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Overfishing Made Legal

Overfishing 'made legal' by fines system

By Nick Churchouse

18 June 2007

This article was originally published in The Dominion Post on Monday, 18th June 2007

Deliberate overfishing by commercial fishermen for more than a decade has been made legal by ineffective regulations, the industry says.

The fishing industry has acknowledged some of its members intentionally abuse regulations to catch more fish than they should, absorbing penalty payments into the extra profits.

For the past 12 years snapper fishermen on the west coast and lower east coast of the North Island have caught nearly 2000 tonnes more fish than they were supposed to, a bounty worth about $16 million in today's export market, while Ministry of Fisheries charges for overfishing total only $7 million for the same area.

In the SNA2 fishery area, between Wellington and the East Cape, total reported catch had been up to 55 per cent higher than allowed by the Ministry of Fisheries in some years.

"It's certainly not accidental," Seafood Industry Council chief executive Owen Symmans said.

The ministry's "deemed value" system made overfishing legal, with a penalty payment, to encourage fishermen to report unintentional excess catch and bycatch instead of dumping it.

But the penalties were too low to discourage targeted overfishing of valuable species, worth more than the penalty cost.

The export price for snapper was up to $9 a kilo, while the "deemed value" was as low as $1.68 a kilo in some fisheries.

New deemed values are due to be consulted on next week, with penalties up to 300 per cent higher.

Mr Symmans said last year's overall snapper catch exceeded quota by about 9 per cent.

"I would consider, in a fishery like that, that is certainly high. People are specifically targeting it because it is commercially viable for them to do so," he said.

"Unfortunately it is legal, but the industry does not condone it at all."

Suggestions that the sheer volume of over-quota catch indicated large fishing companies were involved in deliberate overfishing were speculative, Mr Symmans said.

"It could be a whole range of people. I don't know who has been overfishing."

Recreational fishing lobby group Option4 spokesman Paul Barnes said the rampant "wild west" fishing had been ignored by the Government, while west coast recreational catch limits for snapper had been nearly halved because there were fears that the snapper fishery was in trouble.

Mr Barnes said the Ministry of Fisheries had described the levels of fishing as "chronic deeming", showing they clearly knew it was deliberate.

"You've got quotas that are not quotas, they just catch what they want," he said.

New Zealand Big Game Fishing Council spokesman Richard Baker said overfishing on the west coast had robbed a generation of New Zealanders of experiencing a fully healthy fishery.

"If the chronic abuse of the deemed value system continues to go unchecked they are not likely to ever see a healthy, well managed fishery," he said.

Fisheries Minister Jim Anderton and the industry have been talking about a fix for the issue for two years, and that the problem had been "put on the back burner" by previous fisheries ministers.

Minstry manager of deep water fisheries Stefan Leslie said new deemed values would be taken to the industry for consultation next week.

The new deemed values would apply to about 50 fishery areas, including three snapper fishery areas which would increase to $8 a kilo from levels as low as $2.

He said extreme overfishing would be hit with differential penalties up to a maximum of $16 a kilo.

"If these don't do the job we'll be proposing other changes," Mr Leslie said.

The problem was making the penalty level right, so that it did not prompt illegal dumping of fish to avoid the cost.

"You want a deemed value system that so disincentivises overfishing so that people don't do it. It's a very fine line," Mr Anderton said.


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