Out of the frying pan: Into oblivion
In recent decades an estimated 20 per cent of the world’s freshwater- fish species have become threatened, endangered or extinct. Extinction rates in fresh water seem higher than in terrestrial and marine environments. But New Zealand’s only extinct freshwater fish—the grayling or upokororo— was probably long gone before the current mass obliteration of species.
Rain sheets in waves. Cats-and dogs rain. Coast rain. The view from the Mahitahi River bridge isn’t very inspiring on this damp day. Neither is the concrete span itself, a purely functional structure like much New Zealand engineering of its era. The workers who built it in the 1940s reported seeing large shoals of grayling—or upokororo, as Maori called them—in the river. They reputedly ate some, too—captured with explosives. But is this story just West Coast folklore? Or does a remnant population of upokororo hold out in some isolated stream?
Reports of grayling over the past 70 years are based not on hard evidence but on a human weakness for a belief in the improbable. However, it was a belief in the improbable that turned up the takahe and kakapo and possibly the moose. If New Zealand’s bush has hidden the lost, what of its waterways? Do they harbour a mystery fish?
In freshwater fisheries circles the grayling is a rather mystical species. For much of the last century it remained elusive, just around the next river bend. At Otago Museum, collections and research manager Brian Patrick shows me the two specimens it holds. They are each about the size of a small trout. The first is a wrinkled, dull-brown, stuffed creature: “Molyneux (Clutha) River 1874,” reads the index card. The other, taken from the Waitati River, north of Dunedin, by one F. Smith in 1912, is preserved in a bottle of formol. Brian thinks it “is actually a juvenile salmon”. It certainly doesn’t resemble its mummified partner.
Although time has not been kind to these specimens, reports have the grayling as a beautiful fish. In 1885, William Arthur described it to the Otago Institute as “slaty-brown along the back passing into slate-blue on sides and silvery-white on belly, which had patches of azure, no spots…. Fins orange colour tipped with dark slate and white; cheeks with a golden tinge.” In 1889 West Coaster F.E. Clarke referred to a Hokitika River catch as “the White Spotted Grayling”, suggesting variations in colour occurred. And in 1916 D.H. Graham caught specimens “brightly coloured, almost a warm orange” from the Otara River near Opotiki.
Vagaries and suppositions are the grayling’s legacy. Perhaps the only certainty was its abundance. Its plenitude was such that it was used on occasion as fertiliser on market gardens. During the winter months “cartloads” were at times taken from a tributary of the Wairau River, in Marlborough. In his 1903 Notes on New Zealand Whitebait, James Hector, a versatile government scientist, noted that “they assemble in streams in immense numbers”. And in 1869 a mill wheel on the Hutt River was brought to a standstill, the channel choked by thousands of the fish.
Grayling sustained Brunner on his 18-month expedition to the “middle of Middle Island”. On January 18, 1847, his guides took “fifty good-sized fish…called the upokororo, or fresh-water herring” from the Buller River using a kupanga, or net, 50 ft by 4 ft. A meal of cabbage-tree root and grayling “make a fine meal”. Four days later they had caught a total of 150 fish, which they salted and dried. Without grayling Brunner may well have perished.
So plentiful was the upokororo that, in 1923, William Phillipps, naturalist at the Dominion Museum in Wellington, opined, “there can be no doubt that it was the most common freshwater fish in many parts of New Zealand”. Perhaps, as with the passenger pigeon in North America, its profusion meant that when it vanished people had difficulty fathoming its loss. They can understand when a rare species is lost forever, but the sudden disappearance of an abundant species is more difficult to comprehend.
Chairman of the Wellington Ac climatisation Society A.J. Rutherfurd documented grayling’s “habit of disappearing and reappearing in a ghostly fashion, which makes one wish for further acquaintance with their migrations and spawning habits”. As early as the 1870s a decline was suspected. In 1929, ethnologist Elsdon Best noted reports of the fish’s disappearance from the Waikato River as early as 1874, and a decade later Arthur reported to the Otago Institute that it was “by no means common”. Writing in the Otago Daily Times in 1910, the Christchurch journalist and naturalist James Drummond noted that the grayling hadn’t been seen in either the Inangahua or Buller since 1884, rivers which had previously “swarmed with these fish”.
Grayling were so rare as to be a curiosity when one was brought into an Opotiki hotel in 1904. Whatever happened to them seems to have happened rapidly. A specimen reportedly caught in the Hokitika in 1923 raised hopes that after a hiatus “this fine fish is coming again”. But it was not to be. A 1930 Marine Department report stated: “When it is as extinct as the moa—it is rapidly moving in that direction—those who were responsible for the control of New Zealand fisheries will certainly not escape a good deal of scornful criticism.”
Writing in 1940 Phillipps noted “that here and there from time to time” reports of grayling emerged but these were never confirmed. Post-1940 stories have also surfaced. The West Coast has been the most fertile source—overactive imaginations, perhaps, being galvanised by an excess of Monteiths. Introduced sport fish were soon fingered as culprits in the grayling’s disappearance. Trout are voracious predators and, because of their impact on native fish, are labelled “water possums” by some contemporary New Zealand conservationists. But trout have long been blamed. In 1892 W.H. Spackman, in his handbook Trout in New Zealand: where to go and how to catch them, thought that trout “seemed too much for them”. And in 1927, angler T.E. Donne, with over 35 years of New Zealand angling under his belt, cryptically noted in his book Rod Fishing in New Zealand Waters: “As the old lady of Rotorua would say, ‘Vere are dose grayling?’, to which enquiry I would retort, ‘Ask dem trout!’” Dem trout can’t speak and dose grayling are gone.
Hoping for some answers, I visit New Zealand’s elder statesman of freshwater fisheries. Bob McDowall leads me through the corridors of the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research in Christchurch. His office shelves are stacked with journals and jars of preserved fish. When Bob was younger he spoke to old men who, in their youth, had seen living grayling. Many questions pose themselves. If trout were to blame for the grayling’s demise, why did grayling disappear from streams where there had never been trout? If habitat decline was to blame, why did grayling vanish from unmodified catchments?
“There are no simple answers,” says Bob, who first considered such questions decades ago. In the search for clues he looked across the Tasman. The Australian grayling, known also as the Yarra herring, is not uncommon and is a close relative of the upokororo.
“You wouldn’t be able to tell the difference” between the two, Bob tells me. The Australian grayling’s range is coastal south-eastern Australia, including Tasmania and Bass Strait’s King Island. It inhabits creeks and rivers, favouring cool, clear waters and gravel bottoms in stretches between pools and rapids.
“But if the Australian grayling is so similar, why didn’t it disappear where trout were introduced?” I enquire.
“While trout are present in Australia they aren’t as abundant as they are here. And anyway, we’re not even sure that trout preyed on them.”
I get the distinct impression that Bob thinks I’m like a dog chasing its tail. The vibe I’m getting is that we don’t know why grayling became extinct and in all probability never will. He dismisses any influence from Maori harvesting. “Timing of the extinction of the grayling correlates very well with European settlement, which strongly suggests to me that European, not Maori, activity was the cause.”
For Maori, upokororo were subsidiary only to eels and kokopu as a freshwater food source. Elsdon Best lists four generic names Maori had for the fish—upokororo, pokororo, paneroro and kanaekura—together with three distinct varieties—tirango, kutikuti and rehe, the last of which was small. (Maori often applied different names to a fish at different stages of its growth.) West Coast Maori called juveniles haparu, while large adults were simply upokororo.
The Reverend R. Taylor, writing in Te Ika a Maui, got rather confused about Maori catching methods. He noted that the grayling “bites at the hair of the legs, and is thus caught by the natives going into the water”. There were in fact three main methods: nets, weir traps and trenches. Tribal preferences varied. Along the Waiapu River, Ngati Porou used a method of netting known as tuki upokororo. A frame net was fastened to a piece of supplejack tied in an oval, with a strong pole lashed over the mouth. This was set in the stream and stone walls were built in a V shape to funnel the fish into it. By splashing and beating the water with sticks, the fishers herded their catch into the trap. Ngai Tuhoe used nets, weir traps and the koumu—a dead-end trench excavated in a gravel-bank. A pakau (rock bank) constructed into the stream would guide the fish into the trench where they were dispatched. The last fact three main methods: nets, weir traps and trenches. Tribal preferences varied. Along the Waiapu River, Ngati Porou used a method of netting known as tuki upokororo. A frame net was fastened to a piece of supplejack tied in an oval, with a strong pole lashed over the mouth. This was set in the stream and stone walls were built in a V shape to funnel the fish into it. By splashing and beating the water with sticks, the fishers herded their catch into the trap. Ngai Tuhoe used nets, weir traps and the koumu—a dead-end trench excavated in a gravel-bank. A pakau (rock bank) constructed into the stream would guide the fish into the trench where they were dispatched. The last reliable harvest reports are from the Waiapu River in March 1923, when anthropologist Peter Buck captured between “thirty and forty grayling in a funnel-shaped net” set at a weir constructed by local Ngati Porou. Another story tells of a Maori shearing gang near Waipukurau, in Hawke’s Bay. On hearing that grayling were running in the river they deserted en masse, leaving their tools behind and the sheep unshorn.
Bob recalls Coasters telling him tales of secret back-country strongholds. He is dubious of their authenticity, though, and attributes latter-day reports to yellow-eyed mullet, which has habits similar to those of grayling. Mullet shoal in fresh water, feeding on algae, and move rapidly into deeper water when disturbed—just as grayling are purported to have behaved. For Bob it is case closed: “there is nothing new to write about them,” he tells me. When I ask if anyone is still alive who may have seen grayling, he reels off a string of aging Coasters’ names but warns that the old-timers are fast disappearing.
I chase up one of them—Tom Condon, of Mahitahi. He’s no longer alive, as it happens, but his son is. Tony Condon lives on the south bank of the Paringa River and runs cattle up the valley. Mention grayling to most people and they’re mystified. Not Tony.
“I saw them in the Paringa in the mid-1960s. They were in a shoal, almost like whitebait. There were hundreds of them. They looked quite silver in the water, the size of herrings and about the same colour. I saw them in three different places in two days. I first saw them right under the Paringa bridge in a hole, the second time about one mile up and the third about five miles up in a big hole just below the Otoko confluence.”
“Did you tell anyone?”
“We tried to catch them on a hook and line but our fishing gear was pretty primitive and they weren’t interested.They were in reasonably deep water, eight to ten feet under the bridge, going upriver in shoals. These Marine Department guys came down from Wellington for two or three days but that was about a month later. They actually gave me a net to set to try and capture them. They thought someone was having them on. There is no doubt in my mind. Have you heard of mullet five mile up from the sea?”
Tony never saw the mystery shoals again. “I’ve spent a lot of time in these valleys, as has my cousin, Martin, and he’s never seen anything. As far as I’m aware there were no further signs.”
He has also heard the story of the Mahitahi bridge-builders of the 1940s. “They were reputed to have blown them with jelly [gelignite]. I heard my father speaking about it. In fact, my father and his elder brother are the only people I’ve ever heard talking matter-of-factly about grayling. He told me they used to run up in Flagstaff Creek in March by our homestead in the Mahitahi. The old fellas talked about eating them. The females were full of spawn.”
I walk up the Paringa and camp for two days near the confluence where Tony thinks he saw grayling in the 1960s. My eyes scan the river. I see, and catch, fish, but they are trout. With anglers scouring obscure waterways in the most remote parts of the country year in year out, there seems little doubt that if a remnant grayling population persisted at least one specimen would have come to hand. The last confirmed specimens were those taken in 1923 by Peter Buck. It is quite plausible that the fish hung on after this time and that some post-war sightings were genuine, but there is nothing to say either way. Clearly losing potency with each passing year, however, is the scientific chestnut “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” The absence of evidence of the grayling’s continued existence has become deafening.
Ironically, by the time legislative protection was granted in 1952 the fish was probably extinct. Gerald Stokell was New Zealand’s foremost freshwater-fisheries scientist. As president of the Canterbury branch of the Royal Society of New Zealand he wrote of grayling as illustrative of “the indifference with which many natural resources of this country have been treated”. His strong sentiments spilled over into the rather bizarre advice that anyone knowing the location of grayling should keep it a profound secret. This advice was taken to heart by former fisheries biologist Stan Woods.
I track Stan down to an old garage in Dunedin, where he dabbles in clay, moulding native-fish figurines. Talking to me among his buckets of glazes, he expresses his belief that grayling may still live on and suggests that the Coast is not the right place to be looking. “We were electric-fishing this small stream in Northland in 1965 or 1966. It was late in the day and the current was too low—we narrowly missed these odd fish. We went back after recharging the batteries but found nothing. I thought I saw them again in the East Cape in the early 1980s—again in a small stream.”
He sticks to Stokell’s advice and clams up at my probing for the rivers’ names. I ask if he has thought of making a clay-grayling paperweight. He whips out a photograph of a prototype from some 10 years earlier: “One of my prized possessions.” He keeps it locked away.
In 1992 the World Conservation Monitoring Centre included grayling on its list of extinct taxa but noted there was still a chance that the fish survived. By 1996 the Red List of Threatened Species, compiled by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), categorised the grayling as EX, i.e. extinct, the definition of which is that “there is no reasonable doubt that the last individual has died”.
With its international death certificate written, the upokororo is symbolic of a crisis taking place beneath the surface of the world’s rivers and lakes. Published in 1999, The Quiet Crisis: A Preliminary List of the Freshwater Fishes of the World that Are Extinct or ‘Missing in Action’ listed grayling in its “Resolved Extinctions” category and proposed three possible causes: “habitat alteration, competition/predation from introduced species, and disease/ parasites”. The authors also allude to the difficulty of proving a species extinct, this being “particularly pertinent with fishes, which are naturally inconspicuous and their distribution and ecology are often incompletely documented”. It as if these words were written for the upokororo.
Freshwater systems have been termed “habitat islands”, as they are extremely susceptible to ecological changes in the surrounding environment, which can result in high rates of extinction. Having evolved relatively free of predators and competitors, New Zealand’s endemic species are highly vulnerable to introductions.
Freshwater ecologists refer to a continuum of habitat types from ponds and small lakes through large lakes and rivers to marine environments. The larger a freshwater system, the more “open” it is, and the greater the likelihood that, should a population decline, neighbouring populations of the same species will recolonise the vacated area. The grayling probably had a marine phase in its life cycle, and thus inhabited an open system, but this did not seem to stem its demise.
The only recorded maritime reference to grayling is by William Arthur, who, in 1885, reported that one was taken off the north spit at Aramoana, at the entrance to Otago Harbour. He never laid eyes upon the specimen but claimed that the captor, a Mr Smith, was “very correct and reliable” in his piscatorial observances. This unconfirmed specimen, together with the reports of the sudden appearance and disappearance of upokororo in rivers, suggests the fish was sea-going. Bob McDowall feels sure that it migrated to and from the sea. The furthest upriver a specimen has been recorded is some 56 km—a dead fish found on the banks of the Mataura River at Gore in 1884.
The grayling may be gone from New Zealand’s waterways, but it survives in their names. The Upukerora River in northern Southland undoubtedly owes its name to a misspelling of upokororo. There is also an Upokororo Stream in Hawke’s Bay, while two tributaries of the Motueka, the Pokororo and Little Pokororo, are almost certainly named after the grayling. Early Europeans netted the Motueka and either waded through the water or dragged a “scrub” attached to a rope through it to drive the shoals in the desired direction. Grayling were so prolific in the Motueka that “a wash tub could be caught in a short time”.
As with almost everything else about the grayling, little is known of the fish’s diet. Some observers reported it grazing algal mats in rivers, while others found insects in gut samples, although these could have been ingested incidentally with algae. Highly specialised dentition suggests the fish was herbivorous.
Fish observer Mr C. Chitty took a close interest in grayling he saw between 1864 and 1874 where the Karapiro Stream meets the Waikato River. He described them as “shy, seeking deep water in daytime, but coming into the shallows towards evening”. They were highly valued by settlers as they “took the fly readily and provided good sport; were strong fighters; the finest tackle and small trout-flies were required for them”. Contradicting this angling report is the testament of Tame Roach of Otaki, who felt that a small “reddish-coloured worm” found under stones was the “only bait they would take”.
Another angler, David Graham, who published A Treasury of New Zealand Fishes in 1953, recalled his boyhood in Brunnerton, 20 km upriver from Greymouth. Between 1896 and 1899, he caught many upokororo from the Grey River using a stick, household string, a small hook and a cork float. Some of his best angling mates were gold-miners, who cooked their catch on an open fire but, curiously, saved the stomach contents “to look for gold”. They were probably pulling the young lad’s leg.
The boy’s method was simple. The bait was dropped below a shelf of rock, following which Graham and his mates more often than not “had the pleasant sight of a Grayling approaching and devouring the baited hook”. The extreme shyness of the fish required a careful approach, and any movement or noise from among those present brought a quick reprimand from the perpetrator’s companions. Not surprising, then, is the English translation of upokororo: “plenty of brains in the head”. A clever fish.
Graham, like Roach, used small red worms but employed an arsenal of other baits besides, including houseflies, grasshoppers and maggots. When the fish were hardest to catch, only “the smallest of worms found under sacking” would produce results. One person who must have worked out how to catch them is the Taranaki angler whose diary records a tally of 1152 grayling in 58 fishing days.
Grayling were much sought after and looked upon as a delicious fish. After the Graham family had been fed, any excess catch was eagerly sought by neighbours, providing young David with pocket money. The flesh was described as “white and delicate…[and] ate nearly as well as a herring”. During summer months, up until 1917, grayling “was commonly to be seen exposed for sale in the Town of Hokitika”.
Although the New Zealand grayling is poorly known, the Australian grayling was well-studied by a visiting American ichthyologist, Tim M. Berra. Berra discovered that, contrary to perceived wisdom, the grayling was common, and that spawning takes place in the middle reaches of the Tambo River during autumn. The newly hatched fry are swept down stream to brackish water where they remain for about six months. In early summer juveniles ascend rivers where they spend the rest of their lives. Most grayling die before reaching three years but some reach five years of age. They are a schooling species that eats aquatic insects and algae. Australian grayling are also known as “cucumber herring” because they emit a cucumber odour. Berra reported that they share the same molecule as cucumbers which is responsible for their fragrance. New Zealand grayling also had this odour, as do Australian and New Zealand smelt.
The settlers’ name for the upokororo had European antecedents. In a Treatise on Fishing (1546), Dame Juliana Berners wrote of “Grayllynge…a delycyous fysshe to mannys mouthe”. This old English appellation, with modern spelling, was given to the upokororo because of the “dusky lines along the body and the silver-greyish appearance”. But the similarity ends with the name. The European fish, which has a distinctive large dorsal fin and large scales, is a member of the genus Thymallus, of the family Salmonidae, whereas the upokororo, Prototroctes oxyrhynchus, was the only New Zealand member of the family Prototroctidae (closely related to the New Zealand smelts Retropinnidae). The two species are totally unrelated.
Contemporary sightings (if they can be called that) are rare. Cawthron Institute fisheries biologist Rowan Strickland claims one. In the early 1980s he went drift-diving in the Waimana River, in the Bay of Plenty. “I was just day-dreaming when I passed two sandy-coloured fish about 20–30 cm long. I didn’t dare think they were grayling. But I have this image and it’s very much like a grayling. It only came to me later. I told Bob McDowall.”
“And what was his reaction?”
“Well he didn’t laugh.”
Rowan also tells me of some Maori elders whose recollections he once heard. Between the world wars, on horseback in the central North Island back country, they saw large shoals of strange fish scattering in the shallows of a river. “These guys didn’t even know what grayling were so their description of how these fish behaved was pretty accurate when I compared them to historic reports of grayling behaviour. It was 20–30 km from the sea so they couldn’t have been yellow-eyed mullet.”
While such reports are interesting they are merely anecdotal, as the scientist in Rowan points out to me. Today the only traces of grayling are names in the landscape and the odd report to fisheries managers. West Coast Fish and Game manager Chris Tonkin recalls one such. “We had a guy two or three years ago fishing Mahinapua Creek, and he saw an odd school of fish go through—they weren’t behaving like trout. I raced out there but didn’t see any sign.” The fisherman described a “ghostly looking fish”.
Chris Tonkin is no dreamer, and he offers me some advice: “Believe nothing of what you hear, and half of what you see.” I’m not sure whether he’s talking about grayling in particular or things in general, but in my pursuit of the story of grayling this is the best advice I get.
The trail runs cold. The path I walk is well worn, Bob McDowall’s boot prints are everywhere, and the questions I ask have been asked before and remained unanswered, perhaps unanswerable. I find myself not looking for the fish in rivers, rather asking old men for their memories and sifting through archives. For grayling, it is the big EX. But may this enigmatic denizen of New Zealand’s streams and rivers be the country’s only native fish to gain those capital letters next to its name.