Seafood trade in healthy shape

BILL MOORE
Last updated 11:42 05/08/2013
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PROVIDING WORK: Teresa Wallis and Chris Hanley shuck mussels at Kono factory at Riverlands Park, Blenheim.

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BIG FISH: Seafood New Zealand chief executive Tim Pankhurst.

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Bill Moore meets the seafood industry's new mouthpiece, who says there's plenty of good news to tell.

The seafood industry has a good story but has struggled to tell it, says Seafood New Zealand's chief executive Tim Pankhurst.

That's where he comes in. Mr Pankhurst, who grew up in Nelson and was a reporter at the Nelson Mail in the mid-1980s, became one of New Zealand's leading newspapermen and news executives.

He was editor of the Waikato Times, the Press and the Evening Post before becoming the first editor of the merged Wellington daily, the Dominion Post, and then in 2009 chief executive of the Newspaper Publishers' Association.

Shoulder-tapped by Seafood New Zealand at the end of last year as his NPA role was reducing, he told the Mail that his media background was attractive to his new employers.

"This is a vibrant, expanding industry with a good story to tell, but too often that doesn't come across."

Mr Pankhurst has long been a keen recreational fisherman and diver and said that contributed to his interest in the job, but more so the parallels between working for the newspaper industry and the fishing industry, he said.

"You're fronting a trade organisation that's concerned about industry reputation, advocacy, Government regulation - and in the seafood industry case international trade and exports - but a lot of those skills and attributes in working for an industry and dealing with an industry board are similar."

Through his NPA role he also learned to work with competing interests. In newspapers it was Fairfax New Zealand and APN, which go head-to-head in the Auckland market. In Seafood New Zealand there are five sector groups - deepwater, inshore, paua, rock lobster and aquaculture - "some of which have interests that butt up against each other".

Seafood NZ, based in Wellington, has a staff of 10 and a $2 million budget, drawing its funding from the sector groups' proportional contributions.

Interviewed while in Nelson to attend the annual meeting of Aquaculture New Zealand, he said he would be a regular visitor to the country's biggest fishing port.

"I figure it's really important in this role, rather than sitting at a desk in Wellington getting a shiny arse. You've got to be around, talking to people at the wet end, people who do the biz. So much of it is about relationships."

He said getting to grips with such a complex industry with all its different groupings and players was very challenging but also hugely stimulating.

His main focus is to help produce a five-year strategic plan, the first time it has been done across the board, and due to be unveiled at the Seafood NZ annual conference in Auckland on October 1.

"We're trying to pull together a coherent framework around uniting the industry and advancing it on fronts like eco-labelling, better science, better innovation. There's lots of things going on but some of them are in isolation.

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"There is a will in the industry to say, let's put aside some of the individual sector problems and interests and look at the wider vision for the greater good."

One of the challenges was to build a price premium around New Zealand seafood from the growing recognition that it came from clean water in a well-managed fishery, with several species already achieving the sought-after sustainability tick from the Marine Stewardship Council.

"Part of our mission is to get across the good things that we're doing and also help build wealth and growth in the industry. The Government has a growth agenda, we work in closely with the MPI [Ministry for Primary Industries], there's actually some fair winds at the moment and it's up to us really to capitalise on that."

Always respected as a strong and forthright newspaper editor, after four months in his new job Mr Pankhurst had a clear message for recreational fishermen who have been complaining about the management of some fisheries, notably mooted changes in bag and size limits for North Island snapper.

He said fishing industry leaders recognised that it was a shared fishery, that they didn't have a guaranteed right of access and that they could only prosper with public support.

"There are areas of conflict and there probably always will be, but the sectors are very conscious of that, and there's lots of conversations going on around, ‘How can we protect our interests but also recognise others and mitigate the negative aspects?' "

The recreational lobby also had to recognise it had a part to play.

"I think it would be really helpful, instead of huffing and puffing about ‘it's our God-given right', that there be a recognition that we've all got to take a part in managing the fishery."

Given its investment in boats and plant and the employment it provided, it wasn't unreasonable for the industry to at least have its catch limits held at the same level if recreational catches were further restricted, he said.

He also felt Forest & Bird was in danger of "losing whatever credibility it has" if it continued to claim that the hoki fishery - expected to get a commercial catch increase for the next fishing year after a string of healthy and improving harvests - was unsustainable.

"They seem to have a blinkered view which they won't be swayed on, regardless of the evidence. We want to engage with them. Of course we have a huge interest in well-managed fisheries, because it's our lifeblood. I think fishermen are farmers - it would be great if we stopped walking past each other and could engage in a more constructive way. We've got a will to do that."

With big increases in wild fish catches unlikely, aquaculture offered growth potential "but even then there are these endless fights over access".

"I think a real measure of our success would be if in five years the talk was, ‘Fantastic, there's another salmon farm going in, it's going to produce 100 jobs and make 100 million bucks, it's only a very small area of bay, and it's good news' - instead of $10 million on litigation, endless legal arguments and the only people getting fat are the lawyers."

- Nelson

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