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Kahawai article NZ Fishing World


Stuffing Around our Kahawai Stocks

by Peter Jessup

July 2004


(This well researched summary of the kahawai debate by Peter Jessup was originally published in the NZ Fishing World magazine July 2004).

The country's kahawai stocks are about to be divvied up by a Minister of Fisheries fresh to the job and with little knowledge of it. His decision will be based on the guestimates of Fisheries staff and in the absence of any real recent or long-term, on-going research. Kahawai aren't worth much, you see, so MFish cannot squeeze much out of the companies as its percentage for research and stock assessment work. So no one knows how much is out there.

The companies say they're catching plenty, with no trouble and no apparent decrease in size or numbers other than that caused by seasonal variations and environmental factors like weather and temperature.

Recreational fishermen say they've been catching bugger-all, especially in the summer season just gone. And they blame the purse-seiners.

Fisheries Minister David Benson-Pope admits he has no direct history in the fishing industry. He did used to net flounder and catch blue cod off Karitane Beach near Dunedin with his dad, Gus. "I'm not exactly unfamiliar with tangling my line and with the taste of fresh fish for dinner," he told NZ Fishing World.

Prime Minister Helen Clark chose him for the job expecting a reasoned, balanced and fair decision on the Quota Management System distribution of stocks. "You can expect a pretty robust decision about this (kahawai)," the Minister said.

He has been swamped by e-mail traffic from option4 in response to the big company submissions as they have come in. "I know there is a high level of public interest. I'm aware there is a lot of anecdotal comment about stock depletion. I'm pretty conservative in this area and where there is doubt I will come down on the side of conserving stocks and protecting them for the future." There is opportunity within the QMS for annual stock assessment and adjustment to be made accordingly.

Benson-Pope said concern from the recreational sector was a major factor in the apportioning of $4 million in the budget for further research to get a better handle on the size of the amateur catch.

He gave a hint that the kahawai decision might put weight on areas not normally under consideration when allocating stocks for other species. There has been much argument as to the relative financial value of kahawai caught in a purse-seine net and sold for cray bait, as opposed to the value of a fish caught by an American tourist saltwater fly-fishing.

Benson-Pope said he had no reason to doubt the validity of that argument.

"Commercial access to a public resource has to not be at the expense of the public," the Minister said. Net benefit to the country had to be a part of the QMS decisions. He would try and be as helpful as he could to industry but where recreational fishermen were also involved there had to be weight given to amateur access and customary access is required by law.

Sounds like a politician.

Benson-Pope will release his decisions by the end of July, with the new quota levels to apply in the fishing year from October 1.

He could win a lot more votes by returning kahawai to the community than he could be ensuring Sanfords shareholders do not lose out on the profit from $2 million turnover in a fishery vital to the population at large.

Kahawai is the second-most caught and second-most valued fish in the North Island behind snapper, in the South Island it comes third behind snapper and blue cod.

More importantly, it is the fish most likely to be caught by subsistence fishermen, by kids on wharfs, by the retired who use a small set-net in a harbour or estuary.

Benson-Pope and his parliamentary colleagues should also consider the impact that returning the surface schools of old could have on the tourism industry. The whale-watch, swim-with-the-dolphins business, the dive at the Poor Knights, the trip to Piercy Island and the Hole in the Rock or to White Island's volcano are much-enhanced by the sight of surface schools feeding and birds working on top. What better way to present a clean, green image? How better could we suggest that our fishery is healthy?

And if they could hook a kahawai on light tackle, play it as it jumps and runs and changes direction, how much of a thrill would that be for the international visitor?

Tradenz has valued the visit of one tourist as worth the same as 1.6 tonnes of kiwifruit.

John Holdworth of Blue Water Marine Research is on the working party on kahawai that oversees research and advises the Ministry. He took that figure and extrapolated it for kahawai. It takes 3.2 tonnes of kahawai to bring in the same money as the visit of one tourist, Holdsworth reckons. Extrapolated to tourists, that equates to about 2,000 visitors going home with a story to tell about the fish they caught and let swim away.

Kahawai are easily caught, take lures in the side of the mouth and are easily released. Best of all, once found they stay and attack lures all day, unlike say snapper or hapuku, which might go off the bite for six hours with the tide.

Holdsworth's concern at the QMS introduction is that we simply do not know enough about the fish. As a mobile pelagic schooling species it is hard to measure. Industry ropes up schools of mostly the same size and age fish, so following its catch history does not tell the age and population spread. Tagging is used in a limited way because kahawai, unlike kingfish, do not robustly cope with insertion and can develop infection.

Ross Gildon is president of the NZ Recreational Fishing Council and is in two minds about the QMS introduction. On the one, it offers the chance to limit industry catch. On the other, he'd like kahawai declared amateur-only and left out of the QMS altogether. "The Government could pay industry the $2 million a year they reckon they make from it and give it all back to us." He calls it "everyman's fish."

You can catch it from the rocks, in estuaries, harbours, on the coast, off wharfs, in the shallows, with any kind of gear. "You don't need a boat and if things were right you wouldn't have to go far to catch one."

But things are not right, the kahawai are disappearing. He reckons the Bay of Plenty kahawai are "propellor-shy," they dive on hearing boats, something Gildon attributes to the purse-seiners.

"We catch them more on the bottom now, whereas you used to be able to throw spinners into wide schools of them. It might take an hour or more to get a couple of fish." He's produced data from the 1950s suggesting the average kahawai then was 52cm in length. "Now they're 41cm. But the scientists don't accept the figures."

John Holdsworth describes the stock assessment on which MFish has based its initial position paper, the one that will be used to formulate the final plan, as "rubbish, basically."

And industry disputes the numbers of recreational fishermen and therefore the amount that should be "left" in the water for them.

The industry argument, presented by major kahawai fisher Sanfords, is on three fronts:

The company says the methodology via which MFish advisers have reached their conclusions is flawed, and/or based on faulty or questionable information. This includes both 1) the estimates of numbers of recreational fishermen, which it says are too high, and 2) the numbers of Maori who utilise their allowance for customary take, also too high, Sanfords says. 3) MFish makes allowance for fishing-related mortality, and Sanfords says there is little or none.

And the fishery is healthy, as proved by the fact it can catch as much as it does, therefore it should be allowed to carry on.

The company is the major purse-seiner of pelagic fishes in New Zealand, owning five of the six vessels that work year-round in the New Zealand Exclusive Economic Zone. They are based at Tauranga and chase skipjack tuna for the American market from January to April/May, then kahawai and mackerel the rest of the year.

Air spotter planes are used to direct the boats to surface-schooling fish so effort in filling the hold is minimal. The company maintains that most kahawai is 'caught to order' because there is not sufficient margin in it to pay storage for any length of time.

The total income from the New Zealand catch of kahawai is around $3.2 million a year, Sanfords earning around $2.5m of that which is 10-15% of the company's total earnings from the purse-seine boats.

Or to look at it another way, a pittance in an industry now pushing towards $1 billion in export earnings.

The sale price overseas has risen from an average $1.08kg in 2001/'02 to $1.22kg in 2002/'03 and is around $1.30kg this year. In 2002/'03 Sanfords sold 2,041,455kg of kahawai for $2,494,319.

By far the bulk goes to Australia where it is used as crayfish bait, cat food and, increasingly, as ground meal to feed farmed prawns. The company says other markets are opening up in the Middle East and Europe where it is sold for human consumption at higher price and there is increasing demand for fresh and smoked kahawai in New Zealand as ethnic communities get a taste for it.

Sanfords wants the MFish-suggested Total Allowable Catch of 7,600 tonnes pushed out to 8,200 tonnes.

At risk, the company says, are the jobs of 27 fishermen, seven netmakers and engineers, 54 people involved in unloading and processing and 16 in administration - total 104. Recreational fishing representatives want it pulled back to 6,900 tonnes, with industry allotted sufficient quota only to cover the existing by-catch from other trawl fisheries, snapper and trevally being the main ones.

The big crime, they say, is that the Ministry of Fisheries made it clear kahawai would come under the QMS system that was introduced in 1986 and from then through the mid-90s the companies were flat-out trying to catch as many fish as they could so as to establish catch records which would be used in the future to determine who got what share of the pie. The catch peaked at 9 tonnes in 1988/'89. The then Minister of Fisheries applied catch limits in the early 90s, then reduced them as it became clear companies were "fishing for quota."

"It is an affront to the people of New Zealand that our precious kahawai are caught by such destructive methods, exported for so little value and, we believe, used almost entirely as crayfish bait, pet food and fish meal. This is insulting when it has far more value to us socially, culturally, economically and environmentally," the amateur fishermen's representatives bluntly state.

They also warn against over-estimating the kahawai stocks and ending up with further decline, in which case the Government may be obliged to pay compensation to commercial fishermen to buy quota back in order to reduce the catch. Governments don't like paying out money. Also, any compensation would establish a precedent.

So better to under-estimate, the amateurs say, allow a rebuild of the fishery, then reconsider the quota and make adjustment if it returns to good health.

Around 75% of the kahawai catch of around 5,000 tonnes is taken by purse-seining. If you took that out of the system then the industry would be allowed 1,480 tonnes as by-catch. The sport fishermen's representatives - the option4 group, the New Zealand Big Game Fishing Council, the NZ Recreational Fishing Council and the NZ Angling and Casting Association - all agree on that approach.

In addition, industry has exceeded agreed allowable catch rates in some areas three years out of the last five. The recreational groups want that "illegal" tonnage excluded from any calculations in terms of quota.

There is added concern that the purse-seine industry is concentrated around the Bay of Plenty. While the Hauraki Gulf and other areas north are key breeding grounds and juvenile nurseries, it appears the bigger fish head to the Bay. Migration of kahawai appears generally to be southwards, fish tagged off Northland later recaptured there, in the Gulf and the Bay.

Though they appear not to round natural barriers such as North Cape and East Cape, South Island kahawai probably swam down from more northern breeding grounds. That would explain why a Nelson-based kahawai fishery boomed and ended quickly, the two purse-seiners working out of the port having now shifted to Tauranga.

"The Bay of Plenty could be receiving the benefit of migration from other areas," the recreational groups state in their submission to the Minister. "This means that the greater the harvest from the core area, the greater the migration from the surrounding, less-preferred areas. Catch rates can be maintained in the core area while local populations on the fringes are depleted."

That would explain why recreational catch rates in the Eastern Bay, Auckland and Northland have been falling. In the Hauraki Gulf, the kahawai now are mostly small ones.

The recreational submission contains no statistics, data or surveys on amateur catch that are acceptable to industry. In reality there are none, given so little work is done on the species.

The National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research has been conducting boat-ramp surveys over the summer and will continue to do so in future, but that work is aimed primarily at sizing the fish, working out growth rates and the uptake from juvenile to adult population. It is work that will produce information that can be used to help estimate stocks only over a long period of time, once records are established and trends become clear.

Anecdotally, of course, anyone over the age of 30 can remember boiling acres of fish. Yachties sailing from Auckland to the Coromandel or north to the Bay of Islands would encounter surface schools they would slip through for 10 or more minutes. Occasionally the boil-ups would drive right into the shallows of the beaches as the kahawai herded up whitebait and other small food organisms.

These days a school 100 metres across would be a big inshore school. They are a far more rare occurrence. Whereas kahawai were once a given on any fishing trip, you can now go several trips on the east coast and not catch one.

If comparison were needed, try fishing off Auckland's west coast, where there are no purse-seiners chasing kahawai and the fish are thick in number and size. It can sometimes be hard to get through them to the snapper off the Manukau Bar. And these are not small fish - they're what anglers refer to as the "ocean-going" kahawai, up to 3kg.

Industry has kept to voluntary agreement not to fish certain recreationally sensitive areas for kahawai, or to stay out of heavily-fished areas at pressure times of the year, generally the summer and holiday season. There have been seasonal area closures in Northland, the Bay of Plenty, Gisborne/Hawkes Bay, the Marlborough Sounds, Tasman Bay and off Kaikoura. They don't purse-seine off Auckland's west coast because it's more economical to do so in the BoP.

That, of course, can be swept aside by the QMS management regime that will come in October. But those west coast and Marlborough Sounds kahawai may soon be netted too.

The recreational argument raises several other concerns about kahawai depletion that also cannot be quantified.

There is a huge increase in numbers of barracouta in our waters, anyone will agree. The argument is that juvenile kahawai compete for the same food and/or eat smaller barracouta and the balance has been upset. With the kahawai numbers down, barracouta numbers have exploded to fill the "available food" vacuum.

Kahawai are one of the few inshore fish that push schools of baitfish and krill to the surface where seabirds can get to them. The recreational groups say reduced sightings of white fronted terns chasing surface schools, Caspian terns, fairy terns, fairy prions, rare Westland petrels and other birds coincide with their reliance on the kahawai to push up food during the winter breeding season - with fewer surface schools their numbers seem to be declining accordingly.

The submission of the recreational groups includes an early account of customary fishing. The area near the Motu River would be opened up by elders for kahawai fishing around December and this continued for two to three months, it says: "The shoals of fish are of great size and thickly packed. The men and women stand on both sides of the tidal portion of the river which is here about 100ft wide. The fish caught during the day are cooked in huge ovens, over 200ft in length and 4ft wide. About 20,000 or 30,000 fish are cooked in an oven."

In 1982 the kahawai catch at the Motu River mouth was measured at 4.17 for locals per hour and 2.55 for visitors per hour's fishing; it has declined markedly since then, the submission states. Nationally, the most recent boat ramp surveys suggest it takes five hours' fishing targeting kahawai to catch four fish, measured as 0.79 fish per hour. Those targeting snapper caught 0.11 kahawai per hour, or nine hours fishing for each kahawai.

Various surveys have measured the numbers of New Zealanders who went fishing in a 12-month period as 10% of the population, varying by up to 30%. Industry disputes the latter number. There is agreement only about inaccuracies and inadequacies, such as exclusion of fish caught by children under 14 years.

The recreational groups want kahawai preserved for their ability to return greater economic benefit to the country via tourist fishing, than they do from becoming crayfish bait. Saltwater fly-fishing pioneer John Giacon has sent a submission detailing his business as a guide for United States and other international visitors, and values kahawai at $100/kg compared to the industry's return of $1.30/kg.

For me, kahawai should be preserved for our kids. They are the fish most likely to be the first one bigger than a sprat that a kid will catch, be it off a beach or the rocks, a wharf or from a boat. They run, jump, tail-walk, swim in arcs, battle until spent and are the best possible lesson in how to play and handle fish on rod and reel, and how to release them.

For years they've been bait, thrown on the deck in a hot sun, or kept only until something better is caught for the table then chopped up for berley.

In recent years, as other species have been fished down, the humble kahawai has become more acceptable: bleed and gut it, then fillet the blood lines from the back and it's a tasty meal. It's what people take home more often these days.

Pray that it's not already too late to foster a return to those days when a red rag tied to a hook and trolled from a rowed dinghy 100m off any beach could always get a feed.

What The Different Parties Want

Total Allowable Catch 7,526 tonnes.
Recreational allowance 2,780 tonnes, customary allowance 1,391 tonnes, total 4,171 tonnes. TACC 3,335 tonnes. Estimated fishing-related mortality 120 tonnes.

Total Allowable Catch 8,200 tonnes.
Recreational and customary allowance total 3,000 tonnes. TACC 5,200 tonnes.

Total Allowable Catch 6, 900 tonnes.
Recreational allowance 3,707 onnes and customary allowance 1,855 tonnes.

TACC 1,276 tonnes. Total 6,838 tonnes; the rest allowance for fishing related mortality.



  • If only a few submit they will think we are radicals and they will ignore us
  • If hundreds submit they may think it's a conspiracy and take action against us
  • If thousands submit only then will they will know it's a true shift in public attitude.

If this happens we will surely win much more than just kahawai!

Let them know in no uncertain terms the public is no longer willing to stand by and watch their rights to the outdoors, and all that it offers, be diminished by zealots and government policy makers intent on privatising our public resources.

Make a difference and submit now



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