Sealord deal gives opportunities for Maori

HIGH TECH: The Sealord trawler Thomas Harrison.
HIGH TECH: The Sealord trawler Thomas Harrison.

Lots of new jobs for Maori? Not really. Riches flowing to the Maori men and women in the street? Definitely not. But a growing and lasting role in the international seafood industry? An emphatic yes.

Sealord Group, which is based in Nelson or Auckland, depending on how important you think the corporate head office is, cannot be said to have gone from strength to strength since the Government funded all Maori - or at least those with iwi affiliations - into a half share in 1992.

Along with the rest of the industry, it has had its ups and downs. It was hit hard by necessary cuts imposed on the hoki quota and it has got out of mussel farming and processing in the South Island.

In spite of the promise of 700 new jobs when Japanese giant Nissui was granted approval to buy the other half from Brierley in 2001, Sealord's New Zealand work force is more than 500 shy of its 1600-job peak in the mid-1990s.

The other half of the picture, though, shows a business that has become global and which has returned a steady annual dividend of $16 million since 2003, split evenly between Nissui and Aotearoa Fisheries Ltd (AFL), the collective Maori shareholder.

That in turn has allowed AFL to distribute its own dividend to iwi, whose individual shareholdings have been worked out using a formula that took a decade of wrangling and court action to settle, and which gives weight to both tribal population and shoreline.

An unhappy compromise for all, the formula works out better for some than others.

Last year the populous North Island iwi Ngapuhi got more than $1m, while the iwi with most of the South Island's coastline, Ngai Tahu, received nearly $500,000. The small fry got next to nothing - under $7000 in several cases.

Keeping in mind that the $150m Sealord deal was designed to be a major component of the full and final settlement of historic Maori fishery claims, it might seem like precious little is filtering down to the rank-and-file. Yet half of Sealord, and all of its quota - nearly 20 per cent of the national total - is an enormously valuable Maori asset, especially with an eye to the future.

Put together with the 20 per cent of quota for new species brought into the quota management system since 1992 - another part of the settlement - it gives Maori collective ownership of 38 per cent of the national total. A further settlement adds 20 per cent of water space allocated for aquaculture.

The iwi minnows don't have enough shares or quota to think big, but they can band together and work with the big fish.

As their leaders like to point out, iwi are now investors and participants in the seafood industry whether they like it or not, and must meet the industry's challenges to profit from its opportunities.

The Maori part of the Sealord ownership structure is complex, but one of the key figures today is Whaimutu Dewes, who chairs the boards of both AFL and the Sealord holding company, Kura.

He has had a prominent role since the settlement was first proposed and when asked if it has been a good deal for Maori, he turns the question around.

"What would have happened if we didn't get it? We would have spent a long time trying to couple those assets together by picking up bits and pieces around the country or around the world.

"In those 20 years we've had a major deepwater fishing operator, we've still got it."

Iwi had learned about processing offshore in other jurisdictions, notably China, and about operating in world markets.

"Has it been successful in terms of delivering on the aspirations that negotiators in the iwi set out back in 1992? I'd say yes."

Maori would be "seriously underweight" in the industry in both a global and New Zealand sense "if we didn't have Sealord in the family group", Dewes says.

On jobs, he says that Maori ownership is perpetual, so in the long run there will be more opportunities for Maori people. To suggest that the settlement should have multiplied jobs or that current employees would be displaced for Maori "is actually, when you think about it, not reasonable".

"The Sealord assets were acquired to provide iwi with a deepwater expertise, existing infrastructure, human capital and a global marketing network. It has secured that, and that's what Sealord still provides."

Sealord's first chairman and long-time Ngai Tahu powerhouse Sir Tipene O'Regan says he still regards the group as a work in progress, but gives it an overall pass mark as a key element in the overall fisheries settlements.

"Sealord operationally in Nelson is a lot smaller today than when we acquired it, but that's also a part of what's been happening overall in the sector, both nationally and internationally, and I think they've survived pretty well."

Sir Tipene, who chaired the board for a decade before stepping down in 2002, says the sale of Sealord's South Island mussel farms and associated water space was "a tragedy".

He says it was a strategic mistake to shift the head office to Auckland, putting "the bridge of the ship" so far away from "the vessel" - the Nelson fleet and factory base - and that he would never have countenanced that.

In the context of the Maori legend in which Maui fished up the North Island, he likens it to moving control from Nelson, the bridge of the waka, to "towards the anal vent of the fish".

Overall, however, Sealord has done well, he says, particularly in terms of asset growth and its relationship with Nissui.

"There has been a fairly rough period that the company is emerging from now, seemingly quite successfully."

Sealord hasn't provided the hoped-for proportion of Maori employment, but under the current chairmanship, "I think it's likely to move more successfully in that direction", Sir Tipene says.

"Nelson doesn't offer a large Maori work force of appropriate skill levels. You've got to remember it is a major international company with all sorts of holdings offshore."

T e Ohu Kaimoana chief executive Peter Douglas also sees a great collective benefit in what the Sealord deal and related settlements have brought to Maori. His organisation has helped iwi meet the fisheries settlement requirements and has so far distributed $550m in shares, assets and cash under the legislated terms.

Douglas says the Sealord assets have appreciated considerably over the 20 years.

A lot has been done to prepare young Maori for careers in the seafood industry through scholarships and training, though he has no expectation "that people are going to be able to leap up a ladder of seniority on the back of just being Maori. They've got to be good".

An important part of the Sealord settlement was the changes it wrought to how tribes relate to each other, the Government, local bodies and other institutions, he says.

There were only a handful of iwi organisations in 2002, now Te Ohu Kaimoana works with 57.

"The way that the Treaty settlement for fisheries was done pretty much set the blueprint for how you would be able to deal with other settlements. There was no recipe to follow like there is these days," Douglas says.

"We've learned a lot about ourselves, our leadership and those types of things."

Sealord "does pretty well for the most part", he says, but it's a cyclical industry.

"It doesn't pay to gloat."

If people with an ownership or governance connection with Sealord can be expected to say good things about it, even someone who might go the other way, Service and Food Workers Union assistant national secretary Neville Donaldson, is willing to offer some praise.

Donaldson has battled Sealord management over job cuts, foreign crewing and the negotiation of a new collective contract for the Port Nelson processing site, linked to a restructuring plan.

He still laments the shrunken size of the Kiwi work force and sees the lack of job growth following the 1992 settlement as a broken promise. He also thinks Sealord's attitude to Maori career development has sometimes been a bit hypocritical.

But he says the company today is significantly different to what it was two years ago.

"I've been involved with the company for a lot of years and I've seen the good, the bad and the ugly, and I think that they were the worst and the ugliest they've ever been in that period around the restructuring."

He says since that "blue" was sorted out, the company has been doing the sort of things he'd argued it should do - identifying niche markets, adding value to its fish, expanding its fleet and talking about future growth.

Maybe Sealord could be doing more for Maori employment, Donaldson says, and perhaps the planned growth will provide just that opportunity.

The Press