Opinion: Where to now for recreational fishing?

NZ recreational fishers account for less than 3 per cent of the total wild stock harvest taken from marine waters, ...
Scott Hammond/Stuff

NZ recreational fishers account for less than 3 per cent of the total wild stock harvest taken from marine waters, excluding aquaculture, writes Peter Watson.

OPINION: Earlier this month some 50 of Marlborough recreational fishers attended a presentation by the New Zealand Initiative (NZI) to hear a presentation by NZI's Dr Randall Bess on what the business organisation considers necessary for New Zealand's recreational fishing. An NZI report "The Future Catch - Preserving recreational fisheries for the next generation" followed a visit by a selected group to assess Western Australia's fishery management.

Who is NZI?

Googling the organisation reveals "the New Zealand Initiative is a market-oriented think-tank that operates from  Wellington. It was formed from the merger in 2012 of the New Zealand Business Roundtable (NZBR) and the NZ Institute."

In essence the report titled is sponsored by big business interests. It promotes privatisation of  the recreational catch to allow trading with commercial quota holders of a national public resource.  The report claims to be concerned with protecting recreational fishing. However as a former commercial fisherman and now a recreational one, I perceived the result of "The Future Catch" would solely benefit commercial quota shareholders, by diminishing recreational fishing rights and allowing them to be traded off.

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New Zealand's fisheries are owned by the public of New Zealand and managed by the Crown for the benefit of all New Zealanders. The report failed to address the need to restore depleted fish stocks and protect access to our fisheries for future recreational generations.

Several statements by Randall Bess and his supporting speaker former NZ Recreational Fishing Council president Geoff Rowling raised serious questions. For example Geoff Rowling compared Western Australia to New Zealand by saying both had similar  length of coastline but  the Australian state had a "poor fishery compared to New Zealand."

This begs the question, if the fishery is poorer than New Zealand's why adopt the Western Australian model?

Similarly in answer to the question as to why other Australian states were not visited, both speakers said there was "insufficient time". Yet the WA visit was apparently just four days. Australian states have differing fisheries administration and New South Wales has been publicly mentioned as a better model than WA. Why then not visit NSW?

Returning to the NZ Initiative, it like it's parent the Business Roundtable, believes rigidly in the free market ideology.  Market trading rather than ministerial discretion will then determine public access to our fisheries. Greater restrictions on public fishing would be required to fit recreational fishing within a fixed, collective quota and fisher licensing would be required to monitor harvest.

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Flaws appear in the report's assumptions. The report paints a future picture exploding pressure on fisheries resources due to increased recreational fishing. But available independent data showed otherwise.

The reality is society has crept towards the couch and less inclined to outdoor activities.

Besides, NZ recreational fishers account for less than 3 per cent of the total wild stock harvest taken from marine waters, excluding aquaculture. Recreational fishing can have a local significant impact in fisheries such as the Marlborough Sounds blue cod, but most other inshore fish stocks are greatly dominated by commercial.

The real issue is depletion of inshore fisheries under the "free market" Quota Management System (QMS) that encourages commercial overfishing, fish dumping and misreporting of catch.

As one informed source put it:  "New Zealand has a captured ministry, a paralysed management system now dominated by a handful of corporate quota owning rent takers, and fishing undertaken using archaic, destructive, bottom trawling methods that are incredibly damaging to the marine environment."

Nor does NZI's "The Future Catch" address severe environmental problems such as the run-off and siltation of important inner areas of the Marlborough Sounds.

What is the solution?

Any future government must examine the current situation of ministry dysfunction, undue corporate commercial influence and resulting mis-management. Currently fisheries management has been absorbed in the mega-ministry of Primary Industries. It is urgent a separate, well-resourced Ministry of Fisheries be re-established.

NZI's "The Future Catch" proposes financing the scheme by persuading government to relinquish from its Consolidated Fund, petrol taxes boaties and fishers have paid in boat fuel. This is absurdly unrealistic and politically naive. Is it a smokescreen to a recreational licence? When government inevitably declines to surrender money, a licence is the obvious option. I suspect NZI well knows this.

New Zealanders have a right to go fishing. Licensing represents an additional tax on fishers. Recreational fishing – without a license – generates at least $188 million in taxes for the government every year. Recreational fishing already 'pays its way' while contributing substantially to the economy.

Over 100,000 people rejected licensing when it was last proposed in 2000-01. About 25 per cent of recreational fishers are Maori.  It's unclear how licensing would impact on traditional fishing rights. Any attempts to licence some fishers and not others on the basis of race would create a frenzy.

A Commission of Enquiry is the only path to a better way – not a Western Australian model.

Peter Watson is a former commercial fisherman and now Marlborough Recreational Fishers Assn president.

 - The Marlborough Express

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