and ongoing practice of introducing just a handful of different fish, particularly trout and salmon. In my mind, that is a little disturbed. What do you think …
For the record, I have nothing against Gin Clear Media, they produce and show some truly spectacular fishing films and place an enormous emphasis on enjoying and protecting our waterways. I’ve been to the RISE film festival the last two or three years and will probably go again this year. Screening times and trailers can be found here. Although to be honest, I find the anglers and film maker’s incredible passion for both the conservation of natural rivers AND introduced fish species perplexing … even paradoxical.