September 23, 2016

The current fuss around fish discarding can have a positive outcome.

That is to find a workable solution to a problem that is common to fisheries worldwide.

Discarding is a pejorative term that resonates badly with the public.

What is not widely understood is that in many cases fishermen are observing the law, rather than breaking it, when returning unwanted fish to the sea.

That is in the case of fish that are undersized, or are low value species that are not subject to a quota.

The fact some of those fish are alive and will swim off is also not widely recognised.

The real concern lies with illegal dumping, that is fish that are thrown overboard because the catcher does not have quota for them.

That is wasteful and is supposed to be addressed through what are termed deemed values.

That is a system whereby excess fish are landed and the fisher pays the sum that has been deemed by the Crown.

This is meant to be cost neutral, so that fishers are not incentivised to catch fish they do not have quota for but neither are they financially penalised when they do so.

The reality is the values in some cases are so out of kilter that it is uneconomic for such fish to be landed. This situation is exacerbated when fish stocks increase and catch limits are not adjusted accordingly.

The incentive is to break the law.

That is not excusable but it is understandable.

The issues are complex but they are not unsolvable and industry is keen to do so.

Electronic monitoring on vessels is part of the solution but it is the end point. It will improve transparency but can only be fully effective if the settings and policies are prudent. Monitoring a problem is not necessarily solving it.

Much has been made of an internal email from MPI Director of Fisheries Management (Dave Turner) published in the Heron report that offered the opinion that “if we found the golden bullet to stop discarding, we would probably put over half of the inshore fleet out of business overnight through lack of ACE (Annual Catch Entitlement) availability to cover by-catch”.

But as Fisheries Inshore chief executive Jeremy Helson pointed out on Radio NZ’s Morning Report, the email went on to say:

“Industry themselves are very keen on getting a better handle on this problem as they recognise the sustainability issues and the fact they could have higher TACCs if accurate reporting occurred.”

Helson said the impression being given that inshore fishermen were routinely breaking the law was untrue and unfair. For example, it did not reflect what was happening in the Hauraki Gulf, the country’s most important snapper fishery, where companies had voluntarily invested in camera trials on their vessels.

He welcomed working with MPI to address discarding concerns and reassure the public.

The discarding issue has a fair way to travel yet, just as the Kermadecs debate has markedly changed course.

Environment Minister Nick Smith has been sidelined, given the rift created with coalition partners, Act and the Maori Party, and Prime Minister John Key and deputy Bill English in his absence are now taking a much more conciliatory approach.

That includes allowing time for the consultation that should have been done in the first place, however long that takes.

Whether the same consideration is given to commercial property rights remains to be seen.

While the next election is still more than a year away, the Government is firmly fixed on a fourth term and instructions have gone out to Ministers to secure alliances and avoid controversy.

Even the Greens have come to the belated realisation that conservation ideals do not transcend Treaty rights and that the two can and must sit alongside each other.


- Tim Pankhurst