Seafood Auckland: A portion of commercial catch is sold locally. The Auckland Fish Market certainly has no shortage of fresh catch. (Photo: Seafood New Zealand)

The good, the bad, and the fishy: The complicated truth about fishing quotas

A global success story or an overly generous, unsustainable scheme that is doing lasting damage to our fish stocks? Ethan Neville looks at the ongoing debate over New Zealand’s fishing quota management system.

The management of our fisheries is a touchy topic – and why wouldn’t it be? New Zealanders rightly care about the fish in their ocean. They’ve been a primary means of food security throughout our short history, and a source of enjoyment and connection to the sea for just as long. Of course, somewhere along the way they also became a commodity – a resource to be bought, traded and sold. It’s here at the crossroad between commercial and recreational fishing that the “touchiness” begins. How do we manage a resource that breathes and moves? What does it even mean to own fish “stocks”? How can we ensure these stocks remain abundant?

New Zealand’s answer was the Quota Management System (QMS), and it’s been heralded worldwide as the benchmark for fisheries management. In fact, at the 30th anniversary celebration of the QMS in 2016, prime minister John Key opened the proceedings with these confident words: “By any definition, we can look back at the QMS and say it’s been an overwhelming success.”

It’s now 2020, and I wanted to find out if we are still, or ever were, world leaders in fisheries management.

Snapper being well-cared for while they make their way to shore. (Photo: Seafood New Zealand)

The good news

Visit the MPI website, check out the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) reports or read the latest in-depth coverage of this issue in the media (Andrea Fox’s three part series in the Herald is a good place to start) and you’ll likely leave feeling pretty satisfied. According to the MPI’s latest survey, a total of 82% of our fish stocks and 94% of our collective catch are above the “soft limit”, which means they have no sustainability issues. Of the 160 NZ fish stocks that were researched by MPI, 131 are fished sustainably and only 29 require rebuilding.

John Key’s claim, in other words, appears justified. According to the FAO, the fraction of fish stocks worldwide that are within biologically sustainable levels has decreased from 90% in 1974 to 67% in 2015. The Southwest Pacific, however, sits somewhere between 83 and 87%, which is the highest proportion of sustainable stocks on the planet.

New Zealand, in particular, has been regularly lavished with critical acclaim. We ranked first in a 2009 study assessing the effectiveness of fisheries management regimes worldwide and fifth of 28 nations in a 2017 study of how effectively fisheries managements systems were at meeting objectives.

Jeremy Helson, the CEO of Seafood NZ, is equally positive. “At a fundamental level, the QMS and NZ’s fisheries management remains world-leading. A lot of other countries are doing similar things, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t world-leading.”

For Helson, one of the key reasons why the New Zealand system has been so successful is that the quota was given in perpetuity. In 1986 when the QMS was introduced, quota was given freely and indefinitely to the recipients – the commercial fishing companies who were already fishing our waters. Having their livelihoods depend on caring for their quota is sufficient motivation for commercial fishers to fish sustainably, Helson believes. Think of the care you’d show for a house you own compared to one you rent.

“That’s the key reason why New Zealand’s fish stocks have improved for the most part from the fairly average state they were in the 70s and 80s when the QMS was introduced. And that’s why you can throw a line off the wharf in Auckland and catch a couple of snapper, and there’s not many countries in the world you can do that.”

A fisherman emptying a net full of fish into hold on trawler. (Photo: Getty Images)

Dan McRae exemplifies Helson’s logic perfectly. He is a commercial operator who has quota for rock lobster in the Hauraki Gulf which he’s held for nearly 30 years. When he and his fellow operators in this area, over 60% of whom are family owned businesses, saw the crayfish population struggling they voluntarily shelved 25% of their quota over two years.

So how does McRae – who has spent most of his adult life on the Hauraki Gulf – feel about the health of our fishery?

“I’ve got a fairly broad understanding of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park and to be honest, in the last five years I’ve never seen so many snapper.”

In fact, he has even noticed a sharp decrease in the amount of octopus bycatch because, in his words, “the big snapper smash them”.

And what about crayfish being functionally extinct in the Hauraki Gulf according to recent reports? McRae hasn’t struggled to catch his quota, and the last three years have been his best in 25.

On the recreational fishing front, the news is the same. According to a MPI survey, recreational fishers caught an estimated 7 million individual finfish and 3.9 million individual shellfish in 2017-2018. While recreational snapper catch has slightly decreased since 2012, it has still tripled over the last 30 years – something bemoaned by some, but which no doubt remains a clear sign of our ability to catch fish in our backyard.

What we can unabashedly say, without reservation or risk of error, accusation or aberration, is this: fishers are lucky to be living in New Zealand.

But before you accuse me of selling my soul to industry, I can confirm these issues are complex.

The bad news

There’s this thing called “shifting baselines” and it’s perhaps the single most important and overlooked idea in fisheries management. Popularised by global fisheries expert Professor Daniel Pauly – a supporter of our QMS before changing his mind and labelling the NZ success story a “myth” – shifting baselines is an extremely simple concept. It asserts that our baseline for what constitutes a healthy fishery changed a while back, and then we grew accustomed to this new baseline, it changed again, and again and so on.

Take hapuku. It used to be caught with surfcasters, but then all the hapuku within casting distance of the shore were soon turned into food. So we got in our boats and found them in 50m of water – and were somehow OK with this. Our baseline changed. And then it changed again when we stopped finding hapuku on those pins, and were content to search for them in 100m+ of water.

Hapuku is apparently a healthy fishery. But “healthy”, I have learnt, is a relative term.

Hapuku are still regularly caught in our waters, but you may have to travel further to find them than in the past. (Photo: Supplied)

The best example of shifting baselines is firmly embedded in our QMS system. Remember how positive the numbers are regarding our fish stocks? To remind you, 82% of our fish stocks and 94% of our collective catch are above the “soft limit”, which means, according to MPI, they are being fished sustainably.

The soft limit is 20% of the original biomass of a given species.

Let me repeat that.

The soft limit is 20% of what we might call the “untouched population” of a species.

The baseline for what we deem “acceptable” has no doubt changed, and Sam Woolford of recreational fishing advocacy group LegaSea sees that 20% soft limit as indicative of a bigger problem in our fisheries management.

“The internationally recognised best practice is 50% of the original biomass. When we’ve got MPI telling people that 95% of our fisheries are above the 20% soft limit, that’s not actually acceptable… They’re not looking to rebuild our fishery, they’re not looking to restore it to an internationally acceptable level.”

Woolford also points to the alleged monopolisation of quota ownership. Not only has a public resource been privatised, but approximately 78% of quota is now owned by ten companies – a point also raised by Hauraki Gulf operator Dan McRae.

“The quota system is good for our fisheries, but not good for the fishermen,” he tells me.

The fact that some of the larger companies clip the ticket of the smaller operators, effectively “renting” them their quota, is also an issue.

Orange roughy have a complicated relationship with the QMS. They were pushed to near extinction by the turn of the millennium, but their population has been slowly rebuilding in recent years. (Photo: Seafood New Zealand)

The hottest talking point of all, however, is the destructive techniques such as dredging and bottom trawling allowed to take place in our waters. When the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation (SPRFMO) met in Vanuatu in February, New Zealand was one of three countries to voice concerns about making the bottom fishing framework more precautionary – in other words, reducing bottom trawling to protect vulnerable marine ecosystems. From an environmental and sustainability perspective, this does not sound like “world-leading” behaviour.

There is more that could be said in this “bad news” section, which would perhaps be better titled “it’s complicated”:

  • The falling price of fish which is taking its toll on small commercial operators.
  • The lack of research on a number of our stocks, and the way in which this research is undertaken. For example, it has been calculated that, in terms of money used, the actual research effort has been reduced to around 50% of the 1990 level.
  • The catch reconstruction reports. Auckland University controversially claimed that “the total catch is conservatively estimated to be 2.1 times that reported to the FAO” – a claim which has rightly come under much scrutiny, but still lingers in the collective mind of environmentalists.

The pros and cons of “perpetuity” are worth an article in of themselves, but here’s a basic summary:

Person 1: The government gave away a resource (NZ’s fish) they didn’t own to commercial fishing companies for FREE, forever? And now they can trade this resource among themselves for profit? WTF!?

Person 2: Yes, but it was the only way to save a valuable natural resource from rapid decline, while also allowing one of our biggest exports to continue. It was a no-brainer.

Person 3: Ah, this is hard to follow. Can I just go catch a feed now? But also, in the words of academic Bjourn Hersoug (Person 3 is a well-read recreational fisher with an astounding memory), “When the QMS was introduced in 1986, the recreational fishers had just the promise of the then minister of fisheries that they should have a ‘priority right’… However, this pledge was never turned into official policy, and consecutive governments were hesitant to guarantee such a priority.”

The writer with a snapper caught 500m from a popular Auckland boat ramp. (Photo: @hansonanddaughters)

It’s complicated

What’s clear is that the state of our fisheries and the future of our fisheries management is complex, almost impenetrable. What appears simple evolves into a swirling mess of esotericism, politicisation, double meanings and opaque statistics.

We can catch fish, but not like we used to. We had a once innovative system which saved our fisheries, and by a number of metrics, it’s still at the forefront of fisheries management.

But why are local operators getting their tickets clipped? Why are destructive fishing methods still allowed? And when did everyone become so OK with shifting their baselines every generation?

As I said. It’s complicated.

But at the same time it’s quite simple. There is a limited resource which is being plundered worldwide. And it’s a resource that has breath and moves and a will of its own. If we reduce it to a commodity – or believe we were somehow born with rights to exploit it – then we are on the wrong track.

Kaitiakitanga is the Māori principle of guardianship for our environment – the land, the sky, and the sea. To risk sounding trite, all New Zealanders have a responsibility to protect our fisheries, both for ourselves and for the global community of which we are a part.

Both commercial operators and recreational fishers want the same thing: fish for the future. And on a number of issues, we are in agreement about how to achieve this. The above discussions as represented by Persons 1, 2 and 3 need to happen, but with the goal not of trying to get a bigger piece of the pie for ourselves, but for protecting our oceans and our seas – to fulfil the mandate of kaitiakitanga.

Step one for preventing decline: understand that these issues are bigger than us. Fish are not just a commodity, an export, or dinner, and they won’t be here for generations to come if all we care about as a country is our global market share; as an industry, our maximum take; and as individuals, our personal rights.

A longer version of this story appears in the current issue of NZ Fishing News magazine.



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