Is NZ’s Trout Fishing Heading for “Paradise Lost”

--> -->
Is NZ’s Trout Fishing Heading for “Paradise Lost”
by Tony Orman


A noted American fly fisherman is warning New Zealand’s trout fishing is at a dangerously critical stage. Howard West, just turned 71, spent a trout fishing holiday in New Zealand in the early 1980s.

“I was captivated by the abundant high quality trout water, the natural beauty and the friendly people,” he recalls. “It was a fly fisher's paradise.”

But that’s all changing and too fast for his liking. Fast forward  from the 1980s to two years ago, Howard realised that he had been oblivious to the gradual decline in the fishery. He took a hard look behind the New Zealand marketing branding of clean, clear trout rivers and abundant fish and had eyes wide open.

“I was horrified to learn how deluded and blind I had been in not noticing the decline,” he says ruefully.

When not fly fishing, Howard spent over thirty years in consumer marketing for 3M, Oracle and for Medtronic, including fifteen years as Managing Director of Scientific Anglers when it was owned by 3M. First inkling to alerting him to the looming crisis was his personal encounters with the destructive impact that the rapid expansion of the dairying industry was having on his favourite Southland streams which he had fished for decades. It was slow but insidious - like a cancer - but it dawned on Howard that each year, the streams progressively took longer to clear after mere minor storms. After all it was sighting and stalking trout that he revelled in.

Howard West has been lured by New Zealand trout since 1984

“Wasting precious days waiting for the water to clear were very discouraging. But when I toted up year after year the longer periods I was waiting, I realised the symptoms of an ailing environment.” Another retrograde change was that once open-banked streams like Southland’s Hamilton burn were becoming so overgrown with willows that wielding a fly rod was near impossible except on the bigger pools. Besides warning signs of e coli bacteria being erected on his favoured streams confirmed his fears, the water quality was spiralling downwards.

“Clearly I love to fish but not at the expense of my personal health,” he reflects. “After all I’m not simply walking around these streams in knee high rubber boots. I’m in dairy contaminated water up to my waist, where contact with it is on your hands and is unavoidable.”

Ten years ago Howard West reluctantly and sadly left his Southland streams behind and moved to another section of the South Island on the West Coast, where the streams did not colour up so much after minor rain.

For the first few years everything was fine in the new environment. “Streams were rarely off-colour any freshers quickly cleared and good mayfly hatches made for top quality sight fishing in the gorgeous gravel streams,” he recalls.

Then things began to change for the worse. After the Southland ruination, Howard was more sensitive and alert to changes. His antennae were up and monitoring.

“I noticed the fly hatches grew weaker or disappeared altogether, the in-stream weed growth dramatically increased and the talk of the unknown toxic impact of 1080 poison and dirty-dairying impacts ramped up.” Bewildered and saddened, Howard asked questions to himself. What’s happening? Where is the much vaunted green and pristine New Zealand of the 1980s? Are those days gone? As the 17th century John Milton poem says, is it  “Paradise Lost”?

Howard set about analysing and delving deeper into the shadows behind the New Zealand tourist marketing curtain claiming to be “100% pure” and “clean and green.” to an avid fly fisherman, both slogans promise clean and pristine trout waters.

“I’m now finding out it goes much deeper than my personal trout fishing experiences and realisation of what’s happening to the health of rivers,” he says.

There are strong ethical challenges facing New Zealand. He cites 1080 poison and says New Zealand just the size of the state of Colorado, has over 90 percent of the world’s use of 1080 poison. “It’s scary to learn what a nasty toxin 1080 is and what a huge threat it is ecologically and to the health of freshwater ecosystems and the rivers and trout I live.”

He shakes his head in disbelief at the failure of the New Zealand government to acknowledge the disaster that 1080 is. Howard is incredulous government can disregard the facts about 1080. He sees with horror the buildup of an “industry” a parasitic one involving scientists, contractors and a government-owned  State Owned Enterprise distributing the poison. It can only be motivated by greed which puts personal gain ahead of the personal health of the people which politicians and public servants are charged with protecting.

“This may very well be my last trip to New Zealand,” he says quietly and then adds. “Perhaps I’ll give it one last shot next summer.”

Howard West’s first trip to NZ was in the early eighties and he has returned nearly two dozen times and will probably be back again next season but with fingers tightly crossed.  Howard retired at 50 so he could work less, earn more, and fish nearly all he wished and started a consulting business outside of fly fishing.  

“Unusually effective consumer marketing was always at the core of my success.  Now that trout are my consumers, I do my best to deliver what they want, but first they must remain safe and healthy.” He laughs as he declares he’s not a “crank fisherman or eco-extremist.”

“I’m simply an increasingly concerned advocate for New Zealand being the healthiest paradise it can be instead of destroying itself,” he adds.

But he’s quick to emphasise that the country could be a paradise for New Zealanders. “NZ is your paradise too but the difference for me is that I don’t have to live there, drink the poisoned water or eat the toxin contaminated food or hear the silent forests. My kids won’t be asking where the birds or insects have gone or why they can’t swim in the local streams or lakes anymore.” Howard urges New Zealanders to stand up and be counted and shrug off apathy and indifference. “Your kids say ask you or your neighbours kids will. What will they think when they learn that you are part of the reason why?”

Howard West plays a West Coast spring creek trout. He reviled in the crystal clear water, fly hatches and of course the trout.

Tony Orman