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Open Season

Early this morning (May 1) several thousand gamebird hunters would have set out on their annual pilgrimage to swamps and wetlands with a gun and a dog in search of waterfowl. Others would have taken to the hills and valleys seeking wily pheasant and quail.

The annual gamebird season is as much a part of our folk lore as horse racing and rugby and usually opens on the first Saturday in May. A rare exception was last year when the opening weekend was delayed due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Most hunters will have carefully read the hunting regulations which apply to their areas and have a shooting licence and firearms licence safely tucked away in a back pocket but few will yet have had the opportunity to read the damming report of a year long review of the organisation which manages their sport.

There are 12 regional fish and game councils charged with managing gamebird and sportsfish populations locally while the New Zealand Fish and Game Council is charged with advocating the interests of licensed anglers and hunters nationally as well as coordinating and auditing the work of regional councils. This was a new role which some regional fish and game councils, which evolved from former acclimatisation societies, resented and refused to cooperate with.

As a result, for the past decade or more, fish and game councils have been embroiled in allegations of internal conflicts of interest, regional parochialism and inadequate governance to the point where it had become almost impossible for the New Zealand Fish and Game Council to carry out basic statutory responsibilities and was close to becoming dysfunctional. These were the very issues which beset the former acclimatisation societies and prompted the establishment of fish and game councils to replace them 30 years ago.

In spite of that the system is still basically sound, one of the best in the world, as all these councils are made up of volunteers from the hunting and angling community who have the delegated authority of Parliament to charge licence fees, set regulations and prosecute those who breach the regulations. The system is also entirely self-funding with no Government financial input and has led the country many times in ground breaking environmental initiatives. Sadly, in recent times a lack of true altruism by a small number of elected councillors put all that in jeopardy and intentions of Parliament when it was first established have been ignored.

The majority of elected councillors however are dedicated and hard-working volunteers but they seem to have been betrayed by a small minority. There were certainly flaws but any system will work if those involved want it to and no system will work if they don’t.

After a couple of disturbing audits and several attempts to solve the issues in-house, former Conservation Minister Eugene Sage commissioned a complete review of the governance of all fish and game councils last year.

The review panel, of former Secretary for Justice and Law Commissioner Belinda Clark QSO and John Mills, released their report on Tuesday and some of their 41 far reaching recommendations will be as popular as a pair of fishing waders full of cold water on a frosty morning. They haven’t put the blame for the problems on anyone, although hunters and anglers most certainly will, and they haven’t suggested simple changes to the rules of governance. They have, in effect, plucked and gutted fish and game like a freshly shot mallard.

If their recommendations are implemented, and most will require amendments to the Conservation Act, the current 12 regional fish and game councils will be reduced to six with four members elected by licence holders, three appointed by the Minister of Conservation and one Iwi appointee. The New Zealand Fish and Game Council will be reduced from the current 12 regional appointees to four members elected directly by licence holders, four members appointed by the Minister of Conservation and an appointed independent chair. Councillors will be restricted to two terms of three years.

That means, in effect, that elected fish and game councillors nationally will be reduced from the current 144 to just 28 with an additional 28 ministerial appointees who should also be licenced anglers or hunters. That is a damming indictment of a few of those elected to run the system in the past decade. There is also an emphasis on consultation with Maori, particularly over the management of native gamebird species which will raise accusations of separatism and racial bias.

This may be the last opportunity for licence holders to retain management of their sport. If these dramatic changes don’t succeed the whole system should be taken over by Government and that will be a tragic loss.

Licence holders also owe Eugene Sage and the review panel a vote of thanks for that last opportunity.

Tom O’Connor served on acclimatisation societies and several regional fish and game councils for more than forty years. In that time he was a member of the New Zealand Fish and Game Council and represented the Director-General of Conservation on one of them.


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