Fiddling in the margins of reality

March 3, 2019

Stuart Nash the Minister of Fisheries has issued the ‘Fisheries Change Programme’ to tweak the way commercial fishing is managed. He awaits public feedback by mid-March. Meanwhile, we wait for meaningful changes that will rebuild abundance in our fisheries and restore the health of our marine environment. Fiddling around the margins of a broken Quota Management System doesn’t cut it.

Recreational and some commercial fishing advocates, especially smaller operators, have been calling for a review of the QMS for years. Even the Ministry’s fisheries director has admitted that they have known that dumping has been a problem causing sustainability issues for inshore fish stocks “since day one of the QMS”. That is 1986. Still we wait.

In early February Minister Nash was interviewed on radio. During that interview he assured us there was no need for an independent inquiry into the QMS, “because there is nothing to inquire about”. This fails on two counts: 1. Fish dumping is a symptom of a poor quota system; and 2. People believed Labour’s 2017 election promise that they would “institute an independent review of the performance of both MPI and the Quota Management System”.

Labour’s policy came hard on the heels of revelations in 2016 that New Zealand’s total finfish catch was more than twice that reported to the United Nations. Researchers attributed much of the difference to high rates of dumped fish over the last 50 years.

Fast forward to 2019 and the remedy being offered is the leftovers of the previous government’s review process.

A land-all catch policy to legitimise the capture of small fish is being promoted as a means to gather “better information”. Yet the change to electronic reporting and the removal of minimum size limits for landed fish will end the current measures of stock abundance (CPUE) and put fisheries management into a spin for years to come.

New Zealand’s kingfish stocks have clearly benefited from both the size limits put in place 15 years ago and the strong catch and release ethic amongst recreational fishers. Commercial quotas were conservatively set and fishers could release live kingfish to stay within those limits. You can be sure that the pressure will be applied for large increases in commercial quotas to land thousands of juvenile kingfish, and even a return to the bad old days of targeted commercial fishing. Meanwhile, recreational anglers will still have to comply with the rules to release kingfish under 75cm.

The latest proposals do not address the serious issues that lead to dumping, misreporting, and the capture of Ministerial advice. Instead of fiddling, the Minister must commit to policy change for higher standards and more abundance.

Change is required and we need to be bold enough to stop the wanton waste of small fish and destructive trawling in the inshore 12 nautical mile zone. That must start with a proper review of fisheries management and the Quota Management System. We need to start afresh.