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Image: Leonie Hayden
Image: Leonie Hayden

SocietyJune 28, 2021

The fight to save one of Aotearoa’s favourite fish

Image: Leonie Hayden
Image: Leonie Hayden

The tarakihi fishery has been reduced to a fraction of its original biomass. How did this happen, and can we fix it? Ethan Neville reports.

If you grew up in New Zealand, you probably have fond memories of tarakihi: we caught them from our dinghies and they arrived battered with a side of chips from our local takeaways. But if you’re growing up in New Zealand today, well, the same might not be true.

In 2017, the first fully quantitative assessment of the stock of tarakihi off the east coast of New Zealand was delivered, and the results were a little frightening. It was sitting at about 17% of its original unfished biomass, and the news only got worse in 2018. The commercial fishing industry funded another comprehensive study, and 17% had become 15.9%. Effectively, we’d removed 84% of all tarakihi from our east coast waters in a little over 100 years. That 15.9% figure is also below the government’s “soft limit” for fish stocks, which means, in its own words, the “fish stock is considered to be overfished or depleted and needs to be actively rebuilt”. 

This situation only seemed more dire when I called a few prominent fishermen around the country to talk about their experiences of the fishery. The result was unanimous: for us recreational fishermen, tarakihi have become something of a forgotten fish. “We used to target them…”; “We used to get a lot of tarakihi…”; “I don’t bother to chase them much these days”; “We might give it a little go but we don’t really target them anymore” – these phrases were all I heard from east coast charter captains, members of the New Zealand Sport Fishing Council, and long-time recreational fishermen. 

So, what happened?

The fish

The heart of the problem is that these fish are too tasty for their own good. New Zealanders love to eat them, and we keep more than 90% of what we catch commercially to ourselves. 

The second problem is that they are slow-growing. They race out of the gate, reaching 25cm – at which size they can be legally caught – in the first three to four years, but then run out of steam and relax into their old age. In 2000, a 47cm, 44-year-old tarakihi was caught, meaning she had only grown about 22cm in 40 years. When we trawl or recreationally catch tarakihi over 40cm, which until recently was very common, know that these fish are probably making preparations for their 40th birthday. 

The final issue is that females can take up to six years to sexually mature, which means there is usually a two-year window where tarakihi can be harvested legally before they’ve even had a chance to spawn. 

Combine all the above factors, then throw in the indiscriminate fishing technique of bottom trawling, a government some 20 years behind the ball game and a bunch of recreational fishermen oblivious to what’s going on, and you’ve got all the ingredients you need for a fishing stock to collapse.

The timeline

In the 1890s, the commercial tarakihi industry kicked off when the first steam trawlers lumbered out of their respective ports. Initially, the technology prohibited any massive catch numbers but the size of the catch steadily crept up over the next 40 years and, by the mid-1930s, the annual catch was about 2,000 tonnes. And then the rush really began. In the 1950s and 60s, the annual catch numbers hovered around 5,000 to 7,000 tonnes. By 1975, the current models estimate, the stock was already getting down to 20% of the original unfished biomass. 

The government, finally rising from its slumber, looked out the window to glimpse the local oceans looking something like a soggy wild west. Plans were made, documents were signed and the Quota Management System (QMS) roared into life in 1986. But there was little understanding of just how low the tarakihi stock had truly sunk, and hence 5,160 tonnes was deemed a sufficiently small total allowable catch (TAC). It was low enough to slow the decline, but nowhere near low enough to rebuild the fishery. Incredibly, the tarakihi TAC would only grow over the next 20 years; by 2008, it was at 6438 tonnes – which, as you will remember, is about the annual TAC that triggered the radical decline in biomass in the first place. 

At this stage, no one was quite sure what was going on under the water as no comprehensive stock assessment had been undertaken. Anecdotal evidence was starting to pour in, however, and the 2017 and 2018 stock assessments confirmed what most fishermen suspected: the fishery was in trouble. 

The plan

When a stock moves below the soft limit of 20%, the government has to act. Its response, in 2018, was to cut the commercial quota by 20% to “minimise the risk of reducing the stock below the hard limit” and they also noted that “substantially larger reductions in catch are required to rebuild the stock to the 40% SB0 default target level within a 10-year period”. 

But after liaison with industry, the default plan changed considerably. The quota was cut by only a further 10% in 2019 and the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) also accepted the industry’s 2019 Eastern Tarakihi Management Strategy Plan. This set out a 20-year plan to build the stock back to 35% of unfished biomass: a lower goal over double the period of time. 

I asked MPI about this radical change in plan, and Emma Taylor, director of fisheries management, noted that the 20-year time frame “was agreed recognising the need to ensure the sustainability of the fishery, balanced against the impacts on fishers, their families and the regional communities where they operate”. She also explained that the then-minister noted that 40% biomass was the appropriate target, but more work was required to confirm an alternative target – which ended up being 35%. 

After reading the full report outlining the reasoning behind these decisions, I will note that it was a very complicated situation with people’s livelihoods on the line. But, still, was it too conservative? 

The answer, for many, was yes.

Forest & Bird took the government to the High Court over its decision to alter its conservation targets and on June 16 the court ruled in Forest & Bird’s favour. The court agreed that the industry’s rebuild plan was the key factor influencing then-minister for fisheries Stuart Nash’s decision. In other words, the government had caved to industry, as opposed to giving appropriate consideration to the biology of the fish and the research around its dangerously low stock levels. The current minister, David Parker, will have to go back to the drawing board and create a new rebuild plan based on science. Fingers crossed it’s sustainable.

There are six other areas of the plan also worth mentioning. Industry promised to:

  • Spread their catch
  • Report catches of sub-minimum, legally sized fish
  • Implement a move-on rule (boats to move on where high concentrations of undersize tarakihi are found)
  • Voluntarily close areas to commercial fishing where there are high levels of juvenile tarakihi
  • Improve the selectivity of their nets (adjusting nets so larger fish are kept while undersize tarakihi are not)
  • Have cameras on-board boats by the end of 2020

The industry failed in three of those six areas. They did not meet their targets for the “move-on rule” or the “voluntary closed areas”. They have also only put cameras on a select number of boats, as opposed to the promised universal rollout. 

However, as Taylor pointed out, these failures were minor. The move-on rule was only triggered four times in 2019/20 and adhered to twice, giving it a 50% success rate. Industry also adhered to voluntary closures 99% of the time, but a 100% success rate is required for them to meet their targets. In regard to the cameras, Taylor explained that some boats had cameras as early as October last year, but the full rollout had been delayed due to Covid. We now await the next quarterly report from industry to see whether the catch reductions have worked and whether they have in fact installed cameras. In the meantime, however, there have been no further reductions to the catch.

For LegaSea spokesperson Sam Woolford, the reality is a little more complicated than the industry and MPI make out. “The reason tarakihi are so interesting and the reason commercial [fishing] will keep fighting this, is that fin fish don’t swim alone. Snapper and kahawai will also be around. So if you close down the tarakihi fishery, you also close down the snapper and kahawai fishery. You could be more selective, but this would require long-lining, not trawling.” This, he continues, is the “unfair economic duress” referred to by industry in their response to the original plan for more drastic quota cuts.

The whole situation we’ve found ourselves in is, for Woolford, another example of the QMS’s failure, and his answer is quite simple: get rid of it. Buy the quota back and start again. The current approach, he says, clearly isn’t working. The tarakihi fishery is obviously in trouble. 

The next question we should ask then is: what can we ordinary New Zealanders do about it?

The future

When it was announced in 2018 that the tarakihi fishery was buggered, one Christchurch fish-and-chip shop took tarakihi off the menu. The logic was simple: reduce demand, which will lower supply. If you are sceptical of the government and industry’s ability to fulfil their obligations, or feel that 20 years is too long a time to rebuild the fishery, this is definitely an option. As consumers, we could choose to eat other species – 90% of commercially caught fish is sold in NZ. If we stop demanding it, the industry will stop catching so much of it.

Perhaps the most exciting example of public action has come out of Hawke’s Bay. Five years ago, a voluntary agreement was made between LegaSea Hawkes Bay, the Napier Fishermen’s Association and Fisheries Inshore NZ to not commercially bottom trawl the Springs Box area from December 1 to February 29. This area covers 237km2 of ocean due east of Napier Port. 

Since implementing this initiative, the recreational catch has been monitored during the closure period via the Hawkes Bay Sport Fishing Club’s Colin Murray Ramp Survey. Amazingly, the average catch per angler increased from 0.42 in 2016 to 0.905 in 2020. 

For Hawkes Bay LegaSea representative Wayne Bicknell, “The agreement is testament to the ongoing collaboration between recreational and commercial sectors and has the common goal of improving local fish stocks.” 

Bicknell is right: both commercial and recreational fishers want the same thing – abundance – so we might as well work together to achieve it. In this regard, the Springs Box initiative is the kind of solution we need more of: that is, thoughtful, collaborative initiatives that bring together opposing parties for a common good.

There is one more thing us recreational anglers can do, and it’s relatively obvious. I heard some alarming stories relating to the tarakihi fishery. Keeping 50 tarakihi, all taken from the same spot, was commonplace. There were stories of charter boats returning to the same pinnacle day after day and filling bins for their clients, and of fishermen complaining that their local tarakihi spot was now barren after they’d fished it once a week for 20 years. 

As the tarakihi stock starts its rebuild, we have to be mindful of where we are targeting tarakihi and what sized fish we are keeping. If you come across a patch of tarakihi below 25-30cm, move on – they probably haven’t spawned yet. If you find a honey hole of tarakihi, maybe limit your return to once a month, instead of weekly, and forgo the Facebook post with GPS coordinates directing others to your spot. 

We’ve got a good shot here at restoring this stock to abundance, but every one of us has to get on board with the plan. 

Keep going!