NZ’S WATER BOY
The water boy
How do you fill your first week of retirement after 37 years of agitating and advocating? If you’re Fish & Game boss Bryce Johnson, you spend a couple of hours talking water woes with a reporter, then head to the office to get set up to work from home.
Next week, the real relaxation kicks in – giving evidence at the hearing to secure a water conservation order for Hawke’s Bay’s Ngaruroro River.
In the short term at least, nothing much is changing for 68-year-old Johnson, who has spearheaded some of the country’s most successful, and most controversial, environmental campaigns. The only difference is he won’t be getting paid, and there may be the odd weekday six-hour raft ride down a Wairarapa river, fishing for trout – just because he can.
When kingmaker Winston Peters announced he was going with Labour, Johnson says he asked his Fish & Game board if he could stay on. It’s not clear if he’s joking. Either way he’s unlikely to suddenly shrink into the shadows.
No sooner than he’s pulled on his wading boots to cast a line like a slow-motion lasso into the Hutt River, and he launches into his gripes with the past and his vision for the future.
‘‘There aren’t many rivers like this,’’ Johnson says, of this tannin-browned burble of river just half an hour from the capital’s CBD. So best we don’t stuff up any more of them.
We’ve come a long way since Johnson’s then radical 2001 Dirty Dairying campaign, which gradually wormed its way into the Kiwi consciousness, and earned Johnson a truckload of abuse from farmers worried about their livelihoods.
You can’t photograph my back, because of all the scars from the whippings from dairy farmers, Johnson jokes. But you know the tide is turning when you go from being abused by farmers at meetings, to being asked to speak at Federated Farmers’ events.
But our waterways are far from in the clear, Johnson says. He has parting shots for the ‘‘giant con’’ that is the Land and Water Forum, the Conservation Department (DoC), regional councils and politicians, all of whom he says are failing to safeguard our natural resources, and failing to uphold the legal protections Fish & Game and others have fought for decades to achieve.
The Jeanette Blackburn painting commissioned for Johnson’s retirement is like a brushstroke history of his life. There’s Molesworth Station and the Rainbow River, where he goes every year for the start of the fishing season. The dodgy stream where he reckoned he picked up giardia from cleaning his teeth. The chukar partridges in the foreground that he tracked through the remote South Island high country with his labrador Mel, while studying for a Masters in wildlife management.
Engraved into the painting’s plaque is a thin green line. It’s an in-joke – Johnson worries the forces for environmental protection are stretched too thin.
In the lounge next door, Duplo blocks linger from his one-year-old grand-daughter Macey’s morning visit. It’s her generation’s future he’s turning his attention to now, advocating an apolitical Futures Commission to decide what New Zealand should look like in 50 years, and to work backwards to determine what needs to change to get there.
Johnson’s own childhood sounds idyllic enough. He grew up in Whangarei, then Dunedin, the son of a public service mechanic. He fished with his dad at their little bach, and learned to spin fish for trout
"I just don’t think people are acknowledging the reality of the finite natural resource New Zealand’s whole economy is based on.’’
with brass tack spinners fashioned by an elderly family friend.
He remembers the excitement of being invited to shoot rabbits at his godfather’s farm – that old single-shot rifle is still locked in his Upper Hutt gun cabinet.
Hunting took a back seat until he studied ecology and botany at Massey. With venison prices at astronomical levels, Johnson could earn $60-$70 per deer to supplement his graduate job paying $100 a week.
He became Fish & Game boss when he was 30 and the organisation was still called the Acclimatisation Society – an entity set up in 1861 to manage introduced species. It’s ironic that an organisation that brought in animals which are now considered environmental threats has become one of the country’s great environmental advocates.
It’s a sensitive subject – ask Johnson why we should protect species such as trout that don’t belong here anyway, and he’ll accuse you of anthropocentric arrogance. Neither do humans, nor the cattle we eat, nor the grass they graze.
It’s ironic, too, that an organisation based on killing things has teamed up with unlikely bedfellows like Forest & Bird, to champion the public interest in keeping New Zealand’s environment clean and its ecosystems healthy. Johnson was smart enough to realise pragmatism should rule.
‘‘We came to an agreement with Forest & Bird: we won’t worry about whether we look at a duck down a set of shotgun barrels or through a set of binoculars, we’ll just focus on the bugger that wants to drain the swamp. In other words, habitat first. We’ve taken the view, if you look after the habitat, the animals will look after themselves.’’
As well as the Dirty Dairying campaign, Johnson counts water conservation orders as one of Fish & Game’s great successes. There are now 15 of the orders, which give outstanding rivers national-park-level protection in perpetuity.
But they’re not working as they’re supposed to, because regional councils are flouting the law, Johnson says. In Hawke’s Bay, for example, the regional council allowed dairy expansion into a key tributary’s upper catchment, spilling nitrogen into the protected Mohaka.
He wants a change to the structure of regional councils, which struggle to balance their dual mandates of upholding the Resource Management Act and promoting regional development.
While the voluntary 2003 Clean Streams Accord has led to dairy cows being fenced out of most waterways wider than a stride and deeper than a Red Band gumboot, new research found 77 per cent of contamination comes from smaller streams. Plans for more irrigation and intensive farming risk increasing pollution while reducing rivers’ ability to flush it out.
Johnson also worries about new ‘‘spray and pray’’ attempts to grow beef cattle in hill country – denuding hillsides before seeding and fertilising and hoping it doesn’t rain in the interim, spewing life-smothering sediment into streams.
Despite DoC’s statutory requirement to advocate for conservation and protect freshwater fish habitats, Johnson says it’s compromised by having ‘‘climbed into bed with the wrong people’’ – relying on funding from industry bodies such as Fonterra. It’s time for the Government to step up.
‘‘The sad fact is, for a country that relies on its natural environment and its 100 per cent pure clean and green brand, who are the principal advocates for it? It’s bloody not-for-profit NGOs. That’s disgraceful.
‘‘And our biggest opponents are the government-supported industries – the irrigation acceleration fund, 40 million bucks. It’s all arse about face ...
‘‘I just don’t think people are acknowledging the reality of the finite natural resource New Zealand’s whole economy is based on.
‘‘We’ve only got so much land, we’ve only got so much water. And no-one is thinking about the future.’’