Baby snapper ending up in overseas fish markets
On a good day the view from Brian Hart's workplace is hard to beat.
For the past five months the Tairua builder has been swinging a hammer at a building site at Paku Hill, with sea views encompassing Slipper Island and the Aldermen Islands.
It's a beautiful but familiar sight for the former fisheries officer who has spent much of his spare time fishing on the translucent blue waters.
But it's also seascape of change.
"Ten years ago the sea was alive," Mr Hart explains.
"The sea was alive with birds and fish work ups but now it's just dead from here to the Aldermens."
Two years ago Mr Hart spoke to the Waikato Times, concerned by gill net fishing in Tairua Harbour.
A 1200-signature petition calling for a halt to commercial fishing in the harbour was eventually presented, and rejected, by the Primary Industries Ministry.
But the ensuing public attention had the desired effect with commercial operators an infrequent sight in the harbour this summer.
"The petition didn't do any good but the publicity around our concerns worked well," Mr Hart said.
But there's no hint of triumph in his voice as he talks about fish stocks along the eastern coast of the Coromandel Peninsula.
Chief among his concerns is the mortality rate of juvenile snapper caught up in commercial fishing nets.
"I was in Sydney recently and I visited a fish market. They were selling baby New Zealand snapper that was 250mm long.
"I also heard of another guy who was at a New York fish market and saw New Zealand baby snapper on the shelves there."
Concerns over snapper stocks was a hot topic last year with changes to allocations pitting recreational fishermen against commercial operations.
In changes to the Snapper 1 fishery, recreational fishermen had their daily bag limit cut from nine snapper measuring over 27cm per person, to seven over 30cm.
Snapper 1 fishery extends from North Cape on the far northeast coast to Cape Runaway at the eastern extreme of the Bay of Plenty. While the measures were aimed at rebuilding snapper stocks, Mr Hart said recreational fishermen were unfairly targeted by the Government.
"If you ask anyone who spends time on the water they'll tell you it's commercial operators which are depleting the fish stocks.
"They're exporting tonnes of juvenile snapper overseas, it's akin to slaughtering all the cows in the paddock."
Fellow Tairua fisherman Scott Lee agrees.
Mr Lee, a tourism consultant, said the Coromandel economy was based on tourism with recreational fishing a key part of that.
The decline in snapper stocks threatened the peninsula's tourism industry, as did the decline in other species such kahawai, trevally and crayfish.
"Remember those huge schools of kahawai and trevally? They are almost gone now," Mr Lee said.
"Instead of acres of boiling fish, we see small schools of less than an acre and within days of their seasonal showing they are all scooped up by Tauranga-based super seine netters - the whole school gone in one go."
As part of the changes the Government has introduced a range of measures to ensure better monitoring of commercial vessels and to stamp out illegal dumping.
National's Coromandel MP Scott Simpson said he was willing to share residents' concerns about fish stocks with Primary Industries Ministry staff.
The ministry's response, however, was fish stocks were improving.
"I can remember conversations from my earliest childhood of people concerned about fish stocks around the peninsula," Mr Simpson said.
"Fish stocks are not where anyone would want them to be but they are improving. The advice that keeps coming from the ministry is the fishery is being managed sustainably and I guess ultimately it's a question of anecdotal observations versus statistical evidence from the ministry."
Primary Industries Ministry communications adviser Mark Hanson said Tairua residents had expressed concern previously about set netting in the harbour which was encompassed in statistical area 009.
Meanwhile, Mr Hart hoped recreational fishermen make themselves heard at this year's general elections.
"I think what needs to happen is for the Government to look at the bulk netting of the snapper and find some way to ensure they're not killing juvenile fish."
Mr Lee said the Primary Industries Ministry's figures showed snapper stocks were in serious trouble and urged for a total ban on snapper fishing for a six-week period during the breeding season, starting early November.
The Government talked about the economic development of the region but did nothing to protect the resources it relied on, he said. "We owe it to future generations to act now."