The Otago Regional Council, Otago Fish and Game Council, mana whenua and community groups are working together on a “project-by-project” basis toward protecting numerous galaxiid species across Otago from eventual extinction.
The dwindling galaxiid populations, especially those fish which are non-migratory and otherwise live entirely in only a few hundred metres of some streams, are most at risk, says ORC’s Team Leader Biodiversity, Pete Ravenscroft.
“In general, Otago’s galaxiid population are fragmented and declining, and without management intervention their slide into extinction will continue,” he says.
In creating “galaxiid protection areas”, four streams or tributaries in Otago now have fish barriers with weirs or culverts in place, with more planned in coming years; albeit developing a programme for the protection areas is “still in its infancy”, says Mr Ravenscroft.
Otago Fish and Game Council Chief Executive Ian Hadland says his Council has made endangered galaxiid protection “a priority and enshrined in policy”.
“We recognise the presence of trout in these remote galaxiid populations is one of a number of factors contributing to their decline, and it’s probably the easiest factor to manage in the short term, while long-term
solutions to their survival are being found, including improving their habitat,” he says.
In every instance of trout exclusion, permission and a removal permit is required from Otago Fish and Game, which include a number of permit conditions, including relocation of the fish captured during the removal operation.
Mr Ravenscroft says there have been numerous historic and current conversations between all agencies and stakeholders in an attempt form a species interaction group, but until this group is formalised and becomes
established, ORC will continue to work with Fish and Game on a “project by project” basis.
ORC Chief Executive Richard Saunders says that these projects often involve a number of interested parties so it’s important that there are opportunities for everyone to be involved.
Staff will work with mana whenua, communities, landowners, Fish and Game and the Department of Conservation as each galaxiid project begins to take shape, Mr Saunders says.
Mr Hadland says Fish and Game has been mapping the extent of native fish populations through its routine waterway surveys for many years and working alongside other agencies on small-scale native fish protection projects.
So while it’s not necessarily new work, Mr Hadland is pleased to see ORC giving it greater emphasis.
“Productive fish populations rely on quality habitat, including water and riparian management, and the ORC can play a key role there,” Mr Hadland says.
Mr Ravenscroft notes issues around land use is not purely farmers, and that a few galaxiid populations are located within plantation forestry blocks.
“The non-migratory galaxiid restoration programme also considers the potential effects of land use on galaxiid populations, and where necessary, work alongside landowners to rectify any land management practices,” he says.
Otago has 15 non-migratory galaxiid species, of which 14 are threatened; four have a threat status of Nationally Critical (Highest threat category); five with a threat status of Nationally Endangered (Second Highest) and five have threat status of Nationally Vulnerable (Third highest). Eight of these species are endemic to Otago waters.
Nine are only found in Otago. There are also four whitebait species in the region.
Central Otago roundhead galaxiid
Three weirs and culvert installation so far
Mr Ravenscroft highlights that for some galaxiid species, their total area occupancy is confined to a few hectares of river reaches. Many galaxiid populations are limited to a few metres of a stream, generally in the headwaters of small tributaries or small spring creeks.
So far around Otago there have been three weirs and a culvert installed to protect galaxiid populations: the three weirs have been installed in Akatore Creek, Swin Burn and most recently Thomson’s Creek, which was
formally opened in early-April. A culvert was installed in a small tributary of the Swin Burn.
Thomsons Creek fish barrier
ORC currently has Fish and Game permits to remove trout from four tributaries of the Kye Burn and two tributaries in the Upper Clutha area, Mr Ravenscroft says.
“The design of the current galaxiid protection area work programmes is working toward a better understanding on what mechanisms are best protecting the galaxiids from salmonids,” he says.
ORC is currently writing a five-year plan which will prioritise species and populations. Once it is finalised and resources are confirmed, ORC will be better placed to confirm what restoration projects will be next, Mr Ravenscroft says.
“There already exists several natural barriers which are excluding trout from galaxiid population areas. Ideally, we’d like to expand this by a further 25-30 [man-made barriers] over the next five years.”
“The use of existing water-take structures, track and road culverts or enhancing existing natural occurring waterfalls will all be considered, in any future management decisions,” he says.
Effects on trout populations
Mr Hadland and Mr Ravenscroft agree and acknowledge the Otago sports fishery is highly valued to both locals and international anglers and that trout anglers will have concerns around the effects of inserting artificial barriers which can interrupt their spawning run and undertaking trout removals.
Mr Hadland says there are “stunted trout populations” found across Otago and they continue to pose a threat to Otago non-migratory galaxiid species.
“All agencies need to work together to reduce all factors impacting on their populations,” Mr Hadland says.
Both maintain “there is room for both” sports and native fish species.
“Otago trout fisheries generally aren’t recruitment short, so the exclusion of spawning trout into these smaller waterbodies will have no effect on the wider trout fishery,” Mr Hadland says.
Limited instream habitat in these very small tributaries means salmonid species can’t achieve a takeable size, but instead create small, stunted, but self-sustaining populations.
“They are of little or no value to the trout fishery, or to anglers,” he says.
Mr Ravenscroft says that galaxiid numbers should respond well to barriers and removals and once they have recovered sufficiently, they will start to drift downstream to populate other waters.
“We’ll be monitoring that closely and using that data to inform future management objectives,” he says.
Where weirs could be placed
Whether weirs or culverts will be established in galaxiid protection areas at the mouth of streams and tributaries or further up toward their headwaters, largely depends on topography.
While the lower the location of a barrier in a creek, the greater is the potential trout-free habitat gain, but that may then require greater resources to undertake any trout removal, so each weir site is considered “on a case-by-case basis.”
“Of course, eel and other migratory native species fish passage must also be considered,” Mr Ravenscroft says.
He says under the Fish and Game permit trout can be removed from tributaries after being electrically stunned and re-homed in an adjacent waterway, but if they are too distant from a known sports fishery, they are euthanised.
He notes that if trout caught by ORC staff are to be transferred to other waterways that would likely require additional permissions from the Department of Conservation and Ministry for Primary Industries.
Thomsons Creek barrier a community led project
The Thomsons Creek barrier is in the Manuherekia catchment, to the southwest of Omakau township, and is a tributary to the Manuherekia River.
Dating back more than two years, the $150,000 Thomsons Catchment Project was a community led enterprise, co-funded by the Ministry for the Environment, through a Jobs for Nature grant of $110,000 and an Otago Regional Council contribution of $40,000.
The fish barrier is designed to protect the native, non-migratory galaxiid species Central Otago roundhead galaxias, which have the same conservation status (nationally endangered) as the rare South Island kaka, from trout.
During the past 25 years freshwater ecologists have observed an estimated 50% loss of populations and/or decline of numbers across the distributional range of the Central Otago roundhead galaxias.
Surveys of Thomsons Creek undertaken in 2021 supported this general understanding; where known locations declined from 11 down to three “population fragments”, he says.
Mr Ravenscroft says aside from the Thomsons Creek weir, also in that catchment area there are two other small galaxiid “population fragments” being protected in small spring creeks, by using over hanging track culverts.
“Work such as this should be celebrated,” he says.
All of Otago non-migratory species have undergone “significant distribution range shrinkage” some species more than others and all are threatened with extinction, and all require management intervention.
Legislative background to Fish Passage requirements
The National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (2020) (NPS-FM) Clause 3.26 Fish Passage outlines the expectations central Government has for all regional councils. The NPS-FM states regional councils must
include Fish Passage objectives within their respective regional plans.
Clause 3.26 Fish Passage outlines all the expectations of all regional councils, which includes identifying desirable and undesirable species, identifying both good and bad fish passage, creating action plans and monitoring the outcome.
*Fish and Game New Zealand’s Councils were established under the Conservation Act 1987 and are entirely funded from the sale of fishing and hunting licences. It does not receive any financial support from Government.
Background for editors on Central Otago roundhead galaxias
The Central Otago roundhead galaxias is only found in Central Otago and nowhere else in the world. This species has a restricted distribution occurring in some tributaries of the Taieri River and Manuherekia River catchments.
The lower limit of the Central Otago roundhead galaxias in the Manuherekia catchment is Thomson’s Creek, while the lower limit within the Taieri catchment is in the vicinity of Middlemarch, says ORC’s Team Leader
Biodiversity, Pete Ravenscroft.
“In the past 25 years freshwater ecologists have observed a 50% loss of populations and or decline of numbers across the distributional range Central Otago roundhead galaxias,” he says.
The 2021 freshwater fish surveys of Thomson’s Creek supported this general understanding that the Central Otago roundhead galaxias have undergone significant distributional range shrinkage, with half of the historic previously known locations having disappeared.
“The remaining populations are marginal. They are either confined to small sections of springs and or are compromised my instream pressures. These remnant populations are of increasingly value and if not protected, then these too will be lost and on-going slide into extinction will continue for this galaxiid species,” he says.
The galaxiid population found in the Mawhinney Road section of the main stem of Thomson’s Creek, is the healthiest of the Thomsons Creek populations, but it is confined, he says.
The recent installation of the barrier provides security from upstream migration of brown trout by preventing access into this pocket of galaxiids.
The remaining populations occupy small springs where the galaxiids in most parts tend to be located towards the head of these type of ecosystems.
Habitat of the Central Otago roundhead galaxias
Central Otago roundhead galaxias utilise a variety of instream habitats, larger adults occupying cover in pools and smaller subordinate adults living amongst cobble and boulders in riffle and runs.
Streams containing alluvial gravels are the most preferred habitat of the Central Otago galaxias.
The Central Otago roundhead galaxias lives for three or more years. Spawning begins in late September through to November and eggs are laid amongst porous cobble/gravel substrates at outflows of subsurface flows.
The Central Otago roundhead galaxias are found to occupy relatively low gradient streams. The species appears to only occur within a small altitudinal band of 320 - 720 metres above sea level.
Therefore, the habitat available to the Central Otago roundhead galaxias tends to be located in low-gradient streams, where they are at greater risk.
There is also less opportunity at these lower lying elevations to encounter a naturally occurring protective barrier which prevents migration of invasive introduced species, which increases their vulnerability to predation, competition and consequently disappearance.