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Fish & Game's determined involvement in Resource Management Act (RMA) processes is where this reputation was most likely earned. The organisation has long been a vocal proponent of environmental protection, particularly in the setting of minimum flows on rivers, arguing for improvements in water quality or seeking better public access to waterways.
From time to time Fish & Game catches flak, accused of getting in the way of economic growth and its strong advocacy is sometimes interpreted as anti-farming. In reality, it's simply pro rivers, lakes and wetlands as habitats for fish and wildlife and as recreational areas. Land-use impacts, regardless of whether they are urban or rural, pose the biggest threats to freshwater ecosystems and everyone should be concerned about them.
To label Fish & Game as anti-farming, or anti anything else for that matter, entirely misses the point. Fish & Game is a statutory entity with functions and powers established by Parliament under the Conservation Act to manage, maintain and enhance sports fish and game birds, and their habitats.
Regional councils are charged with managing the natural and physical resources of a region and are generally responsible for making decisions about discharges of contaminants to land, air or water and Fish & Game is tasked with participating in these decision-making processes. It does so as a not-for-profit organisation with strong support from its licence-holders.
When Fish & Game weighs into debate over freshwater resources it is simply acting in line with its statutory role and functions. Naturally, this can cause Fish & Game to butt heads with industries which use land or water for commercial purposes - or with agencies who fail to properly regulate that use.
In Otago, Fish & Game has historically sought to settle conflict through dialogue, the sharing of ideas and compromise. That is not always possible but happens more commonly than you might think.
In Central Otago in particular, the draw-off of water for use by agricultural and other commercial users can be so intense that it plays a key part in sucking many rivers, creeks and streams completely dry over summer.
The river flows that result from this have major impacts on aquatic habitat.
The reality is that the water take in Otago is at levels that have resulted in serious adverse effects on waterways and their aquatic ecosystems. These ecosystems are experiencing low-flow events similar to large droughts, where more than 50% of low flows can be taken from the river.
The difference is that rather than occurring infrequently, as large droughts do, they are happening year after year.
Where an activity has a high environmental impact and a high frequency, it is reasonable to expect that people will have questions or concerns about it. In those cases, it's much more effective, in my opinion, to genuinely consult and look for acceptable solutions.
So if you find yourself sitting across the table from Fish & Game staff discussing water issues, it's important to remember the organisation's role in the wider picture of natural resource management in New Zealand. It is a function conferred on them by Parliament, for the benefit of the public.
- Nigel Paragreen is an environmental officer with the Otago Fish & Game Council.