Gareth Morgan: Fishing for facts in the toothfish debate

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A 75kg Antarctic Toothfish (Dissostichus mawsoni) caught in the Ross Sea. Photo / RossSea
A 75kg Antarctic Toothfish (Dissostichus mawsoni) caught in the Ross Sea. Photo / RossSea

Fishing for Antarctic Toothfish in the Ross Sea is estimated to earn New Zealand $20 million to $30 million each year.

It is a highly controversial fishery and is currently the subject of a debate over marine protection.

Environmental groups led by the Antarctic Ocean Alliance (AOA - a coalition of environmental NGOs) are calling for more protection afforded by either New Zealand's or the United States' draft proposals for a Marine Protected Area (MPA).

The debate over marine protection has revealed a distasteful underbelly to the Green movement.

We call the extremists green-necks - they are no better than red-necks in their refusal to take on evidence that doesn't support their pre-existing beliefs.

There are some in the fishing industry who act honourably and thanks to their work and those of the relevant regulators, toothfish is one of the best managed fisheries in the world.

Yet still the Green Extreme hammers them. It's time to expose the ideological nutters.

These misconceptions and misinformation have not come directly from the AOA campaign, but people associated with their campaign have been perpetuating the myths.

Ultimately the misinformation risks undermining the credibility of the whole campaign for marine protection; the AOA need to dissociate themselves from any misinformation, or risk being dragged down by it.

Let's be clear from the outset; it is perfectly reasonable to have a moral belief that the whole area south of 60 degrees latitude should be locked up in a marine reserve.

That doesn't mean it is realistic, and there are no grounds to expect other people in the world will share that moral high ground.

The debate on what is realistically achievable and balances conservation with commercial interests can only proceed on the basis of the science.

This is where the green-necks lose it. Some of their claims are plainly false and others aimed only to confuse the issue, all to manipulate an unsuspecting public paying only cursory attention to the debate.

Hard-line positioning may be considered good guerrilla campaigning but it's a high-risk tactic because it threatens to undermine the credibility of the campaign to establish an MPA at all.

Let's take a look at some of the common misconceptions that green-necks merrily promulgate and which make them look silly:

Antarctic toothfish stocks are in trouble

This is just wrong.

The vast majority of evidence suggests that the adult Antarctic toothfish population is at 80 per cent of its original un-fished levels, on its way down to 50 per cent as per the rules of the fishery. Even this 50 per cent level would make toothfish one of the most cautiously managed fisheries in the world; in contrast most New Zealand stocks are managed between 20-35 per cent.

In an effort to be more cautious New Zealand fisheries managers are now targeting 40 per cent, though it remains to be seen if they ever get there.

These claims of toothfish being in trouble have come from a few American and Kiwi scientists fishing with a line through the ice in McMurdo Sound.

Their work is the equivalent of assessing New Zealand's fish stocks by dropping a line in the Viaduct Basin.

Some of their claims are an outright slur on the outstanding work of NIWA scientists, who are the experts in this area and maintain the highest professional standards and credibility.

It reminds us of the climate change issue where loopy talk-show hosts give credibility to deniers who have never published relevant peer-reviewed material.

The penguin scientists who perpetuate the myth about the catch trends from their annual pole fishing through the ice have been asked to put up or shut up with respect to the vagaries of their data collection methodology.

They have steadfastly refused - the epitome of sloppy science, a defining attribute of green-necks.

Toothfish are long-lived and slow-growing and therefore more vulnerable than other fish

It depends what you call slow growing and long living, but toothfish are nothing like our own orange roughy, which green-necks like to compare them to.

The precautionary management of toothfish more than compensates for its age and growth rate, which is why the fishery managed to gain certification from the Marine Stewardship Council.

It would be great if some New Zealand fisheries were managed in an equally precautionary fashion. In terms of overall age and time to maturity, toothfish are about on a par with our own hapuka - should we completely stop fishing those too? The diagram above puts the age of toothfish in some context.

The New Zealand draft proposal doesn't protect the Ross Sea

The Ross Sea is almost fully protected (95 per cent) under the proposed New Zealand scenario. This is the area that all scientists agree carries the special biological significance and harbours the juveniles (tomorrow's breeders).

Most of the argument is actually over the area north from the Ross Sea to 60 degrees south.

This is known as the "Ross Sea region" an arbitrary political boundary rather than one that is relevant for the ecosystem.

This is New Zealand's decision

The legal toothfish fishery in the Ross Sea is managed by an international body known as the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). Any change to the current set-up needs the agreement of all partners, including other toothfish fishing nations like Korea, Russia, Japan, Ukraine and even the UK.

These nations will not accept a full ban on fishing, and in any case they will be persuaded more by science than the selective morality of Westerners.

We know almost nothing about toothfish

How about we ask an expert? Niwa toothfish expert Stu Hanchet says "this claim is extremely frustrating and quite misleading. Over 15 peer-reviewed scientific papers have been published in reputable journals and 150 reports submitted to CCAMLR on aspects of its life history including age and growth, length and age at sexual maturity, distribution, diet, condition, life history, trophic status and stock structure over the past decade.

"A mark-recapture experiment has released over 25,000 tagged fish and recaptured over 1000 fish since 2002. These data have formed the basis for assessment of Antarctic toothfish abundance in the Ross Sea since 2005. In fact, we know more about Antarctic toothfish and have better monitoring methods for the fishery, than we do for the majority of fish stocks around New Zealand."

Our fishing industry is by no means perfect, but the toothfish fishery really is an example of them at their best.

Sustainable fishing of toothfish is a significant component of the activities of the New Zealand fishing industry.

Ongoing monitoring of its sustainability is an important activity and should the science indicate problems with the fishery it would be appropriate to pull the curtain down on it - at present it doesn't.

But to close the fishery because of the lobbying of those confined within an ideological silo would render our policy-making a laughing stock. Rational conservationists need to rein in the green-necks lest they undermine the credibility of everyone concerned with sustainability.

Next week we will take a look at some of the issues around the official AOA campaign.

Gareth Morgan is a director at Gareth Morgan Investments. Geoff Simmons is an economist at the Morgan Foundation.

- NZ Herald

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