Tim Pankhurst: Fish dumping universal but can be fixed, says Seafood NZ

Discarding unwanted fish is not widespread but it is understandable and a solution can be found.
The issues involved in fish dumping are complex but they are not unsolvable and industry is keen to do so. Photo / File
The issues involved in fish dumping are complex but they are not unsolvable and industry is keen to do so. Photo / File

The current fuss around fish discarding can lead to a workable solution to a complex problem that is common to fisheries worldwide.

And it is not confined to the commercial fishing sector. Anyone with a fishing rod will know that you don't bring home all that you catch in a day's fishing - some fish will be thrown back because they are too small and some, like stingray, will be thrown back because (at least in this country) they are not a table fish. All responsible fishermen want to return these unwanted fish alive to the sea.

In commercial fishing, discarding is a term that resonates badly with the public. Discarding in itself is not illegal. What is not widely understood is that in many cases fishermen are observing the law, rather than breaking it, when returning unwanted fish to the sea.

That is in the case of fish that are undersized, or are permitted under provisions of the Fisheries Act, or are low-value species that are not subject to a quota.

Some undersized fish are required to be put back, others are not. There are minimum sizes for 11 inshore species including snapper, kingfish and blue cod but none for the other 87 species under the Quota Management System (QMS) which include, for example, gurnard or any deepwater species.

The fact many of those fish returned to the sea are alive and will swim off is also not widely recognised.

The real concern lies with illegal dumping, that is fish that are thrown overboard because the catcher does not have quota for them. To the extent that the fish do not survive, it is wasteful.

Unless specific provisions apply, all catch of species in the quota system are expected to be reported, landed and balanced against the quota entitlement. Any catch in excess of the entitlement should be addressed through what are termed deemed values.

That is a system whereby excess fish are landed and the fisher pays the sum that has been deemed by the Crown. Neither fishing nor the setting of catch limits is an exact science and the deemed values system allows for that lack of precision.

At low levels of overcatch, this is meant to be cost neutral, so that fishers are not incentivised to catch fish they do not have quota for but neither are they financially penalised when they unknowingly do so. As the level of overcatch increases, so does the deemed value imposing a financial penalty to discourage overcatching.

The reality is the values in some cases are so out of kilter that it is uneconomic for such fish to be landed when their catch cannot be avoided. This situation is exacerbated when fish stocks increase and catch limits are not adjusted accordingly.

Faced with making a financial loss if the fish are landed, the incentive is to break the law. That is not excusable but it is understandable.

The issues are complex but they are not unsolvable and industry is keen to do so.

Electronic monitoring on vessels is part of the solution but it is the end point. It will improve transparency but can only be fully effective if the settings and policies are appropriate. Monitoring a problem is not necessarily solving it.

Much has been made of an internal email from a Ministry for Primary Industries director published in the Heron report that offered the opinion, "If we found the golden bullet to stop discarding, we would probably put over half of the inshore fleet out of business overnight through lack of ACE (Annual Catch Entitlement) availability to cover by-catch".

What has gained little attention is what the author went on to say:

"Industry themselves are very keen on getting a better handle on this problem as they recognise the sustainability issues and the fact they could have higher TACCs if accurate reporting occurred."

The impression being given that inshore fishermen are routinely breaking the law is untrue and unfair. The recent media attention has been out of proportion to the facts. Yes discarding is an issue, but it is not as widespread as some would claim.

For example, it doesn't reflect what's happening in the Hauraki Gulf, the country's most important snapper fishery, where companies have voluntarily invested in camera trials on their vessels. Those trials have not found illegal discarding in what is undoubtedly New Zealand's most significant shared fishery.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Quota Management System. While it has served the country well in ensuring our fisheries are sustainable we believe there is room for ongoing improvement. The resolution of the discards issue must be high on the agenda.

We're keen to work with the Government to ensure that our fisheries remain sustainably managed and provide public confidence that there will be fisheries for future generations of New Zealanders to enjoy.

Tim Pankhurst is chief executive of Seafood New Zealand.

- NZ Herald

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