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Let Them Eat Cake
By Mark Feldman
February 2004

This article by Mark Feldman, a light tackle enthusiast and long time proponent of the demise of the kahawai fishery, was originally published in the Independent February 2004 edition.

It was 1987 and the new Quota Management System was being introduced but only a few fisheries were being included. When the new catch limits were imposed Sanfords and Sealords, two big fishing companies, did the obvious. They focused on a fish that was not part of the system; they went for the kahawai.

Scientists Lew Ritchie and Peter Saul had warned the Ministry of Fisheries in the early 1980s about how vulnerable the kahawai were. In 1987 Lew Ritchie repeated that warning in a landmark article that pointed out that the kahawai were already depleted and the situation would get worse, a process that began when the commercial kahawai catch first exceeded a half million fish in 1977. The Ministry did nothing, proclaiming the stocks were healthy and that there was little fear of an expanded kahawai fishery.

But they were very wrong. The commercial catch doubled. It was 1989 when the majority of recreational fishermen around the country started to notice that things were seriously amiss. The kahawai, the most conspicuous of Kiwi fish, the “People’s Fish,” were disappearing. The great schools that used to churn up the sea around the coastlines and river mouths were becoming fewer in number and in size. Over the next several years a series of articles attacking Sanfords and Sealords kahawai fishing operations appeared in Bill Kirk’s “New Zealand Fisherman.” Soon there were more people speaking up, outraged by the Ministry of Fisheries inability to see the obvious and act upon it; not really a surprising thing since the Ministry’s initial role had been to encourage the development of the commercial fishery. After all, there was an inexhaustible supply of kahawai so why worry?

A small fleet of purse seiners caught most of the kahawai. These vessels deployed enormous nets around the schools and gradually closed them like an old-fashioned purse string, capturing the entire school, many thousands of fish, at one time. Sanfords operated four of the seven purse seiners (Sealords had the other three) and sold much of the kahawai for bait and fishmeal; barely making enough to cover their operating costs.

The recreational anglers were appalled. The Ministry was allowing the kahawai to be vacuumed out of the sea for nothing, destroying a very valuable source of food and tourist revenue in the process. In 1990, responding to the storm of protest and a TV news special by Warren Berryman, Doug Kidd finally made the Ministry do something about it. He placed limits on the number of fish the purse seiners could take. But those limits were still way too high and were lowered in 1993. But that wasn’t enough either, and in 1995, they were reduced again. But it was, as usual, too little too late, and the fisheries’ decline continued.

After killing as much as two million fish a year in the late 1980s off the South Island the situation became so bad that there that the purse-seiners hardly fish in the South anymore, focusing most of their activity around the East Coast of the North Island, where most of the subsistence and tourist fishing occurs. After the South Island fishery was depleted Sealords sold its purse seiners and withdrew from the kahawai fishery. But Sanfords has continued fishing despite the status of the fish stock.

Now the Ministry wants to bring the kahawai into the Quota Management System and has just published its recommendations and released them for public comment. The recommendations are remarkable. Remarkable because they freely present all the background information and data that points towards a declining fish stock and then go on to ignore all the evidence; proposing instead to allow Sanfords to go on purse-seining at the present rate, killing over a million kahawai a year.

The most revealing statistic presented in the Ministry’s report is that recreational fishermen only catch 0.2 kahawai per hour. That means that an average person would have to fish for over ten hours to catch two decent size fish to feed the family. This statistic is backed up by several surveys by the sporting magazines that reveal much the same information. In addition the Ministry’s own data, going back to the 1980s, shows a profound decrease in the size of the recreational catch over the past 20 years; with anglers catching fewer and smaller fish despite a greater effort. Where an angler could expect to catch four or five large fish an hour in 1982 he can now only catch one smaller fish after five hours of effort. In effect, the Ministry had allowed the purse seine operators to steal the kahawai from the people.

The setting of the Quota is not just a bureaucratic exercise. There are social effects from such changes. Many New Zealanders cannot afford to buy fish and the only way they can provide a feed for their families is by catching it. Kahawai was once our most common fish, but with so few kahawai in the water it is now very difficult to catch a feed. The Maori, who traditionally have used kahawai as a major food source, have most dramatically affected.

There have been financial repercussions from the Ministry’s policies as well. A study sponsored by the Ministry, their own study, showed a kahawai caught by the purse-seiners was worth less than 10% of what it would have been worth to the rest of us. The Kiwis that fish for kahawai create a lot of economic activity. They buy boats, fishing gear and fuel. They stay in motels, go to pubs, and travel; spreading wealth throughout our society that benefits us all.

There are only so many kahawai in the water. It’s only common sense that the most profitable way to utilize them is to develop the fishery for the vast majority of New Zealanders, not for just a few majority stockholders in Sanfords. The annual by-catch of kahawai by commercial fishermen is enough to supply New Zealand’s needs. There is no need for purse seiners to be targeting them. Right now most of their catch goes overseas for a few cents a kilo to be used for bait, fish meal and other low value products: sacrificing the interests of a million Kiwis so one company can break even keeping their purse seine fleet running. It’s madness.

It’s madness unless you understand the evolution of the Ministry. It was created to develop the fisheries and provide financial support for the commercial fishermen. The relationships between the Ministry and established fishing companies like Sanfords have matured over many years. This incestuous bond was highlighted by the scampi scandal and it continues today. But now it’s not a struggle between a few commercial fishermen over scampi; it’s a conflict between one company and the best interests of a million Kiwis.

The kahawai was once the people’s fish. It was been stolen from the People and now the Ministry wants to give it to the thieves in perpetuity. Maybe it’s time that Helen had a serious talk with Pete Hodgson and Warwick Tuck about the standards and corporate culture at the Ministry of Fisheries.

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