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Hui Article

Cultures Come Together To Save Fisheries

by Catherine Masters

19 November 2005


This article was originally published in the NZ Herald on Nov 19 2005


Just before the steep hill which leads to the imposing sand dunes of Hokianga Harbour is a green valley steeped in Maori history.

Turn along a 4km gravel road in the valley, past Whakamaharatanga marae, and you reach Waimamaku Beach on the wild west coast.

The sun is going down and a lone surfcaster is silhouetted on the rocks.

He lives up the road and has been fishing for kahawai for dinner - but he's caught nothing. It did not used to be like this. It's a worry, he says.

The next morning, men gather outside the marae. They say "kia ora" and press noses.

Nothing unusual, except for the fact that these men who hongi one another are white.

They are middle-class, most are middle-aged and some are very well-off. They represent recreational fishing groups and they, like their Ngapuhi hosts and the solitary surfcaster, are worried.

Their hongi is symbolic of a growing unity. These men, and Maori from other parts of the North Island, have travelled to join forces in an attempt to save the nation's fisheries, a resource they believe has been fleeced by commercial fishing over the years but for which they say fishing policy punishes them instead.

They will spend the next two days on this marae, sleeping mattress-to-mattress with Ngapuhi, and talking about fish.

As they mill around on another sunny northern morning awaiting formal welcome, repeated over and over are calls for more fish in the ocean.

They say that where once the ocean was teeming with snapper, flounder, mullet and kahawai, now there is scarcity.

This hui will echo with passion what most see as an unfair allocation of resources that favours commercial fishers.

For all the suspicion on both sides - the Pakeha who think that Maori get special treatment with customary and Treaty of Waitangi fishing rights and Maori who think Pakeha want to stop them - a realisation has come about that when it comes to fishing both want the same thing.

The realisation has not come overnight and there is a long way to go. But this hui, one of a Ministry of Fisheries series of forums on customary rights, is their fourth together.

Ngapuhi's Sonny Tau - sunglasses on the back of his neck and wearing an aqua-blue beanie - is chairman of Te Runanga A Iwi O Ngapuhi, the country's largest iwi. He rules the hui with quick humour and sudden sternness, a joke-cracking leader with a serious message.

To his left is Jodi Mantle, the Pakeha Mfish senior fisheries management adviser for the northern inshore area, who comes in for regular, polite digs. She takes them well, standing up to speak when Tau tells her to and remaining calm under fire. Her job, she says, is to listen and take back to the ministry what she hears.

Tau explains the main reason why Maori and Pakeha are uniting on this issue, a point Maori in particular need to get their heads around.

Although under the law Maori have customary fishing rights, most of the time they are categorised as recreational fishers, just like the Pakeha at the hui. It is a concept some Maori find hard to grasp because their relationship with the sea as a provider of food goes back centuries.

Tau has tried hard to get his people to understand. After the first joint hui in April he told Tautoko FM, a Maori radio station in Northland, the Ministry of Fisheries had "done an excellent job of fooling us into thinking that our rights to fish have been catered for under the customary fisheries regulations. This is as far from the truth as one can get".

Mfish had created, in law, three categories of fishers - customary, recreational and commercial.

But customary fishing goes only as far as the collection of seafood for a hui or an important occasion, and requires a permit.

"When we fish to feed our babies, Mfish has categorised that as recreational fishing."

When the hui breaks for lunch, Tau walks along Waimamaku Beach to be photographed. He talks fishing along the way, going back to the late 70s and early 80s.

The commercial fishers exploited the fishing so much that in 1986 the quota management system was introduced, designed to manage the commercial take because of the depletion of the fisheries. It was a great idea.

"Then in 1989 the Government wanted to sell fishing rights to foreign companies so Maori injuncted the QMS and what came out of it was that Maori were given 10 per cent of the asset and $150 million to buy Sealords."

Today, Maori own half of Sealords and Japanese fishing giant Nissui the other half.

But when the Sealord deal was signed, Maori customary rights to fish changed forever, Tau says. Before that, Maori just went out to fish.

But Ngapuhi own a large fishing quota, so why are they so concerned about recreational fishing?

"Quite frankly, my people have told me, categorically, that they want food on their table rather than being on the Chinese or Japanese table," Tau says. "That comes above our commercial business." They will take a commercial cut before a customary or recreational cut, he says.

"There is no conflict, no conflict whatsoever. People perceive it to be a conflict, but we don't look at a monetary value on our ability to feed people. Our ability to feed our families comes first. That's where it begins and ends."

No one at the hui likes the term recreational fishing. Tau says his mother taught him that food was not to be played with.

The Pakeha don't like it either. Aside from those who catch and release fish, such as marlin, they go fishing for food. Everyone agrees that non-commercial is the best term for them.

One of the key non-commercial groups represented at the hui is known as option4. It was born out of a Ministry of Fisheries document five years ago on managing the fisheries. It presented three options, but a group of non-commercial fishers didn't like any of them and came up with option4.

They and other non-commercial fishermen at the hui say they are not looking to stamp out commercial fishing.

What they want is for conservation of the fishery and the rights of non-commercial fishermen to be put first.


One particular issue really upsets option4. Mfish, they say, want to manage the fisheries by way of a proportional system, where if fishing is good the percentage take would go up the same amount across the three categories. If it were bad it would be cut across the three categories.

It is a system which has already been used. Former Fisheries Minister David Benson-Pope used it in September in what is known as the Snapper 8 decision, where commercial fishing has led to recreational bag limits on the west coast from North Cape to Wellington.

The commercial, recreational and customary allocation were all cut by 13.5 per cent. A proportional system might sound fair, but leaders at the hui say it is not.

Tau introduces Paul Barnes, option4 project leader and a former commercial fisherman, but now passionate non-commercial fisherman whose "korero will blow away the myth the ministry continues to push about why everyone should have the same proportional cut".

Barnes uses a branch to point to a series of overheads. He's done this before and knows his stuff. He starts with a history of the fisheries as he sees it. Basically, there used to be more fish and they were bigger.

His overhead shows a map of New Zealand and alongside the west coast are pictures of snapper. In the South Island they are big but from about New Plymouth they shrink.

He puts up another map with blotches to represent commercial trawling. The bigger the blotch, the smaller the fish.

"The west coast used to be famous for its big fish. Most are gone. The reality is that after having a QMS for 20 years many of our fisheries are still in a depleted state. It is recreational and customary fishers who bear the brunt of this mismanagement."

Option4 suspects there's a plot to cap the recreational catch at what it is now.

Barnes argues that the recreational catch has already been suppressed to all-time lows in many important inshore fisheries through mismanagement and voluntary conservation by the recreational sector.

Capping it now means the minimum possible amount of fish would be set aside for non-commercial fishers.

"Instead of commercial fishers' quota representing a share of the total allowable commercial catch (TACC) it will represent a share of the total allowable catch (TAC) of all sectors.

"Equally, non-commercial fishers will also be given a share of the total allowable catch of all sectors. This share will be the amount that is left over after the commercial quota rights have been transferred to the proportional system."

Under the system the ministry would be able to remove themselves from the contentious business of allocation decisions - and avoid their responsibility to the people of this country.

Challenged about what the ministry's intention on proportionalism was, Jodi Mantle told the hui the ministry had assigned someone to look at allocation issues, but it was early stages.

Asked after the hui if there were sufficient fish, she said: "I believe there are actually plenty of fish in the sea."

Some of the anecdotal information from fishermen was true, she said. There were sustainability concerns about snapper and kahawai.

"The good news is that the ministry has noted there is a sustainability concern and they have put measures in place and now, unfortunately, it's just a waiting time until they rebuild."

But in other areas the scientific evidence did not show it was as bad as fishermen thought and when making decisions the scientific information came first.

"If you actually sit down with people and say 'Have you been fishing lately?' most of it is pretty positive, but again, it's those few key species that there does seem to be concerns with."

In Auckland, before the hui, option4 driving force Scott Macindoe said all New Zealanders' right to fish must be protected.

He is one of the few Pakeha who can trace on a map the boundaries of Maori tribes. The most precious taonga [treasure] is the fisheries, he says.

"There's nothing more righteous than a sack of paua providing for the needs of visitors to a tangi, full stop."

The first hui, Macindoe says, was a gift from Ngapuhi to the non-commercial groups.

"We learned waiata, we learned about the realms and the phenomena, we learned about the whakapapa, the histories, the boundaries.

"There's no great difference between us when we go to the beach to fish for food, or the boat. We are governed by the same regulations, we are the same, we're citizens of the country."

Macindoe says no one is blaming the commercial fishers. They have been allowed to fish to that extent. It comes back to legislation and governments.

Pakeha Paul Smit of Herne Bay says he has been "awakened in a sense".

When people ask why he is going away to a hui, he says to them: "Well, you know, it's about making sure there are fish in the water for your kids and your grandchildren, that's what I say."

There was a sense of bonding at the hui, which finished with roars of laughter.

A Ngapuhi kaumatua welcomed the Pakeha gathered and pointed out that Pakeha were not always welcomed by the tupuna [ancestors].

"They were a little bit salty, but we have come a long way since then."


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