River work sees “extinct” fish flock back

Published: Fri 24 Oct 2008 04:04 PM
River work sees “extinct” fish flock back
Hidden away in the South Canterbury high country is an unassuming little creek that is making big waves in fishing circles and is being heralded as a major environmental success story.
The spring fed Mint Creek, near Twizel, was once legendary for the thousands of spawning trout which would appear there each year to spawn on the clear shingles of its bed.
Then along came the Mackenzie country hydro-electricity developments of the seventies. After the Ruataniwha dam was commissioned, the landlocked sockeye salmon – formerly thought to be only found in Lake Ohau headwaters, were found to be trapped below the new dam. Despite efforts from Fish and Game, attempts to re-establish fish stocks in Lake Benmore inlet streams failed.
The little creek below the dam then dwindled to a trickle, the willows jammed up any remaining flow and neither the traditional spawning trout nor Kokanee were seen again.
For 15 years there had been no sightings of the fish, but two years ago, after the Environment Canterbury (ECan) engineering team got to work, the fish came back. According to local fishing authority Peter Shutt, their return is not far off miraculous. He has been so impressed with the work that he has nominated the project as an entry into ECan’s Resource Management Awards.
“It’s a spectacular and special thing that has taken place,” says Mr Shutt of the ECan work that has seen the creek mouth into the Ohau River opened and the flow of water re-established through the removal of willow root.
“To be there at spawning time is something that takes you by surprise. You cannot believe the number of fish just milling around. It’s something tourists will be attracted to in the future because it’s quite special – you can’t see it anywhere else.”
“The scenery, the nature and the fish – the combination is special,” says Mr Shutt.
He says, “For years it was considered impossible to imagine that the kokanee would return. Everyone thought the kokanee were extinct.”
Mr Shutt says the kokanee run produces millions of young known as fry, and it is on these tiny fish that the sought-after high country trout feast.
As a result, the re-establishment of the kokanee has been massive in terms of the effect it is likely to have on the trout fishery. Mr Shutt says that this year, kokanee have been found in the Tekapo and Maryburn rivers. It is thanks to the work that the flow in the Mint Creek has been restored.
“It’s so unique. Where can you find another stream that is in such good health and that health has been regenerated by ECan. I’ve got to take my hat off to them.”
The ECan team behind the work are quietly thrilled with their efforts, and a little surprised at how successful they have been in re-establishing a significant spawning area.
Senior engineering officer Bruce Scarlett says the work came about after the works supervisor in Twizel spoke to retired fishing guide Doug Andrews about the past importance of the creek.
“We looked at it one day and thought with a little work here we could get the water running down the creek again,” he says.
With limited funding available ECan began working with the Central South Island Fish and Game Council, and the Department of Conservation to discuss the work that would take place. Meridian Energy then came on board to support the project.
“This is the fourth year we’ve been doing work on the creek. Nothing like this is going on anywhere else in South Canterbury,” says Bruce Scarlett. “We started from small beginnings and now there is a stretch about two and a half kilometres long that we’ve cleared and opened up for the fish.“
Mr Scarlett says the local interest in the restored creek is increasing and it is proving a popular picnic site.
ECan will continue to work on the small creek to ensure it stays clear for the fish.

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