Q. Does New Zealand have the best fisheries management in the world?

A. We probably did 25 years ago when we pioneered the Quota Management System. But since the 90s we have sat on our laurels and not done much. We are still one of the best, but we have slipped behind best practice in some areas. A recent WWF review ranked New Zealand fishing practices at 8th best in the world.

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Q. You say other countries are better. Which countries and why?

A. It is true that most other countries overfished worse than New Zealand ever did. Because we were small and far away we were able to get our problems under control before we faced real problems. This is why New Zealand has generally been seen as a world leader.

However, other countries have since tidied their act up and some have now overtaken us. Their fish stocks are rebuilding, albeit from lower levels and the environmental management being put in place is probably superior to ours.

The WWF review of fisheries management ranked New Zealand 8th out of 53 countries. Norway, USA, Canada, Australia, Iceland, Namibia and South Africa all ranked ahead of us, although no country received an overall “good” rating. We lagged behind these other nations on these things:

  • The wider environmental impacts of fishing, such as bycatch and the impact of fishing on the rest of the ecosystem (for example by remove predators and prey from food webs).
  • Our lack of marine reserves.
  • The equity impact of our fisheries management system – how it impacted on small fishers and local communities.

These are all issues that are discussed in detail in our book.

Sadly, Australia is an example of one place that probably now has better fisheries management in place than New Zealand. They are in the process of establishing a network of marine protected areas throughout their EEZ. They manage their fisheries with the higher target of Maximum Economic Yield rather than our Maximum Sustainable Yield – this means more fish in the water. Recreational fishing is now licensed in the two most populated states, New South Wales and Victoria. In these states recreational fishers have engaged in collective “buy backs” of harbours and estuaries from commercial operators. This means they now have these prime fishing spots all to themselves.

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Q. How will your ideas put more fish in the water?

A. Firstly, we are recommending a more cautious approach to fishing management, which would lead to a once off jump in the amount of fish in the water.

Over time, more fundamental changes are needed to ensure we maintain and improve our fishing experience. At the moment there is still a ‘race to fish’ inshore fish stocks because commercial and recreational fishers are competing for the same fish. With a growing recreational fishing population and better technology, rec fishers expect commercial fishers to stand aside. But commercial fishers want to maintain the value of their asset. The result is an ongoing scrap.

If a recreational fishing trust is formed which owns quota and negotiates with commercial operators on behalf of recreational fishers, they can work together to find ways to get more fish in the water. After all, it is in both their interests.

Over time, as the recreational fishing population grows, they can purchase further quota off commercial operators to ensure they are compensated for the loss of their asset. This will ensure that the recreational fishing experience is maintained in the future.

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Q. Why should I pay to go fishing?

A. You do if you fish inland, why not on the coast?

Unfortunately there is no fair way to close the commons. But the problem is that eventually freedom in the commons brings ruin to all. Don’t think that the alternative to licensing is that you will all be able to continue to fish like you do now for free forever. The truth is that the recreational fishing experience will diminish over time. By contrast if we do pay a licensing fee, we can look forward to a much brighter future. It’s sad but you get what you pay for.

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Q. What about people who rely on fishing to feed their family?

A. A small license fee is not much to ask for a vastly improved fishing experience. Our proposed changes will make life much easier for people trying to catch fish to feed their family. If you fish often, then you should find the cost is relatively small. As for the people who spend millions of dollars on boats and reels, paying a pittance to keep the fishing good should be money well spent.

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Q. Won’t licensing lead to army of fishing Nazis patrolling our wharves and arresting grandfathers taking their grandson’s fishing?

A. No, that claim is just propaganda. This isn’t the case with Fish and Game’s management of our inland waters, nor in overseas jurisdictions where licensing is now common. Fish and Game management is enforced by a handful of full time officers. Instead they have hundreds of volunteer wardens – they are recreational fishers themselves who help keep an eye out.

Once most people are playing by the rules, there is usually an incentive for people to make sure everyone else is too. As a result, licensing turns out to be fairly simple to administer because everyone keeps an eye on everyone else. Especially once a few people get publicly burned for breaking the rules!

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Q. Isn’t it the commercial guys fault that there aren’t enough fish? And didn’t they get given quota? Why don’t they cut their fishing?

A. This is an old argument wheeled out by recreational fishers to deflect the need to manage recreational fishing. This all happened twenty-five years or more ago, dwelling on this is living in the past.

In hindsight Quota Management System was an inequitable way to close the commons. The trouble is that there is no really fair way to do it, because someone will always lose out.

Most of the old commercial fishers who damaged the stocks were only doing what was rational for them to do back then. They were trying to pay the mortgage on their boat. When they got given quota many of them sold up to pay off their boats. A few large companies bought most of the quota and now dominate the industry. Who should we punish for these perceived past crimes? The fishers who plundered and sold up to pay off their boat or the companies who have bought their quota fair and square?

We certainly should expect commercial fishers to fish responsibly, look after the fish stocks and manage their impact on the wider environment. But if recreational fishers aren’t prepared to do the same, why should they?

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Q. Why do you defend foreign charter vessels?

A. We don’t defend them. The book points out that they are the scapegoat for much bigger problems within our fisheries management system. There are certainly labour issues that need to be dealt with and managed, just as there are for other industries with immigrant labour (like fruit picking). However from a fishing perspective, there is little reason to think that foreign charter vessels are any worse than our domestic fleet.

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Q. Aren’t the commercial guys stuffing the environment and killing loads of other animals? What are you suggesting we do about that?

A. Most large scale fisheries are far from squeaky clean. But then most ways we get our food create problems for the environment. How many problems are too much?

At the moment it is hard to tell. Many of the large offshore fishers have taken steps to reduce their environmental damage. This is a good start, but it is unclear if this is all we can do, and whether the inshore fleet are doing anything. Most importantly of all, we don’t know what impact fishing is having on the overall environment.

We advocate creating environmental standards governing the impact of fishing on the environment. This would involve freezing the trawl footprint while we work out where we want to protect from the impacts of this damaging fishing method. Similarly we need better information on the populations of key species and the impacts of fishing upon them. Then we can ensure that our fishing industry has the incentives to use best practice and isn’t sending any species to extinction.

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Q. Isn’t hoki fishing terrible? Why don’t we just ban bottom trawling altogether?

A. Go ahead. Ban bottom trawling. You can kiss goodbye to our biggest export fishery and cheap fish in the shops.

Banning bottom trawling altogether is cloud cuckoo land. Besides, the additional damage done by further trawling to an area previously trawled is relatively small.

All food production does some damage to the environment. The question is how much can we tolerate? Bottom trawling for hoki generally takes place on sandy or muddy seafloor. This still does damage, but these environments can recover more quickly than more sensitive places like coral on seamounts. In our view some bottom trawling is acceptable as long as there are limits to the places that can be trawled. The Benthic Protected Areas were a good start, but we need to understand our ocean environment better and protect a portion of all different environments. Some should be protected as full no-take marine reserves, others could continue to be benthic protected areas. In the short term we think the trawling footprint should be frozen to prevent further damage, while we work out where to protect. Then industry could apply to open certain areas and fund the research needed if they wanted to do so.

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Q. What is the point in having Marine Reserves if they aren’t to protect fish stocks?

A. Simply by removing fish, the impact of fishing echoes through the whole ocean ecosystem. It is estimated that fishing a fish stock to a “sustainable” level (which involves removing 65-80% of all the fish) reduces the biodiversity in that area by a third. Our fisheries management system protects fish stocks, but isn’t concerned for the wider environment.

We think it is reasonable to have a small portion (10%) of the ocean set aside for non-extractive use and kept in its natural state. This area needs to be representative of the different environments we have in New Zealand. These areas would be an insurance policy against ecosystem collapses like dead zones, and would ensure that large fish breeding stock are protected. We have set aside a third of our land in reserves, why not part of the ocean too? Do the 80% of Kiwis who don’t fish have a right to see parts of the ocean in its natural state?

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Q. Why do you want fishers to manage things themselves and the Government step back?

A. At the moment the Government and Minister of Fisheries get caught up in a great deal of detail involved with fisheries management. Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom has shown that international best practice is for the users of a collective resource like fisheries to manage it themselves. There are two problems preventing this at the moment. There is currently no way for recreational and customary fishers to negotiate with industry, and we have discussed how to remedy this elsewhere.

The other problem at the moment is that users have no ways to work collectively. If one fisher doesn’t like an idea that would benefit the group as a whole they can go it alone and ignore the others. This is classic “free rider” behaviour, because if one person refuses to play along with collective decisions then they suddenly have a competitive advantage. Eventually all other players end up following suit. If users have the ability to make collective decisions and hold people accountable within their group, and if they are held accountable by Government as a group, then this incentive to cheat disappears.

If these two issues were resolved, Government could then step back into a governance role, setting standards and only stepping into day to day management when these standards are breached. This gives users an incentive to work things out between themselves.

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Q. Won’t fishers just stuff everything up even more like they did to orange roughy?

A. As we have seen recently with hoki, the fishing industry generally has a good incentive to look after the fish stocks they own. In fact Sanford recently argued that the Government decision to increase hoki quota wasn’t precautionary enough! Clearly industry is now a more mature than they were back in the early 1990s with roughy. As discussed, if they have the ability to make collective decisions and hold people accountable within their group, then the incentive to cheat disappears.

Ultimately, if the users were shown not to be responsible stewards of the resource, the Government would still be able to step in and take over. This option should be made unpalatable enough (including closures and the ability for Government to confiscate quota) such that fishers will make sure it never happens.

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Q. Why should fishers pick up the pieces for all the problems caused by other users of the ocean?

A. This is a fair point. If we ask fishers to ease of fishing in order to protect certain stocks then other users of the ocean should also be responsible for the damage they do. In particular New Zealand households and farms damage coastal environments by destroying important coastal habitats and the run-off of soil, nutrients and chemicals.

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Q. Why did you choose to use the Monterey Bay Aquarium rating criteria for your own rating scheme?

A. As far as recommendation schemes go, none are perfect. In particular a lot of the criteria used by environmental groups pretty much rule out all industrial fisheries. If we all followed these rating schemes we would end up spurning the majority of NZ fisheries – there wouldn’t be much fish left to eat!

The Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA) scheme also isn’t perfect. However it is well respected internationally and is quite balanced. The “Good Alternative rating basically translates as ‘consume with care’ – which means the fishery isn’t perfect, but on the grand scale of fisheries is doing okay. This rating allows a fishery to have one major problem (like the impact from widespread bottom trawling) or a few minor issues before it gets rated as “Avoid”.

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