Bryce Johnson is a fierce advocate of hunting, fishing and the environment. In his 37 years as head of Fish & Game New Zealand. he’s been unafraid to tackle big issues and even bigger opponents.
After announcing his retirement three months ago, Bryce Johnson has kept busy while his replacement is recruited by continuing a campaign against the powerful dairy industry.
Some years ago, Fish & Game NZ started a controversial campaign calling out ‘Dirty Dairying’ and the threat poor agricultural practices posed to clean waterways and the environment.
“We are not anti-dairy farming. We are anti-environmentally unsustainable dairy farming; a subtle but significant difference,” Bryce told delegates at a Federated Farmers Council meeting in February.
Bryce’s appearance at this and other dairy industry gatherings in the past year is testament to his tenacity and his ability to engage opponents in solving problems.
“At the time when we started it I’m sure my photo went up in a lot of cow sheds and had cow shit thrown at it every milking,” he said.
Fish & Game NZ is a high-profile organisation, which is not viewed through the narrow lens of hunting and fishing: it has a much broader public role as an advocate for the natural landscape, clean water flowing rivers, access to the outdoors for all purposes.
“We have an understanding that we don’t worry about whether you look at a duck through binoculars or down a shotgun barrel; we worry about the duck, the habitat and the environment,” Bryce said.
“We are not out there defending wetlands we hunt on, we are defending the environment. We took a lot of hits over the dirty dairy campaign at the time and a lot of threats, but we took it up on behalf of the public, people who want clean water to swim in and to fish and hunt in.”
Bryce’s journey has been easier because of Fish & Game’s structure.
In 1980, Bryce led Acclimatisation Societies, a hangover from early English settlers.
“These societies were set up to create a ‘little bit of England’ and they introduced familiar game species from the early 1800s,” he said.
While similar societies in Australia had long since vanished, in New Zealand they survived (with recognition from Parliament) until 1990.
When the government of the day decided to untangle a mess of quasi-autonomous non-government organisations, Bryce Johnson saw an opportunity.
“It terrified them that they would be axed and many were. We put our hand up and said we want a review, we want to strengthen our hand in the law.”
There was a seamless transition to Fish and Game Councils with a strengthened statutory mandate.
“As long as we discharge our functions to the best of our ability, the government is not in a position to tell us how to do our job,” he said.
“The regional councils set the limits upon themselves but it is very much a science based process.”
Hunting and fishing are culturally significant in New Zealand, and for many families, a key source of food. Anti-hunting activism is not an issue that diverts resources away from core activities.
“It has always amazed me that the Australian situation hasn’t crossed the Tasman,” Bryce said.
In New Zealand, too many people are still close to nature and many rely on hunting and fishing as nature’s supermarket.”
Bryce isn’t from a hunting family although his father was a keen salt water fisherman.
“It was a godfather who introduced me to hunting with an old .22, which I inherited when he died. I was also introduced to trout fishing.”
At university, in the midst of rising meat prices, Bryce saw an opportunity to fund his education.
“The meat price got a bit high for deer so I spent every weekend stalking deer and selling the meat to fund my university studies,” he said.
After university, Bryce worked for the Agriculture Minister and did research on the Chukar partridge, an introduced bird that ranges high in the alps.
“I’ve had chances to leave and do other stuff, including enter Parliament, but I’ve stayed because I love it,” he said.
“Clubs are for people who want to talk about fishing, Fish & Game membership is for those who want to protect habitat and maintain, manage and enhance fishing and hunting.
“Anglers and hunters have the strongest of motives to make the right decisions and people take great pride in being on their local Fish & Game Council. I admire those people who do it, that’s why I’ve stayed here so long.”
Retirement means fishing, hunting and raising a few cattle but Bryce will still be a voice for change.
“What will be great is being able do one thing at a time,” he said.