John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Why aren't more Maori fishing?

The fishing quota owners make their money from sales of annual catch entitlements. Photo / APN
The fishing quota owners make their money from sales of annual catch entitlements. Photo / APN

Imagine if politics concentrated on subjects that matter most. It might long ago have answered this question: Why is it that 20 years after a Treaty settlement awarded iwi a fifth of new fishing quotas, we do not have a deep-sea industry employing many more young Maori?

I know Treaty settlements are not social welfare, and iwi companies owe it to their beneficiaries to be a successful competitive business maintaining their value, and no doubt it's cheaper to charter a foreign fishing fleet than establish our own.

But that last point, we have been led to believe, arises from conditions on foreign charter vessels that New Zealanders wouldn't tolerate. So you would expect Maori fishing interests to be performing haka in Parliament at the progress of legislation to force all foreign charters to be reflagged for New Zealand law within three years.

Quite the contrary. Companies with Maori fishing quota went to the Government and argued - initially successfully - that they needed four years longer than the rest of the industry to have their charters reflagged.

The bill was amended to give them the exemption they sought. It took objections from one of the big players, Talleys, and the Rail and Maritime Union to convince Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy this week to agree to remove the amendment, meaning Maori quota, too, will have to be fished by New Zealand-flagged vessels by 2016.

All of this has been happening while Parliament has been transfixed by the leak of a report into domestic spying, then an inquiry into the leak and now an inquiry into the inquiry. How can subjects such as industry and employment compete?

Fishing should be as important as farming in this economy. We are alone in an ocean, we love the sea. Our sailors are celebrated. We pride ourselves on hardy work in the harshest elements and we celebrate the idea of fishing for fun.

Right now, the recreational fishing lobby is outraged that, for the sake of northern snapper stocks, their bag limit might be reduced from nine. Nine. Nine for each person on a boat. Whoever needs nine snapper?

They invoke a time-honoured New Zealand right to "catch a feed for the family", and say this has a great deal to do with the price of fish in shops. It may be a myth but it is a popular one.

For Maori, according to accounts accepted by the Waitangi Tribunal, the sea has been more important than land and plants as a food source. When New Zealand in 1986 devised a world-leading conservation system called tradeable quota, 10 per cent of the allowance for each stock was allocated to iwi.

That was increased to 20 per cent for new quota in the Sealords settlement of 1992 which also gave iwi a half share in one of the three big fishing operations in our exclusive economic zone.

The zone, extending 200 nautical miles beyond the Chathams, the Kermadecs and the subantarctic islands, gives us control of fishing over a continental shelf many times the size of the country.

Yet in all this ocean we appear to have just 56 suitable fishing vessels, 27 of which are foreign charters. The figures come from the report of a ministerial inquiry last year that, but for other inquiries, might have received renewed attention this week.

A panel led by former Labour minister Paul Swain was set up in response to concern about conditions on the foreign charters and found that complaints arose from only a few of them, all Korean, usually with Indonesian crew.

It recommended many improvements to the enforcement of New Zealand maritime law and the Government has gone one step further with the reflagging bill. But its report makes it evident that better working conditions will not make the slightest difference to our dependence on foreign charters.

All but a few of our 17 companies with deep-sea quota are too small to afford the ships, the crewing costs and the fuel required to range far offshore. The quota owners make their money from sales of annual catch entitlements. They are rentiers of the resource.

Not only do they lack the scale to develop the industry and employ more people, the sale of annual catch entitlements gives them an interest in lower-cost foreign charters that can bid up the price, adding to costs of any local venture.

As the panel put it: "It seems that iwi, in particular, typically not holding a package of (entitlements) sufficient to comprise an economic catch plan, benefit from the ability to sell their holdings to foreign charter vessels."

The adage says give someone a fish and you feed him for a day, show him how to fish and you feed him for life. It seems it's not that simple.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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