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Tangled Lines

Tangled Lines

by Jon Gadsby


First published in the December 2000 issue of Metro

Changes to the way New Zealanders fish are currently being debated at a series of heated meetings where recreational fishers are defending their traditional rights, complaining about the commercial over-fishing and making it quite plain that they will not accept licensing. Jon Gadsby investigates.

It's a magic day, sometime in the not so far away future. There you are, sitting in your dinghy or runabout, floating on the gentle billows of the Hauraki Gulf, fishing rod in hand. The sun is shining, Rangitoto looks like a gem. For all its niggles, life as a New Zealander ain't so bad eh?

And then a boat approaches, bearing down fast upon your idyll. We don't know what colour it will be yet, but let's presume it's black. It cuts a mean V through the water then surges to a stop alongside. Two uniformed figures appear.

"Could I see your current recreational fishing licence?" says one.

Recreational fishing licence?

"Get that line out of the water. Follow us in please," says the other.

Try this one. You're basking on a warm rock, somewhere down the Coromandel. The kids are with you. The surf rods are cast out and propped in their holders, the pohutakawas are in full bloom, the cicadas are trilling. Your nine-year-old's still ogling the three-kilo snapper she's just pulled out of the tide, now nestling in its bed of ice in the chilly bin. A face appears, framed by foliage. Above the face is a badge on the front of a uniform cap.

"Do you have a tag for that snapper?" asks the face.

"A what?"

"A tag. A non-removable catch-tag. They're available at sports shops and service stations. Possession of a fish without a tag for the appropriate species is a strict liability offence under the Recreational Fisheries Act 2002."

"Recreational Fisheries Act?"

"I'm sorry, without a tag I'm obliged to issue an instant fine and confiscate your fishing tackle. Oh, I'm obliged to take the fish too."

There are those who will say that the above two scenarios are exaggerated, inflammatory, and unhelpful to constructive debate - and they're probably right. But get into a debate on recreational rights with virtually any New Zealander who's ever held a fishing rod, and this is the bite you're likely to get, and reasoned calm is not the catch you're likely to land.

There are 1.4 million recreational fishers in this country and some of them have started something. What began life as a small snowball is rapidly gathering speed and enormous momentum as it heads toward Wellington. Increasingly the phrase "option Four" is heard issuing from this approaching avalanche, and its tone of voice is getting increasingly angry and insistent. To get to grips with just what is going on requires a bit of potted history and a lot of acronyms.

In 1986, as a result of concerns about unconstrained commercial fishing, the Quota Management System (QMS) was introduced. This was designed purely to reduce and control the volume and nature of commercial catches. Levels of Individual Transferable Quota (ITQ) were assigned to existing commercial fishers on the basis of catch history. In other words, if you had a record of catching large quantities of fish in the past, you stood to pick up a large chunk of quota. A sizeable proportion of quota was made sacrosanct and set aside for the traditional fishery (Maori), and $45 million was paid out in compensation to those fishers who were disadvantaged by the introduction of QMS. Some allowable catch levels were reduced by as much as 40 per cent by the new system.

The Ministry (MAF at the time) announced that these were the new catch levels and they had been set at these levels in order that the fishery could rebuild to a point at which it could produce the Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY).

All hunky dory so far. New Zealand had a fisheries management system trumpeted as the envy of, and a model for, the rest of the world. Then came the quota appeals process. Nearly all appeals by established fishers were granted, and the quota was lifted by about 30 per cent on top of that already assigned. A great many smaller operators found they could not work profitably within the new system, got out of the industry, and began selling their quota allocations.

These were almost invariably snapped up by the large operators and conglomerates. Even then there were some who were convinced that the system was not going to work. It seems the commercial operators were catered for, Maori traditional fishing had a generous allocation, but little consideration was given to the place of recreational fishing in this piscatorial pie.

Paul Barnes was a commercial fisher at the time the QMS was introduced and is adamant that it does not and has not worked. He is now a vocal proponent of recreational fishing rights.

"The blunder of '86," he says, "was to give property rights to inshore fisheries in perpetuity, while ignoring the fact that both the general population, and the popularity of fishing as a recreation, were both growing."

If more people go fishing there's a good chance they'll catch more fish. This means there are fewer fish available for the commercial fishers and they see this as an infringement of their aforementioned property right and will demand hefty compensation. No government wants this. Around 90 per cent of commercial quota is now in the hands of large companies and joint-venture multi-nationals. They have the money, the resources and the legal clout to fight tooth and nail to the very highest tribunals they can find. No government wants this either.

Basically there is the problem of three competing interests -- commercial, traditional, and recreational -- all fishing on the same patch. Fine, you might say. Enough for everyone when there are plenty of fish in the patch. But what happens when, through any number of reasons, the number of fish in the patch begins to diminish alarmingly? The commercial harvest is important, generating around $1.4 billion for the country. The Maori catch is sacrosanct. Where does this leave the recreational fishers, one might well ask?

It seems that in the years after 1986 the quota system did not work, or at least did not do what it was supposed to do, despite the claims of numerous advocates to the contrary. In the first year "dumping" became widespread, especially in the Northern Snapper Fishery (Snapper 1). Dumping is the unlawful practice of jettisoning smaller, damaged, dead and therefore less valuable fish at sea. These fish are not landed and consequently not monitored for quota. The fisher is then able to fill his quota with larger and top-quality fish at a far higher price per kilo: $12 as opposed to $4.

Black marketing was also rife at this time. MAF's "Operation Buster" in those early days involved 1000 tonnes of fish in just one incident. "And this is just the tip of the iceberg," said Neville Buckley, the officer involved at the time.

Hundreds of incidents were reported of masses of dead, floating fish at sea, and yet the quotas were operational and had in fact gone up by 30 per cent as a result of the appeals process.

"It was a bureaucratic slip-up," says Paul Barnes. "You can't harvest more than the sustainable yield. We'd just compensated them [the commercial fishers] by $45m to get them to fish that sustainable yield. They went straight to the courts and thought that these were extra rights they were being given in a public fishery. in perpetuity. This was rubbish, as they'd already been compensated to fish at the lower level. Doug Kidd [then Minister of Fisheries] straightened that one out six or seven years later, but by that time there was about 10,000 tonnes of fish gone missing."

Some of the figures used to establish the quota levels and the MSY have also been called into question. A former fisherman who prefers not to be named remembers, " If you look at the history of a fishery, and look at how it's been depleted you can predict where the sustainable yield is. There's a mathematical formula for it that's used worldwide. But the Ministry could only use the information it was provided with. I remember in the late seventies early eighties, every commercial fisherman round here was walking round with a wad of notes in his pocket you could have choked a mule with - through selling catches which weren't reported.

"And because there was so much unreported catch, it was determined by the scientists that the fishery was far less productive than what it actually was. The initial consensus among the scientists, based on information supplied by the industry, was that the Snapper 1 fishery would only produce 4,500 tonnes of fish commercially. They've now discovered it will produce 10,000 tonnes."

So the quota system has not been without its share of hiccups, if not downright indigestion. There seems to be consensus among all interested groups that the whole system is being overfished.

Enter the New Zealand Recreational Fishing Council, an ad hoc body of interested - and passionate - recreational fishers. Just over two years ago, this group was requested to work in conjunction with the Ministry of Fisheries Strategic Policy Unit to thrash out a blueprint, or at least a discussion paper, charting the pathway to the future for the recreational sector of the fishery. The result of those two years' work is Soundings, a discussion document now doing the rounds of fishing clubs, boat clubs and special interest groups. Soundings sets out what its creators saw as three possible and practicable options for the future of recreational fishing in New Zealand.

The snowball which has become the avalanche approaching Wellington is the result of the reactions of a great many recreational fishers towards the contents of the Soundings document, and its suggested Options One, Two and Three.

These reactions have rapidly taken on all the characteristics of a movement, and that movement is calling itself "option4".

It's a wet and windy night outside the Outboard Motor Club on Hobson Bay. Despite the atrocious weather, 300 hardy souls have turned out for a meeting. There's an eclectic collection of cars in the car park: utes and Westie wagons, Honda Civics and Mitzis through to the Mercs and Beamers that look a bit lost out of Westhaven. Inside the mix goes on. Suits and Swanndris rub shoulders in the clubrooms. Shorts and polar fleeces are in evidence among the track-pants, designer jeans and odd Harris Tweed in the crush.

This is a public meeting to discuss the Soundings document and Options One, Two and Three but that's not really what the punters are here for. Ninety five per cent are here because there's to be a presentation on behalf of something most of them are only just starting to wake up to. It's option4 people want to hear about.

The meeting comes to as much order as it's ever going to. Several members of the Recreational Fishing Council, accompanied by two officials from the Ministry, take the stage and begin. A video explaining Soundings will be presented they say, followed by a talk from the Ministry, a talk from the council, and then a period for discussion.

"What about option4?" shouts someone. The players on stage exchange glances momentarily. "This will be followed, given time, by a presentation on behalf of that group," the gathering is informed. Cheers.

The audience watches the video and the explanation of Soundings. Of the three options it seems that Option One is the continuation of the status quo, with catch levels set at the Minister's discretion. Option Two is a proportional recreational share, dependent on what research reveals about levels of fish stocks. Option Three is shared management by recreational fishers with the commercial and traditional sectors. It talks about the recreational priority but fails to address a fundamental question: Given a finite mass of fish, if the recreational share of the fishery rises, who takes the cut? If the stock of the fishery is depleted for any reason, who takes the loss?

Discussion time, and the above questions are asked. Those on stage look distinctly uncomfortable. Some of the questions are coming from people who obviously have a profound knowledge of the subject and all its scientific and technical nuances. Increasingly, questions are waved aside or batted around from one spokesperson to another without any answer forthcoming. Someone takes the floor. "It's licensing, isn't it?" he demands. Option One doesn't work. Option Two won't work, and Option Three is just another way of saying "licensing".

"I don't know if I'd go along with that," splutters a MOF man.

"Well what the hell's going to fund it?" the speaker continues. "For a legislated proportional share to work you'd have to have an accurate record of every fish killed in the inshore fishery. Not just the ones landed at the boat ramp. every fish killed." The MOF man nods but says nothing. Another speaker is on his feet. "It'd take an army to police it. On the water, on the wharves, on the rocks. How you going to pay for that other than by licensing?" There doesn't seem to be an answer to this one.

The cast on stage is rescued at this point by a gruff voice from the side.

"I've heard enough of this. I don't know about you but I came here tonight to hear about option4. Could we get onto that please?"

There's an ominous buzz of agreement from the whole room. With palpable relief the councilors and officers exit stage right, leaving the chairman to intone "It's now my task to call upon Scott Macindoe to tell you a few things about an alternative called option4."

There's enthusiastic applause as Macindoe gets up to make his pitch. He's a natural talker and knows his subject. He's also read this audience well. They've come to hear him and he knows it. He's joined onstage by Paul Barnes, and the two have obviously done this before.

"There is nothing complicated about option4," Macindoe begins. option4is about defining a clear right, based on four simple principles.

  • Recreational fishers must have priority over commercial fishers.
  • No licensing. That is one big no. (APPLAUSE)
  • Area rights for recreational fishing which exclude the commercial sector, in fact no different at all to area rights enjoyed quite properly by traditional fishers
  • A planning right. Any fish stocks conserved and grown by recreational fishers should be saved for the benefit of recreational fishers. (MORE APPLAUSE).

It seems there's a problem, he continues. The public's right to catch fish needs clearer definition in law. Recreational fishers are bumping up against groups whose rights are far more clearly defined, and this is going to get worse. The quality of fishing, now and in the future, is at risk, and how the total catch is split between the conflicting (and competing) sectors is the key issue.

Paul Barnes takes over. He is a man who knows his stuff. A former commercial fisherman, former NZRFC member, and special advisor to the Ministry, he can talk in a language of figures, statistics, acronyms, pie graphs and technological data. He also manages to put it in terms a non-specialised audience can comprehend. He's also the developer of Paul's Fishing Kites and the inventor of a new eco-friendly longline snapper hook, currently undergoing a 50,000 hook trial with the Ministry of Fisheries. You can hear a pin drop in the room as he talks, and some of the ramifications of the Soundings document begin to sink in.

But Barnes is also at pains not to put the boot into the NZRFC, whose representatives are now looking a tad stranded.

"Without the NZRFC carrying the banner of public fishing rights," he says, "we wouldn't have a Soundings document and attendant debate. Without the document and the process we would have no option4."

Macindoe steps forward. "option4 members and their principles would have remained dormant were it not for Soundings. Already 50,000 submissions are on their way to the Minister, and this is just the beginning. Someone has awoken a sleeping giant," he says dramatically. It is dramatic.

Barnes continues. "If you strengthen someone's right, you surely increase their level of responsibility. In the commercial fishery, if the increase in rights had been followed by a corresponding increase in responsibility, we wouldn't be facing this problem today." There's certainly a mood in the air, something like determination. It seems the fishing public wants to become more involved in the management of their fishery - rather than leave it to the Minister. The meeting comes to an end and a box is passed around for donations. It comes back full, including some notes of surprisingly large denominations. As we file out someone says, "I was at a meeting the other night. About 400 people. A guy stood up and said, 'Okay, how many of you here voted for MMP?' Four guys raised their hands. This bloke says, 'Okay, apart from these plonkers, how the hell did we get it?'"

There's another meeting two nights later in Te Atatu, also well attended. This one becomes more heated still, with several calls for direct action. One man jumps to his feet just before the end. "Why are we shagging around like this?" he demands. "Tell you what, why don't we all hitch the boats and trailers on. head out on the motorways this Friday. We can block every entrance and exit to Auckland. Shut the place down. That'll make 'em listen!"

"All drive to Wellington," cries another man, obviously a French farmer in a previous life.

Barnes and Macindoe blanche visibly. "Hang on, hang on, hang on," they say. "This is the opposite to what we want. We've got a lot of public goodwill on our side at the moment and something like this would blow it to smithereens overnight. We've got a long way to go yet before we consider that sort of thing." The suggestion has been made though, and received not without enthusiasm. Macindoe's sleeping giant springs to mind.

They're an unlikely double-act, Macindoe and Barnes. At a waterfront cafe the following morning, they are warily optimistic. Scott Macindoe is the sort of man who once you start him talking is almost impossible to shut up. Worldly - some might say glib. Confident, comfortable, and for reasons he maintains even he can't fathom, driven upon this issue.

Paul Barnes is almost an opposite, a "Westie" through and through. I can imagine a tendency to under-rate him - until five minutes of his soft, self-effacing drawl turn the sod on a profound knowledge of fish and fishing, underpinned by a deep commitment to preservation, conservation, and the legacy we leave for the future. Beneath the mullet haircut there's a keen intelligence on a low burn, likely to flare into bright light at the drop of a sinker. There's a passionate belief in the God or Rangi-given right of generations of New Zealanders yet to come, to bait a hook, cast a line, and return home with the proverbial feed of fish held on high. A fundamental birthright, we're talking about here. Nothing to do with big business or government. Bigger than both of these.

Squinting out at the gulf, Barnes is onto a bigger picture than option4. "You know what MSY is? Well imagine it as a lawn. If you want to get the maximum yield out of your lawn, ie, the maximum amount of grass clippings, there's a perfect frequency to mow that lawn, and a perfect height to cut it to.

"If you imagine you have the virgin biomass, the total unfished stock, ideally you fish it down to 25 per cent. Take out all these big fish, and leave the optimum amount of space for the remaining fish to breed and grow into. In New Zealand, traditionally, we haven't put the brakes on the harvesting until the biomass is down to about 10 per cent."

So in a developing fishery, prior to quota, the race is on to establish catch history, and be assigned quota on that basis. Therefore whatever you catch is sustainable, according to Barnes, so long as it's not higher than 75 per cent of the total. And we have been fishing well above 75 per cent of this biomass in some areas and species. Witness orange roughy, oreo dory - snapper to an extent. For that matter, throw in Chatham Islands' crayfish and Stewart Island paua. In the race to build that catch history the fisher gets paid in free, sellable, quota for going out and fishing the resource down. Paul Barnes continues. "We're now in the rather silly process of Soundings, which somehow pretends to convince the public that they have contributed, in some way, to the appalling state of our fisheries. It's a snow-job being done on the public, because [Soundings] are not basing anything on the real facts. Incidentally, none of what I've just told you is in Soundings. I've asked them why it's not in there. They said `they weren't allowed'.

"Do you know what they say the problems are in the fishery? People aren't allowed to get on wharves any more. Marine farming is taking up space. They're blaming water quality - run-off from dairy farms and so forth. They're saying this is where our fish have disappeared to. Sure these things are part of the problem. But the problem is the totally irresponsible management of what they call a property right.

"What they're trying to do now is force us to be participants in that property right - and it's a filthy right. It creates wastage, it causes mayhem. It's a communist system."

Barnes has a good point if you imagine the fishery as a collective farm with each fisher allocated say, 20 tonnes of fish. Some go out wasting and squandering, killing 50 tonnes of fish to get their 20. Others treat the resource with respect, killing fish only within their quota limit. One group is causing far less havoc than the other, but at the beginning of each year the Minister sets the Total Allowable Commercial Catch (TACC), which is the harvest from the commercial farm, based on the behaviour of all those within it.

The individual cannot effect his own outcome. There are no incentives to conserve or rebuild the fishery by commercial fishers under the quota management system. Worse still, any progress made by recreational fishers in rebuilding the fishery results in a gain to the commercial sector.

Barnes gives an example. "We really need to take the recreational cake out of the equation and try growing it ourselves. The current size limit for snapper is 27cm. If we went to a 30cm limit, which would be widely supported by recreational fishers, what would happen initially is that the catch would drop. 30 per cent of your catch is between 27 and 29cm, and presuming no extra effort is going into fishing, you reduce the kill immediately by 30 per cent.

"If we do that, under Option One, Two or Three, what would happen is that 60 per cent of the fish conserved by recreational fishers would be issued to the commercial sector as TACC. That's offensive. Fisheries management needs to be tailored to each specific group. The communist approach has to be changed. that of the big collective farm. I'm certainly not going to join a collective farm where the commercial fishing industry is also harvesting. It's wrong. It's wrong in principle, it's wrong in any economic argument. It's just seriously flawed logic."

It is arguable that the government, or specifically the Ministry, is preparing to sacrifice the public right in the fishery in order to protect the commercial sector and avoid compensation issues against the Crown. By privatising the recreational fishery (Option Three) they would abdicate responsibility, meaning the Crown was not exposed to compensation risks, and the government not exposed to the lobbying of the recreational sector when one day there are not enough fish to go around.

The status quo of Option One is clearly not working. The squeeze is on and the recreational share is going to get eroded. Option Two is seriously dysfunctional. If a property right is created for the recreational sector, there has to be a means of ensuring the sector fishes within it. Otherwise the commercial sector will demand compensation for unconstrained recreational catches exceeding the limit. Option Two, if accepted, will only be Option Two until commercial fishers demand "real time" reporting of catches, and a closure of the fishery once the Total Recreation Catch Limit is caught. The only way this can be enforced is to go to Option Three - the licence.

Scott Macindoe: "We're going to have thousands of policemen on every wharf, every beach and every boat-ramp to ensure the recreational catch is constrained within its share."

"Under Options Two and Three," says Paul Barnes, "we are going to be competitively fishing against each other. We'll have a collective share, and as soon as that share is gone, after the race for fish has taken place, they'll simply close the fishery. It won't work. How are you going to close the snapper fishery if you haven't caught your gurnard quota, for example? Throw back every snapper and have the same kind of dumping scenario we see in the commercial sector?"

What about reducing daily bag limits? Barnes is adamant this is not the answer. "Reducing bag limits is the worst tool for managing a recreational fishery. We go out there for a whole lot of reasons -- relaxation, getting away from it all, whatever. People will still spend the same amount of time fishing. If you start coming down to two and three fish limits they're going to be catching just as many fish. They'll keep the first one. it's human nature. and when they catch a bigger one, the smallest one in the chilly bin will go back in the sea - dead. The dumping scenario again."

So what is the answer? The commercial sector takes 675,000 tonnes of fish each year, which generates $1.5 billion. No government wants to lose this. Neither does it want massive compensation claims. However, the recreational sector takes only 15,000 tonnes a year, or 1.5 per cent of the commercial catch, and generates an internal economy of over $900 million. It seems that in an argument about the best use of a fishery and the creation of jobs -- something close to any government's heart -- by far the best use for our inshore fisheries is to develop their recreational potential. In the words of Paul Barnes: "This creates more jobs. It creates a better society. It keeps the kids away from the computers and off the streets. What are we going to do with solo mums who can't afford a licence? When the quota runs out, do we just jam all the kids in front of a PlayStation?"

Growing, rather than limiting the recreational fishery, may well be the answer. Kahawai and kingfish are both world- renowned game fish and both recent targets for trawlers. Stocks have been badly depleted, yet kahawai is sold for 60 cents a kilo as crayfish bait.

What does a wealthy angler spend in coming to this country to chase a trophy fish? Probably $10,000 in airfares and travel. $1500 per night at a lodge. $2000 per day in guide and boat charter. Throw in day to day spending, pocket money, restaurants, tips, souvenirs, entertainment. It would be surprising if there was much change out of $50,000 for a 10-day stay. That's a lot of money for one fish - which he or she is quite likely to tag and release anyway. Imagine that angler brings four friends with him. Imagine if they tell 10 people each, when they get back to the States? Do the arithmetic on that. Zane Grey did not describe this country as an anglers' El Dorado for nothing.

The recreational fishing catch - 1.5 per cent of the commercial kill - creates nearly 75 per cent of the commercial return. Presumably if we lifted the recreational catch to three per cent we would easily be doubling the entire return from what the commercial fishery brings in. Bear in mind also, that these dollars are not likely to be repatriated to the home bases of multi-national operations, employing for the large part, foreign crews.

But it's not a matter of trying to cast out the commercial sector altogether. "We're not trying to do that," says Barnes. "The commercial sector certainly has a right to be in that fishery. But for God's sake, they own 95 per cent of it. We have to have a priority recreational right to protect that 1.5 per cent that the non-commercial fishing public use. Maori have got a priority right, that doesn't mean it's an open cheque book. They can't just take what they want, whenever they want. Their priority right is that they're the last out of the fishery. If things start going really horrendously wrong, or the science is wrong - their right is the strongest."

The toheroa shellfish fishery is a good example of this. These delectable sand clams were once harvested commercially as well as being keenly sought after by recreational and traditional gatherers. The commercial fishery folded because of over-fishing and unsustainability. The recreational sector was then faced with shorter and shorter seasons and drastic cuts in bag limits. Eventually this was found to be unsustainable also and closed completely. Traditional gathering of toheroa still continues.

In many ways the toheroa example crystallises the whole case for option4. Paul Barnes sums it up: "I would find it offensive if, as soon as the toheroa fishery recovered - and there are good signs of recovery there now - at that point, should the commercial guys come back in on an equal footing with us? That would be unbelievably stupid."

We're far from hearing the last of this debate. As with all things, it's probably a matter of striking a balance. Politicians of all hues would do well to remember that on one side of these delicate scales, 1.4 million rod-carrying fisher-people - more than voted for Alliance, Act, NZ First, the Greens and United put together - are lining up for the weigh-in. There's a hook in this. Heaven help the weigh-master if those scales tip the wrong way.

Overheard: "I'm not a serious fisho. anything but. I'll chuck a line out maybe once a year. once in 18 months maybe. But if someone tells me I can't do that any more, or I've got to buy a bloody licence to do it, there's going to be trouble, let me tell you. There's not a lot of rights left these days, and that's one I'm not budging on. It's part of being a New Zealander."


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