Fish & Game is extending an olive branch to Federated Farmers, against the advice of its chief executive. David Williams reports

The national Fish & Game council continues to try and cleanse itself of a tough stance against agricultural pollution, demanding a softer line from staff on public statements as it takes tentative steps to work with lobby group Federated Farmers.

Such a step would be a huge departure for the public body, which is funded by licence fees. It’s an environmental powerhouse which has successfully advocated for a dozen water conservation orders, and is well-known for taking a hard stance on the damage done by dairying.

That stance, pushed by long-time chief executive Bryce Johnson, has continued under successor Martin Taylor, who started in late 2017, just after the last general election. (In one of his first statements, he flayed dairy giant Fonterra’s environmental record, caused by, he said, its “single-minded focus on increased production at all costs, aided and abetted by weak regional councils”.)

Given the crossover of licence holders who are farmers, Fish & Game’s environmental advocacy has caused complaints. Another source of angst between headquarters and the semi-autonomous regional Fish & Game councils (that have their own set of councillors, from which national representatives are chosen), are audits that have happened under Taylor which have exposed problems within the Hawke’s Bay, North Canterbury and Central South Island regions.

These tensions have now boiled over, brought on, it seems, by a fresh batch of national councillors – just as the Government is finalising its water reforms.

Last November, in a public-excluded session of the monthly meeting, councillors banned chief executive Martin Taylor from “proactively making media statements which contain negative statements about farmers”. In the meantime, it commissioned polling company Colmar Brunton to survey licence holders about its freshwater advocacy.

The gagging order was overturned last week.

At last week’s council meeting, held online, Taylor presented the survey results. He said licence holders gave overwhelming support to its environmental advocacy and the ability to point out, in rural areas, the greatest source of pollution – “which is dairy farming”.

The results got a lukewarm reception from most councillors, including South Canterbury dairy farmer Dan Isbister, and retired Westland dairy farmer Andy Harris.

New chairman Paul Shortis, of the Wairarapa, said the survey results weren’t clear. He said Fish & Game needed to “tone down the general criticism of farming”. Later, he told Taylor: “I hope you’ve got a clearer steer on what makes this council more comfortable when highlighting farming issues.”

Councillors backed Shortis’s proposal to approach Federated Farmers, and other groups, to “explore how we might work together and what the profound differences are”. That was despite Taylor saying the position of agricultural groups was diametrically opposed to that of Fish & Game.

Former chairman Lindsay Lyons, who was pushed aside by his fellow councillors last month, tells Newsroom an independent review of the organisation, confirmed by Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage, “cannot happen quick enough”. (Sage’s office says the review is being worked on and will be announced in due course.)

Shortis was unavailable for comment last night, while Federated Farmers president Katie Milne couldn’t be reached for comment.

“Anglers expect us to advocate hard on freshwater.” – Martin Taylor

Colmar Brunton surveyed 1016 licence holders and 52 councillors. Eighty-five percent of licence holders said it was appropriate for Fish & Game to advocate on environmental issues, and two-thirds supported highlighting the negative impact of farming on freshwater quality.

When it came to mentioning dairying specifically, 60 percent of licence holders were in favour, but only half that number of councillors agreed.

Another stark difference was over access. Sixty-one percent of councillors said access had reduced in the last five years, compared to 37 percent of licence holders. More than half of those councillors blamed Fish & Game’s freshwater advocacy, while only 13 percent of affected licence holders thought that was the reason.

The connection between advocacy and access resonated with national councillors. At last week’s meeting, Nelson’s Bill O’Leary, a past president of the NZ Deerstalkers’ Association, said he often needed a farmer’s permission to cross their land to shoot or fish.

“I want to maintain good relationships with the people that are really important to me,” he said, adding: “I don’t believe we can do it by standing up and throwing grenades.” (He also said he was incredibly conscious habitat was suffering and “we need to push back against practices from all sorts of areas creating problems” – while suggesting the focus shouldn’t be on one group.)

Taylor told councillors the survey gives them a clear steer. “Anglers expect us to advocate hard on freshwater and that being able to mention dairy farming and the source of pollution in our rural areas, specifically Taranaki, Canterbury and Southland, is an important part of our role to represent the licence holders.”

However, Southland councillor Dave Harris said he was “dubious” about the results – that, locally, there’s a problem with Fish & Game’s aggressively advocacy. Chairman Shortis, meanwhile, dismissed the survey as “just one piece of evidence”.

“My view is we need to change our emphasis slightly. I think we probably need to tone down the general criticism of farming, and soften that approach, because it’s actually getting not only farmers’ backs up but other people’s backs up.

“And our effectiveness as an advocacy organisation is diminished if you’ve generally got the population saying, ‘Oh, here’s Fish & Game banging the drum again about farmers.’”

Westland’s Harris mused that, post-Covid-19, farming will once again be the economic champion. “I just wonder whether we, from an overall public perspective, don’t want to be seen to be bagging them too much.”

O’Leary, of Nelson, said Fish & Game should push for better farming practices “in a way that’s not publicly pushing the shit into the faces of a lot of our farmers who are actually doing a very, very good job”.

However, in an attempt to spread the polluting blame, he espoused a false theory that dairying, while still a problem, “has been overtaken as a polluter by urban growth and by general human habitation and by some of the other industries which have grown, such as forestry”.  

The latest triennial report on the state of New Zealand’s freshwater resources, released last month, said “studies at national, regional, and catchment scales show that the concentrations of nitrogen, phosphorus, sediment, and E. coli in rivers all increase as the area of farmland upstream increases”. Also, more than half of the country’s total river length is pastoral, with just 1 per cent urban.

A barbed exchange at last week’s Fish & Game meeting between dairy farmer Isbister and chief executive Taylor highlights the current tension.

Isbister said its media releases often came across as petty. Taylor bristled at that, noting a six-month analysis of its “careful” media comments and press releases. He said that showed the organisation highlighted good farming practice and called on regional councils to do their jobs.

But Fish & Game needed the ability to call out poor farm practices, he said, in areas like Canterbury – where Isbister farms – where dairy farming can cause considerable pollution which is degrading lakes, rivers and streams. “That is a statement of fact,” Taylor jabbed.

Earlier, Taylor said the survey showed more people changed their fishing behaviour because of pollution than farmers closing access.

“I’d like to give that at least an opportunity to sit down with Federated Farmers and have a round table discussion about our differences.” – Paul Shortis

At the latest meeting, O’Leary, of Nelson, said many of Fish & Game’s relationships were adversarial and “there’s got to be a better way”.

Chairman Shortis worried the organisation spends an extraordinary amount of money in the Environment Court, and at council hearings, when there’s a chance the issues might be resolved before they get to that stage.

“I’d like to give that at least an opportunity to sit down with Federated Farmers and have a round table discussion about our differences and how we might bridge a few gaps.”

Martin’s response was blunt. He said the values and opinions of licence holders were more important to Fish & Game than those of the farming community. Often, agricultural lobby groups opposed its stance “at every level and every stage”.

“If you look at the submissions and the behaviour of Federated Farmers and DairyNZ and the other advocacy groups, they are diametrically opposed to some of the positions that this council has agreed on,” Taylor said.

“While there’s this view that working with them and creating a relationship will create a better outcome for our licence holders, the facts don’t stack up at all.”

(Taylor can also be moderate and conciliatory. At one point he agreed with Isbister that some damaging activities complied with council rules. “We’re not saying farmers are bad people,” Taylor said. “We’re saying the rules that allow them to farm the way they are are bad for the environment, and they have to change.”)

Nevertheless, the motion to approach Federated Farmers passed. Shortis, who promised to make contact with president Milne, said: “At the very worst talks could fall over in the first 10 minutes, at the best we may actually end up with a better relationship than the current one, which is no relationship.”

Councillors also resolved to develop and publish a “policy statement” on advocacy, to clear up tensions.

Shortis: “Sometimes our media statements, while well founded in strategy and with a solid basis in logic, still alienate a large chunk of potential licence holders and a large chunk of people that could give us access. And we do it sometimes wilfully and unnecessarily when the focus may well be not the poor farming practice but actually the regulatory authority that’s allowing it.”

Environmental Defence Society executive director Gary Taylor has worked closely with Fish & Game for years. He tells Newsroom freshwater quality limits aren’t about driving farmers out of business, but a push for responsible behaviour – something that is arguably in farmers’ own best interests.

“If you’re going to be able to fish New Zealand’s waterways you need healthy ecosystems, which equals low or no pollution.”

Lyons, the former Fish & Game chairman, fears the direction of the current council will undo, or diminish, the hard-fought gains it has achieved over the past 20 years of freshwater advocacy.

Watering down its advocacy role, or cosying up to farmers, involves compromise, he warns. And if you compromise you inevitably lose something.

“Why have access to a river or stream that is degraded to a point you can’t fish it anyway?”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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