The wa­ter boy

Taranaki Daily News - - Front Page - Words: Nikki Mac­don­ald Im­age: Monique Ford

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.’’

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