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Story: Smith, Joseph Stewart

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Smith, Joseph Stewart

1913–2008

Fisherman, watersider, fish liberator

This biography, written by Charlie Mitchell, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2022.

Fisherman Stewart Smith transformed the ecology of New Zealand’s freshwater lakes and rivers through his many introductions of exotic fish, some of which prospered as pests and permanently damaged native ecosystems. He illegally released more than 15,000 fish into the wild, primarily in the Auckland, Northland, and Waikato regions, hoping to bring fishing within easy reach of ordinary people. His releases spanned five decades, continuing well into his nineties. He bred the fish in a commercial garage north of Auckland. Smith was a major contributor to the development of coarse fishing (angling for traditionally undesirable species) in New Zealand, and has been held responsible for establishing several species, including the first population of rudd in the Southern Hemisphere. He regarded himself as acting for the benefit of the community, but his legacy is one of reckless environmental vandalism that continues to affect New Zealand’s freshwater ecology.

Early life

Joseph Stewart Smith, known as Stewart, was born in Manor Park, East London, on 21 January 1913, one of three children of Fanny Foote and her husband, dockworker Joseph Stewart Smith. Smith started fishing young, learning to catch tiddlers in a local pond when he was five years old. He sold these to adults for bait, earning himself enough money to buy a bicycle. He spent much of his later childhood fishing in the Lea Canal on his way home from school. Although he had a fraught relationship with his father, whom he described as a gambler who abused his mother, Smith remembered a happy childhood, in large part due to his love of fishing.

In 1928, when he was 15, Smith and his younger brother Edwin moved to New Zealand without their parents, seemingly due to the family’s financial difficulties. They found work on a farm near Ōtorohanga, and on his days off Smith fished for snapper in Kāwhia Harbour. He disliked farm work and soon left for Tauranga, where he worked on a fishing boat for several years in the Mayor Island fishing grounds. He was increasingly drawn to the communist Soviet Union during his Tauranga years, and remained a committed socialist for the rest of his life. He moved to Auckland in 1936, aged 23, and secured a job mending fishing nets.

In March 1941 Smith was called up to join the army but, according to his own account in later life, tried to enlist in the navy instead, as he believed that, as an active member of the Communist Party of New Zealand, he would likely be shot if he joined the army. His refusal to serve in the army brought him a six-week sentence at Mount Eden prison, followed by detention as a conscientious objector at the Hautū detention camp near Tūrangi. Smith enjoyed his time in camp, developing engineering skills and, by his own account, making nets with which to poach trout from a nearby river at the request of camp authorities.

Released in 1946, Smith returned to Auckland and became a waterside worker. A serious leg injury prevented him from participating in the 1951 dispute, and he was unable to work for several years. This prompted him, in 1953, to buy an empty section on Triangle Road, near Massey, north-west of Auckland, where he was to live for the rest of his life. From 1954 he operated a commercial garage and petrol station on the site, later claiming to have worked for 16 years straight without a day off. For a time the petrol station was a Caltex franchise, but it eventually ceased to operate. He earned the nickname ‘Shotgun Smith’ through his fierce protectiveness of his property.

Liberations

Smith retained his childhood fondness for coarse fishing, which he combined with an interest in aquaculture. He had long considered New Zealand bereft of fishing opportunities, particularly for children, believing that native eels were inadequate for the purpose because their resemblance to snakes made children afraid to fish for them. During his Massey years he became increasingly active in campaigning for the introduction of coarse fish into New Zealand waterways, both to expand recreational fishing opportunities and to help clear weed from farmers’ ponds. He gradually came to view it at as David and Goliath struggle, with his efforts blocked by a wealthy cabal of sports fishermen, who were benefiting financially from the supremacy of the trout fishing industry. Central North Island tourism operators, he believed, had found common cause with the regional acclimatisation societies and the Department of Internal Affairs, which managed the introduction of exotic fish species, and who employed ‘a load of tame scientists to convince everybody that we’re destroying the environment’.1

By his own account, Smith’s efforts to introduce coarse fish began in 1960, when he unsuccessfully lobbied the Department of Internal Affairs to permit the introduction of perch, rudd, tench, goldfish, koi carp and others to lakes north of Auckland. Indifferent to official rejection, he installed a network of ponds to breed fish behind his garage. He fed them with fresh water from a bore, and maintained a network of tanks in which he bred goldfish he sold to dealers across the country. He immersed himself in technical literature, and turned his engineering skills to producing an increasingly sophisticated breeding environment, including a concealed tank in his car for transporting fish.

Smith began to illegally breed exotic fish, which he released into waterways around the Auckland region, according to his own records, from 1964. The earliest liberations involved perch, which had first been introduced into New Zealand in the 1860s, mostly in Otago and Canterbury, and illegally introduced into a Hamilton lake in the early 1900s. Smith commissioned two local boys to help him take perch from the lake, which he then spread throughout Auckland, mainly in the Western Springs area.

Despite being a loner, Smith often found others willing to help him illegally introduce exotic fish to New Zealand waterways. He made numerous contacts throughout the country, some of whom he supplied with pest fish upon request. Some used his fish to clear weeds from their ponds, while others kept them for fishing or ornamental purposes. This led to numerous accidental introductions. Smith bred thousands of koi carp and sold them to a Waikato farmer, who placed them in ponds for ornamental purposes. A flood swept them into the nearby Waipā River, and they spread from there into the Waikato River and many of the region’s lakes, becoming a noxious pest.

In 1969, Smith released the Southern Hemisphere’s first known population of rudd – a pest fish that competes with native species – into a pond at a primary school north of Auckland. They had been smuggled into the country on the MV Rangitoto. According to his own records, he subsequently released more than 10,000 rudd into lakes and rivers. The species soon became so widespread it was deemed acclimatised in Auckland, meaning the authorities accepted it could not be eradicated.

Smith also introduced tench to Auckland. The fish had been introduced to New Zealand in 1867 but had remained restricted to the Ōamaru area. In 1965 Smith obtained several tench from a contact in Timaru and released them at least 81 separate times, as far south as Tauranga. Tench was deemed acclimatised in New Zealand in 1983. More than a decade later, Smith released golden tench in several ponds north of Auckland. He had obtained them from a man who brought the fish from Europe in a plastic bag hidden in a suitcase.

Smith favoured releasing fish into dune lakes north of Auckland, because these were publicly accessible and provided good habitat for coarse fish. Smith’s rudd and perch drove down the numbers of native fish in Lake Rototoa, brought about the collapse of a native ecosystem at Lake Wainamu, and severely degraded other lakes. In some cases, Smith’s rudd were so successful he sought to control their numbers by releasing perch to compete with them. At one point he considered introducing pike, a carnivore that preys on virtually any fish species it encounters, leading even his few remaining allies to question his judgment.

Many of Smith’s releases took place on private land, and he sometimes failed to obtain the permission of the landowner beforehand. This could cause significant problems, as some of Smith’s fish were bottom-feeders which clogged drains and pumps. The cost of removing the fish was borne by the landowner.

Prosecutions and later life

Smith campaigned regularly through the press, particularly the Auckland Star, which once profiled him boasting about his rudd releases and describing his lifetime goal of introducing gudgeon. The frenetic pace of his liberations through the 1960s and early 1970s, and his frequent public admissions about them, soon brought him to the attention of authorities, though there was relatively little they could do under the 1951 regulations which guided prosecutions. In late 1973, Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and Marine Department officials poisoned his fish tanks, destroying his goldfish breeding stock and hampering his liberations for several years.

New regulations, passed in 1983, strengthened the available punishments, and Smith suspended his public campaigning if not his liberations. These were abruptly halted in early 1987 when he was raided by the Auckland Acclimatisation Society. The society seized Smith’s Lada Niva, which had been adapted to carry fish tanks, along with detailed records of his introductions which were used as the basis of 54 legal charges against him. He was fined $4950. His records included a note requesting that the documents be sent to the Auckland Star in the event of his death.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Smith, now in his eighties, largely receded from public view. Some landowners reported sightings of him, however, suggesting he had continued his fish releases. In early 2005, the 92-year-old’s home was raided by the Auckland City Council, after a boy found an Australian smooth marron crawling along the road near Smith’s home and reported it to his father. The council discovered more marron and a small number of gudgeon, a species not present in New Zealand, on Smith’s property. More of each species were also discovered in a pond near Helensville, where Smith had released them. If either species had been released widely, they could have caused serious and permanent damage to New Zealand’s freshwater ecosystems. Stewart had previously told associates he had wanted to establish gudgeon in Lake Taupō, but had been unsuccessful.

The 2005 raid marked the end of Smith’s fish releases. He died in Auckland on 21 May 2008, aged 95, having never married or had children. Even a decade after his death, funds from his estate were being distributed to coarse fishing clubs.

Footnotes:
  1. B. Winters. That Pommie bastard: a roaring true tangle with New Zealand environmental politics. Mount Maunganui, 2012, p. 129. Back
How to cite this page:

Charlie Mitchell. 'Smith, Joseph Stewart - Smith, Joseph Stewart', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2022. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/6s11/smith-joseph-stewart (accessed 19 August 2022)