The recent furore over snapper fishing in the Hauraki Gulf should serve as a wake-up call for recreational fishers.
This is not a David v Goliath story about big business squashing the poor little fisher.
It is a symptom of an outdated approach to rec fishing, held in place by an ignorant belief that recreational fishers can’t cause any damage with a hook and line.
In reality their impact is huge.
First, a quick bit of history.
Our snapper fisheries got devastated in the 1970s by poorly managed commercial fisheries.
This changed in 1986 when commercial fishing was severely restricted under the Quota Management System, and since then most fish stocks have been recovering slowly.
Cuts were made to the Snapper 1 commercial quota and recreational bag limits in 1997, and since then it has been slowly recovering. Anecdotally the fishing has become better in recent years.
The trouble is this is that the fish stock is still a long way from where it should be.
It is still only about 19-24% of the un-fished stock. The Ministry of Primary Industries has, in quite a correct move, increased their target for most stocks to 40%.
This target is partly for the good of fishers – more fish makes fishing easier – but also for the good of the environment. Snapper should be everywhere in the Hauraki Gulf, they are the centrepiece of the ecosystem.
So to achieve the new, higher target, further cuts to fish takes are needed.
Who should bear the brunt: recreational, commercial or customary fishers?
This is where our fisheries management system, supposedly a world leader, descends into farce.
Everyone wants someone else to take the heat, and the Minister is left in the unenviable position of sorting it out.
Side with the recreational fishers against industry and they will be taken to court. Side with industry against rec fishers and they will lose votes.
No wonder the politicians drag their feet.
The trouble is that since 1997 when the last cuts were made, recreational fishing has continued to grow.
Rec fishers now take around half the total catch in the Hauraki Gulf.
How then can someone like Matt Watson come out claiming that commercial fishers are causing the real damage? A dead fish is a dead fish.
The plain fact is that there is no effective cap on recreational fishing.
Bag limits don’t cut it – increased population, more leisure time and better fishing technology all mean that more and more fish get caught by rec fishers.
This will only get worse as the baby boomers look to see out their retirement on the waters of the Gulf. The problem is that there are more people, but there aren’t more fish.
Over the same time commercial fishers have faced a strict fishing limit under the quota management system.
They are killing the same amount of fish that they were back in 1997 when their quota was last reduced.
The same cannot be said for recreational fishers.
Commercial fishers have shown that they can work together to manage fisheries well when left to their own devices – in other words when there are few recreational fishers involved.
Most fish stocks are now well managed, particularly offshore. Inshore it is a different story because commercial fishers are still racing recreational fishers to catch the fish.
Of course commercial fishers are not perfect – there are claims that some commercial operators throw fish overboard (an illegal practice known as high grading) to maximise the value of their catch.
This is a good reason to improve video monitoring of commercial vessels.
But the real question we should be asking is why should commercial fishers stick to the rules and restrict their catch when the growth in recreational catch will suck up any fish they leave behind?
This current stoush is merely the latest manifestation of a festering sore in our fisheries policy – the lack of effective limits on recreational fishing.
It won’t go away because of simple mathematics.
There are not ‘plenty more fish in the sea’ – we have already gone past the limits of the natural bounty.
Commercial fishers have done their bit and restricted their take for decades now.
Yet there are more and more recreational fishers out fishing, and together they take more fish.
Something has to give.
This simple maths leaves us a simple set of solutions.
One is that we fish all the fish from the oceans, which clearly isn’t acceptable.
The second is that as our population (or number of fishing days) increases, the recreational bag limit will fall.
Rec fishing groups are yelping about this now, but they can expect a lot more in the future.
The third option is that we allow commercial fishers to catch fewer and fewer fish over time.
Expect a court case, because that is effectively nationalising their quota, which is considered an asset.
The final option,which we proposed in the book Hook, line and Blinkers, and really the only sane one we can think of, is that rec fishers get together and buy the quota off commercial operators over time.
That way as population increases, the commercial take can be reduced in an orderly fashion.
This could be easily afforded for a modest licensing fee.
This fee would also finally allow for decent representation of rec fishers, which is currently left to a rag tag mob of do-gooders.
It would also get recreational and commercial fishers working together to improve fish stocks.
Maybe then our fisheries management would deserve the ‘best in the world’ moniker that we are only too eager to award ourselves.