Ian Hadland / Otago Fish & Game

NZ - A plea to better protect native fish

Three incidents in quick succession show fish aren’t being properly protected, Forest & Bird argues. David Williams reports.

Some images are seared into your memory.

For Napier City Council’s Cameron Burton, his confronting moment happened on February 5 while responding to a hydrochloric acid spill into the stormwater system and the nationally significant wildlife refuge Te Whanganui-a-Orotū/Ahuriri Estuary. (The estuary was formed by the 1931 earthquake, when uplift of between one and two metres exposed about 1300ha of the Ahuriri Lagoon.)

Burton, the environmental solutions manager, trudged from an industrial area, where the spill occurred, to a natural drain along the estuary’s mudflats, taking water samples - showing acid levels “of concern” - and coordinating sucker trucks, which ended up extracting 40,000 litres of acid-contaminated water.

Hundreds of fish were killed: shortfin eels, yelloweye mullet, either yellowbelly or black flounder, freshwater shrimp, and possibly inanga (declining in conservation status), smelt and pilchard.

“It was physically nauseating,” Burton says. “The fish were literally trying to swim out of the water onto land to try and get to somewhere that was going to have less effect on them.”

He goes on: “One image that will stick in my mind for a very long time was the skin and face of an eel physically peeling off because it had been so badly burnt by the acid.”

The acid spill - the investigation into which is ongoing - is one of three recent fish kill incidents that show native fish aren’t being prioritised, conservation lobby group Forest & Bird says.

“Fish are falling through the regulatory cracks, and they’re barely hanging on,” says freshwater conservation advocate Annabeth Cohen.

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