Envirologue by Dave Hansford


Hook, Line and Sinker – National’s Empty Bribe to Rec Fishers

Whenever something distasteful oozes to the surface, the Government mounts some artful distraction to keep the public’s eye off the ball. In its final-term legislative spree, National is pushing through the most unpopular elements of its right-wing agenda – RMA reforms, the TPPA, state housing sell-offs, the Canterbury council coup – at an accelerated pace. Then there are the tainted pratfalls – Dirty Politics, revelations around GCSB spying on foreign government officials, child poverty, the ‘rock star’ economy that actually hasn’t had a number-one hit for many a year.

Governments always keep a stock of sweeteners/distractions to hand at times like this, just in case the media and the public notice these unsavoury issues and asking awkward questions. Lately, John Key has kept them preoccupied with the idea of a new flag, and last week, Nick Smith and Nathan Guy re-floated a favourite: “recreational fishing parks” in the Hauraki Gulf and Marlborough Sounds.

Fishing parks have been a staple distraction/election bribe for years now. The proposal of last September, bang before the election, closely mimicked a similar sweetener announced – you guessed it – just before the 2008 election. To be fair, any campaigning party would be negligent in NOT throwing a baited hook out to the rec fishing electorate: an estimated 600,000 people go salt water fishing at least once a year, with 81,000 going out at least once a week. What’s more, rec fishers often tend to be distinctly positional, nay militant, about what they roundly regard as a birthright. Of course politicians will chase that vote.

The argument over fisheries normally rages between the rock of recreation and the very hard place of commercial fishing. Each side blames the other for the seasonal, annual and multi-annual paroxysms of fish stocks. In the middle are iwi, left trying to prosecute their own pan-generational strategy for fisheries.

To offer recreational fishers some enshrined grounds, like the inner Hauraki Gulf (more than 178,000 rec fishers are reckoned to live around the inner Gulf), to the banishment of commercial vessels, is sweet music indeed from the piper’s flute of Nathan Guy. He says he will set aside inner Hauraki Gulf waters – those roughly coincidental with current management boundaries known as Statistical Area 7, the shallowest of Fisheries Management Area 1 – “so families in Auckland ... can continue to enjoy one of the country’s best-loved pastimes.”

In the Marlborough Sounds the proposal roughly equates to the established blue cod management zone, but doesn’t preclude marine farms or commercial harvest of paua, scallops or crayfish.

But here’s an odd thing: trawling, pair trawling and Danish seining is already banned from Area 7. Indeed, most of the Gulf is off-limits to trawlers and seiners longer than 20m. The only commercial fishing going on in Area 7 at all is a little low-intensity long-lining, potting and set-netting for snapper, flounder, john dory, crayfish and kahawai. The story in the Marlborough Sounds is much the same: finfishing would be banned, but existing fisheries – snapper, groper, bass and blue cod – are, according to National, already low-value. Guy says these fishers would have to venture further out to sea or go out of business.

Last November, John Key told the Ponsonby Cruising Club that affected fishers who could not move on would be offered compensation from a package of between $5m and $20m.

This is something of a departure from a Government that has steadfastly refused to discuss proposals from conservationists to buy fishers out of set net quotas along the North Island west coast that continue to present a threat to the critically endangered Maui’s dolphin. Presumably, Auckland votes are more valuable than the last few strands of DNA of the 55 surviving animals – the world’s rarest marine dolphins.

Environmentalists might applaud any move to banish commercial fishing from inshore waters, but let’s take a more critical look at this: the parks exclusively disadvantage small-scale, mostly solo operators – owner-fishers, or those fishing under leased quota. Typically, vessels are small, shorter than 20m, and finfish are often caught by bottom and middle-depth long-lining, a low-impact method with which skilled fishers can target precisely the species they want.

Yes, there’s still some by-catch, but let’s remember that a hook with an unwanted species – or a seabird – on it doesn’t turn the fisher a buck. In recent years, inshore fishers have developed more polished setting techniques and adopted new gear to reduce that very overhead. Some have put equal energy into imaginative innovations and practices that lessen seabird bycatch or prevent it altogether.

Guy and Smith cannot seriously expect these fishers to move such operations into the outer gulf – they would have to borrow tens, if not hundreds, of thousands to invest in bigger vessels and heavier gear, more sophisticated nav equipment, and probably deckhands. In short, they would have to try to enter the already burgeoning offshore fishery dominated by big pair trawlers and seiners. Twenty million dollars of compensation – in total, for both Marlborough and Hauraki – probably wouldn’t even cover the value of lost Hauraki inshore quota. The suggestion is laughable. Yet their press release assures us that these are not significant businesses.

Besides, do we really want shut down such low-impact, artisanal fisheries? In their wake will go the processing plants, transport and marketing businesses they support, such as Leigh Fisheries. For a Government to throw such local industry to the wolves while our frigates stand helplessly by while pirates pillage the Ross Sea of thousands of tonnes of toothfish doesn’t just look callous: it looks downright cynical.

So just what are National’s fisheries parks supposed to achieve for fisheries management? Certainly not stock enhancement. Rec fishing catches are already regulated by bag limits. Last April, the limit for snapper along the east coast of the North Island dropped from nine fish per person, per day to seven, and the size limit increased from 27cm to 30cm. Those limits are meant to constrain recreational snapper catch between North Cape and the eastern Bay of Plenty to 3050 tonnes – the estimated five-year average catch of all recreational fishers.

Declaring a fishing park doesn’t change any of the figures or dynamics of the Gulf snapper fishery – except to offer those fish that would be taken off the commercial sector to the fishing public. Of the total landed recreational Gulf catch over the 2011-2012 summer, a shade under 80 per cent was snapper, calculated by NIWA to weigh in at 2490 tonnes. Total snapper stocks in there are estimated at just over a quarter of their unfished biomass of 1000 years ago, and fisheries managers are still concerned for the health of the fishery.

If National were trying to achieve something for conservation, then, they would instead get behind no-take marine reserves. New Zealand has signed up to international agreements promising to protect 10 per cent of our total marine environment in no-take reserves by 2020. With five years to run, just 0.4 of our EEZ is protected. In 2000, surveys of three coastal reserves found that legal-size snapper (27 cm at the time of survey) were 14.3 times more abundant inside marine reserves compared with fished areas. A comparative survey at the Poor Knights recorded a 300 per cent increase in legal-sized snapper in the first year of protection. When compared with fished control sites, snapper were found to be 8.3 times more numerous in the marine reserve after just three years.

The spillover effect on rec catches from a comprehensive, representative network of no-take reserves would seem to be obvious. Yet new marine reserves take an average ten years to establish in New Zealand, and rarely realise the full extent originally proposed, thanks in part to dogged opposition from rec fishing groups like LegaSea and iwi.

In March, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced the creation of an 834,334-square-kilometre marine reserve – roughly three and a half times the size of the UK – around the Pitcairn Islands. Last September, Barack Obama hung a no-fishing sign on one of the planet’s biggest marine environments when he increased the Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Monument near Hawaii by more than 500 per cent to 1.2 million square kilometres.

By contrast, the National Government’s response to an ailing inshore marine environment was to cynically offer it up as an election bribe to fishing fans. Again. Nathan Guy will never deliver on his promise. The 2008 bid failed in the face of industry litigation, and so will this one. Iwi were not even consulted, and they too, will rightly oppose it.

Non-fishing taxpayers should, too. Why should they bankroll a gambit that benefits just a couple of hundred thousand people in two narrow localities? There are well-established, legally enshrined property rights at stake here. If rec fishers want to acquire quota from the commercial sector, they should pay for it, just like commercial fishers have to. A fishing license fee would be an excellent way to start, as the Australian Government has already decided.

National, of course, knew all along that this proposal cannot, will not, fly. But it probably won them some votes. 

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