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February 2004

Article written by Steve Radich for the Northern Advocate newspaper

Most readers will probably be unaware of the mechanism by which fishing rights are allocated by the Ministry of Fisheries. The right to catch a fish in New Zealand is a property right.

The first step in the allocation process is to determine the virgin biomass of the species under consideration. This process of estimation is, by its very nature, extremely imprecise. At best, it‚s only a good guess.

The collapse of the valuable offshore Orange Roughy fishery in recent years can in part be attributed to the complete failure of this process.

The next consideration to be made is what portion of this estimated virgin biomass should be kept out of the harvest equation to ensure the sustainability of the fish species. Clearly, this second decision is critical in determining whether or not what’s left over for harvest [Total Allowable Catch] is sustainable or not.

Issues that further add to the challenges in making such a decision are the reproductive rates of species. Fast growing species like the kahawai are more likely to survive with a lower portion of the biomass pie protected from harvest than slow growing, slow reproducing species like the orange roughy.

Having determined the TAC, the harvestable fishery is then divvied up between commercial and non-commercial interests according to catch histories. The first bite of the cherry is allocated to recreational and customary fishing rights. This is in accordance with both the requirements of the Fisheries Act and commitments made to Tangata Whenua when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed.

In this instance, informed observers advise me that this process is heavily weighted in favour of commercial interests. This is because they have been legally required to keep accurate catch records, and further, that canny commercial fishos put in the extra mile to secure a good catch record when the prospects of a property right is on the horizon.

On the other hand, records of recreational and customary harvest are little better than guesses. In the case of the once ubiquitous kahawai, many are taken off wharves by children while others are used for bait or released to live another day. Some observers have also questioned the methodology of recent fishing surveys as a reliable means of establishing levels of recreational and customary harvest.

The proportion of the fish available for commercial harvest is called the Total Allowable Commercial Catch [TACC]. The commercial right to harvest, once allocated, has an immediate market value.

One down side of this procedure for recreational and customary fishos is that our catch records typically under record our catch. The other is that there is no allowance for population growth. Double the population and the catch per person will be halved. Think on that for your grandchildren.

Meanwhile, stay alert for opportunities to contribute to the kahawai allocation process. The next issue of the NZ Fishing News will have a simple survey you can complete and www.option4.co.nz is a website well worth a visit.

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