November 11, 2016

The operational review of the Fisheries Act will finally be landed later today.

The consultation document, labelled the Future of Our Fisheries (Te Huapae Mataora Mo Tangaroa) has been nearly a year in the making after public submissions closed last December.

It is in the form of a detailed review with three supporting volumes.

They will cover maximising value from our fisheries, including addressing the contentious area of discards; regulatory change to implement electronic catch reporting and monitoring across the fleet; and encouragement of innovative trawl technologies.

Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy has already indicated the fisheries management system is fundamentally sound. Evidence of that is that of the 157 stocks of known status in New Zealand, 83 percent are above the sustainable reference point used by Government to measure the status of stocks, according to fisheries scientists. Those stocks represent 97 percent of our annual catch.

The Quota Management System has served the fishing sector, and the overall country, well for 30 years but there will be no argument from industry that it cannot be improved. In that regard it is encouraging that MPI director-general Martyn Dunne has stated that discard policies and settings need to be addressed in concert with placing cameras on boats.

The Future of Our Fisheries is a welcome review that is presumed not to have any Trump-style shocks. It will take time to digest and to prepare a detailed response, with submissions due before Christmas. Next week's Friday Update will include reaction and analysis.

A key area that that review does not appear to cover, one that is the missing part of the QMS jigsaw, is that of the increasingly significant recreational sector.

For some valuable insights there we need to turn to a recent report from the independent think tank The New Zealand Initiative, titled What's The Catch?

That report, sub-titled The State of Recreational Fisheries Management in New Zealand, was prepared by Dr Randall Bess, a former fisheries consultant, MPI scientist and commercial fisherman.

His premise is "there is an underlying problem of complacency in managing recreational fisheries.  There is a current lack of fisheries policy leadership and technical competence to support it.

This hands-off management approach is not sustainable, as growth in New Zealand's population and tourism further increases the demand for recreational fishing."

Dr Bess says New Zealand is unusual in that recreational fishing is permissible almost year round without licence or permit, there is no requirement to report the location, species or amount of fish caught and fishing methods banned in most other developed fishing nations are accepted here.

He contrasts that with Western Australia where the recreational abalone (paua) season is five one-hour openings on successive weekends, regardless of weather. Or the red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico reduced to just nine days this year.

Dr Bess’ report says it is conceivable the snapper fishery in this country could end up in a similar state.

The trends in the most prolific and popular fishery – the Hauraki Gulf – are undeniable. Auckland’s population is increasing rapidly, tourism is booming and more and more people are going fishing.

The inference is clear -  there  will come a point when recreational fishers will have to address their own impact, even if politicians remain too gunshy to act, rather than continually pointing the bone at the commercial sector.

No one knows just how much fish are taken out of the Gulf by the recreational sector, or the catches anywhere else in our waters for that matter, but the total is undoubtedly substantial. In the snapper fishery from the Bay of Plenty to Northland (SNA1) the recreational catch is widely believed to be as much or more than the commercial take.

The recreational right to fish is one of the few remaining free-of-charge public goods available to all, the report notes.

“However, fishing is not free,” it continues.

“The cost of managing inshore fish stocks is partly borne by the commercial fishing sector through cost recovery levies. The remaining costs of managing recreational fisheries and enforcing rules are borne by taxpayers, though most do not fish.”

The report concludes “as more stringent restrictions are put in place, tension and conflicts between fishing sectors are sure to increase”.

That need not necessarily be the case.

Greater regulation of recreational fishing, and more clearly defined rights, could enhance the quality of the recreational fishing experience without eroding quota holding rights.

But that will require political will.

If the Future of Our Fisheries does not address recreational as well as commercial fishing, that is an opportunity lost.