Trout, great to catch, not that great to eat. Photo: Flickr/Rexness

A threat looms again of New Zealand’s world-class trout fisheries being damaged and debased by trout farming, writes Mike Fletcher

Parliament’s primary product select committee has recommended the Government “give serious consideration to commercialising trout farming.”

In August, the committee considered a petition by former salmon farmer Clive Barker to allow trout farming, banned under the Conservation and Fisheries laws. Trout cannot be sold here, either.

Barker, who first presented his petition in 2018, claims trout farming will, in rural areas, provide jobs, food and relieve pressure on existing fish stocks.

The Federation of Freshwater Anglers and the national council of Fish & Game, the organisation with statutory authority to manage fish and game activities throughout New Zealand except for the Taupo fishery, oppose this latest move to farm trout.

They are concerned about the risk to the wild fisheries from disease, the poaching and the selling on the black market of fish taken illegally from prime rivers. Trout farming would provide a market for wild trout, too.

Prime rivers have long been poached, mainly by locals seeking food. The fear is that the poaching would increase significantly.

Barker claims the science does not support the need for a ban. To test this claim, Fish and Game is funding research into the science.

What has been known for many years is that trout farming has caused ecological disasters in the United States, South America and Europe. Diseased fish in the close-packed pens have created problems.

Trout farms require large quantities of fresh water. Generally they have been set up on rivers that have then been polluted by effluent from the feeding of the fish kept in the pens.

There has also been genetic damage caused by escaping farm trout mating with wild stock. Then there has been the problem of wild trout failing to reproduce because they have been too busy defending their territory against the escaped incomers.

The Department of Conservation and the Ministry of Primary Industries are sceptical about trout farming.

DoC says there could be a biosecurity risk. MPI has recommended a review be undertaken of the risks and the economic potential.

According to the select committee it is illogical to argue disease as a reason to prohibit trout farming. It cites the fact that trout hatcheries exist.

These hatcheries, run by F&G and DoC under strict conditions and without the commercial imperatives of trout farming, rear small fish in special isolated ponds for boosting stocks in rivers and streams. There is no genetic, disease or pollution risk. The eggs and fertilising milt are stripped from the wild fish caught in the traps operated by the hatcheries. The resulting fingerlings are of the same wild stock as their bigger brothers and sisters.

The notion of commercial trout farming in New Zealand is not new. In the late 1960s/early 1970s it gained impetus until quashed by an angry angler vote.

The idea, though, has remained with politicians ever since. This latest recommendation by a select committee will no doubt spark action by anglers and ecologists.

There is an old saying: don’t fix what ain’t broke.

Setting aside the concerns about disease, poaching, black market activity and loss of status as a world-class trout fishery, it is difficult to imagine commercial trout farming can generate sufficient dollars to make a compelling argument for its approval.

Trout fishing generates a lot of money directly and indirectly. Reports suggest the sport is worth $1 billion a year. Directly, anglers variously buy licences, fishing tackle, special clothing, hire guides, pay for accommodation, food and beverages, fuel, air travel, vehicle hire. Indirectly they cover costs relating, for example, to own-vehicle use, boat-buying and use, the upkeep of fishing holiday homes. Anglers who combine a fishing trip with a family holiday  – and many do – add to the spending.

Commercial trout farming will not generate $1 billion a year, or anything close to it – but it will imperil the sports fishing industry. And for what?

As an eating fish, trout  – even a prime example – is delicate in flavour and texture. It requires seasoning and cooking effort to tease out the flavour. Smoked trout has more appeal.

In blunt and brutal terms, trout does not compare with, say, snapper or kahawai, and is light years away from blue cod.

It is hard to imagine trout will become a popular eating fish.

Few trout anglers fish exclusively for the pot. Over the past 30 years, catch-and-release has been promoted and accepted. The true sport and challenge in trout fishing is the hooking, landing, and the release.

New Zealand’s reputation as a world-class fishery has been cherished by anglers here and overseas since the mid to late 19th century when brown trout were introduced from Tasmania, followed by rainbows from California. Taupo, the Rotorua lakes and the southern lakes and rivers of the South Island, in particular, have strong and established reputations.

Some of the fish that have been caught in these and other waters are the stuff of legends.

During the life of the Labour government in the 1980s many grand and brave schemes for the making of a dollar were fostered. They included the farming of fitches, ostriches, alpacas. When these farms failed, as most did, the animals were surplus to requirements.

Fitches were let loose to prey on other animals. The ostriches and alpacas saw out their days in confinement, if they were not put down.

If politicians cave-in to this latest tilt at commercial trout farming, they must be prepared for consequences of failure and the impact the use of our rivers and streams will have on the New Zealand and international angling community, many of whom are wealthy and influential.

Mike Fletcher, of Opotiki, is a life-long trout fisher and was a member of the former Central North Island Wildlife Conservancy Council that managed fish and game in the Taupo, Rotorua, Gisborne and Waimarino...

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