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Revealed: New Zealand’s enormous 60-year, 25 million tonne illegal fishing lie

Michael Field, whose book The Catch helped expose the labour and human rights abuses in New Zealand’s fishing industry, says a report out today reveals a decades-long abuse of our much-vaunted quota system, with more than twice as many fish caught as declared.

New Zealanders know the power of national utterances; we live by “clean and green” and “a great place to raise kids”.

Then there is the one favoured by politicians: “New Zealand’s world-leading fish quota scheme”. Like the others, it turned out to be false.

An academic report out today (media release) shows the quota system has failed – and may have even drifted into the realm of the criminal. It reveals that the total amount of marine fish caught in New Zealand waters between 1950 and 2010 is an astounding 2.7 times more than that recorded by official statistics.

Photo: Getty

The commercial fishing world has known this report was coming and feared it, knowing it would suggest the emperor has left off some of his robes. The recreational fishing world, as manifested in the increasingly powerful Legasea lobby (think the fishing equivalent of the NRA), is circling too, and last month had its own briefing on the report.

The report is part of a global Sea Around Us project published by the University of British Columbia’s Fisheries Centre. Its leading writer is the University of Auckland Business School’s Dr Glenn Simmons.

Simmons – an ex-cop with a kind of monkish demeanor – and his colleagues, including the dogged Professor Christina Stringer, have used the Official Information Act to extract information from the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI). They knew that fishermen, the originators of the “it was this big” whopper, have an innate ability to lie.

Fishing in New Zealand’s 4 million km2 exclusive economic zone rests on the quota management system (QMS) which, with its profusion of abbreviations and jargon, has all the clarity of a Latin High Mass. Someone in MPI has had a bit of a joke over it; their undercover operations include the Greek mythical names Achilles, Hippocamp and Apate.

The hidden cameras, phone taps and undercover agents have exposed the world of inshore trawling in which one- to two-thirds of the catch on every trip gets dumped over the side. Achilles in 2012 found that 20 to 100 percent of some quota species from every haul were thrown overboard.

Those regular but unexplained news reports of lots of dead fish strewn across Coromandel, Piha and Muriwai beaches now make sense.

At the same time, lucrative fish like hapuka, moki, kahawai and kingfish were kept but not reported, an explicit violation of the QMS.

Simmons also found a case in which two rare Hector’s dolphins were caught by a trawler but only one was reported.

Extended reconstructed catch 1950-2013 (New Zealand and foreign flagged vessels), showing reported and unreported catch. (Source: Sea Around Us/Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, University of British Columbia)

Extended reconstructed catch 1950-2013 (New Zealand and foreign flagged vessels), showing reported and unreported catch. (Source: Sea Around Us/Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, University of British Columbia)

Sometimes MPI observers actually saw the dumping but said nothing. Even if they weren’t present, the reports show MPI knew all along but failed to act.

That’s bad enough, but the focus of the report is to work out what really was taken out of New Zealand’s waters from 1950 to 2010. The headline that will come out of the report is that over 61 years, 38.1 million tonnes of fish were taken. That number is 2.7 times, or 24.7 million tonnes, larger than what was officially reported by the government.

Much of the stuff was taken deliberately or, equally deliberately, caught and thrown overboard. What it adds up to is a fishing industry stealing the common wealth of New Zealanders.

The scary part of it all is the seemingly calculated nature of the misreporting. Simmons and team call them “invisible landings”, where all the fish arrives ashore either not reported or under-reported, or misidentified as another species, or simply as part of a blatant black market operation.

In The Catch I argued that foreign-flagged fishing boats should be kept out of our waters due to their appalling slave-like abuse of their crews.

Researchers Simmons and Stringer, who also fought the slave fishing industry, now show that the same vessels took nearly half of all New Zealand’s catch.

Not only did they use sweatshop cheap labour, they helped rob us.

The bottom line is that the QMS needs to be tossed overboard. Time to try again. The problems might be overcome with technology but, as the report says, the most serious obstacle to accurate reporting of catches is the fact that misreporting has been profitable, and the chances of being detected very small.

And then there is the secrecy. Much can be seen as a fishing boat unloads, but only the captain knows the paperwork.

Even MPI observers are sworn to secrecy; this I found out when I spent time on a Ukrainian Sealord trawler. The observer told me he felt sorry for the worthless fish that went overboard: “The more attention the politicians and the public give you, the more change you can bring about. If I was trying to save some little ragged-tooth guppies, no one would give much of a shit, even if they were critically endangered. Sea lions are fluffy, big and impressive.”

He was fired for saying that to me.

The seafood industry are blessed these days with skillful PR; only recently they circulated the joyful news that in the year to March seafood exports had hit a record $1.7 billion.

The problem we are left with is not the export accounting, but the knowledge of what has been left behind: the dead fish, the under-reported catches. Who knows whether any of it is sustainable?

Coincidentally, the $1.7 billion figure is the same as what Legasea claims is the contribution to New Zealand’s gross domestic product from recreational fishing. They say, hand on heart, a snapper caught by an amateur fisherman is worth five times more to the economy than the same fish taken by a Sanford boat.

What intrigued me at the launching of that study at Snell’s Beach, north of Auckland, was the large numbers of members of parliament who found time on a Saturday afternoon to listen. The message they are getting, and reinforced by this new report, is that a lot of voters take fishing very seriously – and they’re angry about what the seafood industry has been doing for decades.

More from Michael Field: How China’s illegal fishing armada is plundering the South Pacific

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