Stuart Nash may be the minister on paper, but, argues Greenpeace’s Russel Norman, NZ First’s Shane Jones increasingly appears to be the tail wagging the fish.
What’s that thing people say? You don’t know what you’ve got until they’re gone. Strangely I’m starting to feel that way about National’s former minister for primary industries. Bring back the Guy who was starting to put cameras on commercial fishing boats, Nathan Guy. Yes, really.
In the year running up to the election, Nathan Guy was being dragged down a relatively enlightened pathway towards a long overdue reformation of the out-of-control New Zealand fishing business.
This followed a ministerial inquiry which exposed a pile of steaming malfeasance by the industry and its supposed regulator, MPI. Commercial fishing companies were videoed unlawfully dumping fish and MPI had refused to prosecute them.
The ministry claimed it had legal advice telling them it wasn’t possible, then later admitted there was no such advice – they just made that up to give a reason not to prosecute. MPI was also forced to admit that illegal dumping was widespread after Greenpeace released leaked internal reports.
In response to all this Guy had agreed to put the cameras on vessels to try to stop overfishing and illegal dumping of fish.
At first blush the scheme was going to be implemented, administered and monitored by the fishing industry itself – a classic fox guarding the hen house scenario.
After investigations by Greenpeace and campaigning by many groups, National came round to the idea that it should be the government and not the industry checking the footage. By the time the election came the regulations to run the scheme were already in place.
All of that seems like a happy dream compared with where we find ourselves now. We now have a coalition government whose fishing policy increasingly appears to be guided by NZ First and in particular Shane Jones.
NZ First’s King Neptune may not have the portfolio but his fishy hand prints appear to be all over it. And his fish fingers are the wrong kind of fish fingers because he gets campaign money from Talley’s, one of the biggest players in the business. He received ten thousand dollars from the company towards his election campaign.
Jones strongly rejects any impropriety in his links with Talley’s, but it’s worth remembering this is also the fishing company that MPI found to be unlawfully under-reporting the weight of their cartons in the hoki fishery and hence under-reporting their catch. This MPI compliance investigation never saw the light of day until Greenpeace leaked it. Predictably Talley’s were not prosecuted because, as MPI’s head of compliance said, “we know from experience that prosecution will achieve behavioural change for maybe four or five years at best.” So they had a quiet chat instead and buried the report.
This would be an interesting approach to take to P dealers – by that logic the police shouldn’t prosecute because it only puts offenders off for a few years.
I have been accused by Stuart Nash, minister of fisheries (on paper anyway), of “living in an alternate reality.” In some ways it does feels a bit like that. In what kind of world does a government dominated by Labour serve up a fish dish so amenable to the industry and damaging to fish stocks, the environment and recreational fishers? In what kind of world do they do so after all the evidence of bad behaviour by the industry and MPI?
First, the cameras on boats. The coalition government has completely iced the project. The decision will be delayed till August. This isn’t just a matter of letting things slip – they actually had to unpick existing regulations to make it happen.
We’ve just learnt the fishing industry wrote Nash a letter totally opposing cameras in July last year, while hypocritically running TV ads with the memorable line “we have nothing to hide“. Nash’s current line is that he won’t implement the cameras without the “buy-in” of the fishing industry. Well, they ain’t buyin’ because they don’t want anyone to know what happens out there.
Second, an independent inquiry into fisheries management has been squashed by NZ First.
This was Labour policy at the last election because MPI can’t be trusted to run a review of fisheries management as they are captured by the fishing industry. As now senior cabinet minister David Parker said about MPI in 2016: “There’s no doubt that there has been connivance with a number of officials over a long period … and I think it’s fair to question whether the ministry has been captured by the [fishing] industry.”
But Stuart Nash now tells us that there is no need for an independent review because “there are some incredibly competent and skilled people at Fisheries NZ and they are not captured by the industry”. In Yes Minister parlance this is called “house training” the new minister.
Buoyed by their success in eliminating the independent inquiry and cameras on boats, the fishing industry now seems to have the government completely bent over a barrel. Based on the contents of the discussion paper released this week and other comments, the fishing industry now appears to be offering a deal.
The fishing companies will agree to halt the illegal dumping of fish – estimated to be as much as half the amount they catch or more – but only on the following terms:
1) The cameras on boats scheme is scrapped. Tick.
2) There is no independent inquiry into the fisheries system. Tick.
3) If anyone gets caught dumping, the companies will get a piffling fine, with the starting point equivalent to a speeding infringement – $250 is the recommendation in the discussion paper.
Oh and 4) The fishing companies get a big increase in fishing quota (maybe as much as 30% more) – a signing bonus worth tens of millions of dollars.
Could you ever imagine the police saying to the owners of P labs “let’s give you a massive million dollar payout for stopping the selling of meth to minors and we’ll remove any monitoring or enforcement to see if you do actually stop”? That’s an alternate reality if ever I’ve seen one.
Did I mention the “cameras on boats” project disappears, so there will be no way of knowing if the illegal fish dumping really does stop anyway?
Then there’s the court case due to kick off in Nelson in a couple of weeks. Shane Jone’s campaign donor Talley’s owns the vessel Amaltal Apollo. It’s been bottom trawling in protected areas on the high seas. Fourteen charges have been laid by MPI. Talley’s don’t deny they did the bottom trawling but claim they did it because an on-board MPI observer said they could.
According to Jones, it’s just “a technical issue that will be ironed out when common sense prevails.”
This incredibly ill-considered comment from a minister of the Crown risks undermining the case and is in breach of the Cabinet rulebook. He appears in effect to be telling MPI they shouldn’t be prosecuting because it’s just a “technical issue” and he’s telling the judge that Talley’s should be let off.
Because it happened in international waters, Talley’s bottom trawling also comes under the jurisdiction of the awkwardly named SPRFMO, the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation. Talley’s boat is now on the draft international blacklist of fishing boats.
The New Zealand government has been lobbying hard to get the Talley’s boat kept off the final blacklist.
We also know that the New Zealand government has been working to significantly increase the amount of stony coral that bottom trawlers are allowed to drag up in their nets before they have to stop. Was that Jones’s fishy fingers again or was it just MPI conducting business as usual?
Most worrying is New Zealand’s role in the UN negotiations towards a global Oceans Treaty. This is an historic opportunity to provide the global framework needed for setting aside 30% of the world’s oceans as protected areas by 2030.
Scientists say it’s imperative to provide ocean protection for a third of the world, in order to reverse ocean biodiversity loss, safeguard food security, restore marine ecosystems and increase their resilience against the devastating impacts of climate change and ocean acidification.
Rather than leading the charge it seems that the New Zealand government is advocating alongside Australia for a weak Oceans Treaty. A compromise which may result in a toothless document creating “paper parks” of unregulated sanctuaries, with limited if any benefit over the status quo.
Judging by the amount of DNA which Jones has left on domestic attempts to promote the vested interests of the fishing industry, it’s important for the New Zealand public to know how far his influence stretches. It may be unconnected, but after he abandoned the Labour Party, Jones went to work for the National government as its roving Pacific Economic Ambassador, with a particular focus on fishing.
How long is the tail that’s wagging the fish?
Dr Russel Norman is the executive director of Greenpeace Aotearoa New Zealand.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.