The passions that fishing can arouse are hard to fathom for the unconverted. Many think the odds are stacked in favour of the fish and leave it to the experts. But nearly a third of the population try their hand, and in our most popular waters - the Snapper 1 fishery, covering the east coast of Northland, the Hauraki Gulf and Bay of Plenty - emotional lines are taut.
Here, pursuit of snapper, prized for its firm, white flesh and distinctive taste, is both a pastime and an industry. Many take the shared fishery for granted but it was exploited to the point of collapse from the 1960s to the 1980s when Japanese demand peaked. What saved snapper was New Zealand's pioneering attempt to manage fisheries, using quotas and catch limits designed to control the commercial harvest and leave enough for weekend fishers and future needs. Consumers and environmentalists now expect nothing less, whether they approve of harvesting wild species or not. But fisheries management relies on science to interpret trends and data - a science almost as uncertain as hooking a fish.
What the science says
A new stock assessment, the first in 12 years, shows the fishery has bounced back, but the recovery is slower than anticipated. Stocks are estimated to have grown 70 per cent in the past 15-25 years after restrictions were imposed, but the recovery comes from a shockingly low base. There's still an even chance stocks are below the "soft limit" trigger for rebuild measures and, in the Bay of Plenty, stocks are assessed as below the "hard limit" of 10 per cent of estimated abundance before commercial fishing began. Overall, stocks are assessed at about halfway to the target level of 40 per cent of pre-fishing abundance.
Fisheries managers stress 40 per cent is a management target to maximise productivity and yields; only if stocks are well below target is sustainability a concern.
But a healthy fishery is not simply a numbers game; fish need a chance to grow, mature and breed. If the population is dominated by young fish, it suggests fishing pressure is too high and can mean breeding stocks are depleted. Recreational fishers say the biggest threat to juveniles is the indiscriminate nature of bottom trawling and seine netting.
Commercial fishers who want catch limits raised have dismissed the assessment, saying Niwa's population modelling is badly flawed.
"When the quota management system came in my father surrendered snapper quota because we thought it was buggered and we would never catch snapper again," says Tauranga-based longline fisherman Brian Kiddie. "Now we struggle to avoid it - it's that black and white. In 1986 we thought we had no snapper fishery. By 1996 we had no trouble catching our quota and by 2006 it was an embarrassment. The recreational fishers are catching them off the beach. There's so much snapper out there ..."
Leigh-based longliner Michael Goldsworthy paints a similar picture of a Hauraki Gulf awash with snapper. "You hear the charter boat skippers [on marine radio] heading out each morning, telling Coastguard they are heading for spot X until 2pm. But they'll phone back at 11.30 saying, 'We're done - we're going home'."
Bag limits for recreational fishers were progressively lowered from 30 in the mid-1980s to nine in 1997. But recreational fishers fear they will be the victims of expected moves to rebuild the fishery because they are taking more than their overall tonnage allowance.
Though the fishing is better, recreational fishers are not as optimistic as the professionals. There were boom summers in 2011 and 2012, when big fish flocked into the inner Hauraki Gulf.This summer was harder though, with mostly small, juvenile fish caught and fewer reaching their bag limit - it was back to business as usual. A 2005-07 survey found nearly half the snapper snagged by recreational fishers were below the legal minimum 27cm and returned to the sea. The more responsible recreational fishers impose their own minimum size limits, usually 30 or 32cm. The average catch is less than three snapper per person, fewer in East Northland and the Bay of Plenty than in the Gulf. And the assessment suggests a recent decline in stocks.
The science gaps
Managing a fishery seems like turning an ocean liner around: there's a lag between action and response and danger signs may not be seen in time. Niwa's snapper population model is only as good as the data that goes in; there are many gaps.
Tagging data is the best source for information on size, abundance and movement but the last tagging survey in Snapper 1 was in 1993. The problem is cost: the industry funds research in proportion to its share of the total allowable catch - currently about two-thirds - with the Government contribution reflecting the public share. Commercial fishers have vetoed tagging surveys in recent years because of their cost, estimated at $10 million. Trawl surveys are another useful tool not funded recently.
Marine scientist John Holdsworth of BlueWater Marine Research was involved in the last tagging programme and has kept tabs on the fishery ever since. "Projections in 2000 were for a quick rebuild but snapper are part of a complex ecosystem, not a model," he says. "We have to monitor the real fishery and collect more consistent data."
The QMS snag
But the commercial fleet is not exactly awash with spare cash under the quota management system; it seems the only ones getting rich are quota owners (mostly big fishing processors) who control catch limits and prices for contracted skippers, who must buy catch entitlements. Margins between what they pay for their entitlement and what they receive for their catch have recently been as low as $2 a kilo.
Keith Ingram, editor of Professional Skipper magazine and a veteran recreational sector lobbyist, says the payment squeeze leads to illegal practices that harm the fishery, including dumping of legal-size snapper. By law, commercial fishers are supposed to land all legal-sized fish (for snapper, the commercial minimum is 25cm) and dump all undersize fish after sorting at sea. Trawlers that net more than their entitlement of legal-size fish must pay penalty (known as deemed value) rates to the Government. The price is deliberately set far higher than the market price to discourage over-fishing. But the effect is that legal, as well as undersized, fish are dumped.
Kiddie, president of the Bay of Plenty Commercial Fisherman's Association, acknowledges deemed values are a problem for trawlers. "It's suicide to land a tonne of snapper, which you know you won't get $5000 for, and get a bill for $15,000."
In March last year, young Northland-based fisherman Kelly Scoles lost his $200,000 boat and was fined $25,000 after dumping an estimated five tonnes of snapper near Kawau Island. Scoles was targeting john dory, his court case heard, and would have faced penalty fees of up to $26 a kilo if he'd landed the snapper.
Such prosecutions and vessel seizures represent the tip of the iceberg, recreational lobbyists claim. The industry maintains a few ratbags give it a bad name and, with fewer boats, they are more easily identified and weeded-out. "I'm not saying [dumping] isn't happening but monitoring is getting better and the fishing fleet is so small that, if they do dump fish, the finger gets pointed," says Kiddie.
There's no estimate of how big the dumping problem is - and how many snapper are being unnecessarily killed - and the chances of detection on the open seas remain slim. But not all dumping is in the dead of night or deliberate. "If you aren't aware of where you are fishing you can easily get too much and the bag splits," Kiddie says.
Skippers must be smart to avoid snapper as bycatch when targeting species such as gurnard and john dory, he says.
Another dodgy practice is high-grading - dumping smaller (but legal-size) fish to increase your take of bigger fish which fetch better prices. Ingram says quota owners contribute by offering a premium for larger fish.
Other rorts include "trucking" - taking a catch in one management area but reporting it as caught in another to get around catch restrictions.
Then there are the legitimate methods available to the commercial sector outside the inner gulf. Bottom trawling and danish seining, are seen as destructive and indiscriminate, killing vast numbers of juveniles and non-target species.
Industry's trump card
But the industry has a few things in its favour which the recreational sector lacks: it is organised, creates jobs and earns export receipts. A Government aiming to double primary sector exports by 2025 would need compelling evidence to clamp down on a commercial fishery as lucrative as snapper and, as highlighted, the research spend by industry and state is lagging.
New information used in the latest assessment includes high recreational catches from 2011/12 estimated at 3800 tonnes - 1200 tonnes over their allowance.
Fisheries managers have warned the sector it needs to live within its limits, raising fears that bag limits could be cut or the minimum legal size increased.
But boat ramp surveys for Niwa suggest lowering bag limits would have only limited impact. Between 20 and 50 per cent of fishers on trailer boats return home without a snapper and the average catch is between 1.5 and 3.6 snapper a person, depending on where they fish.
About 70 per cent of snapper caught are smaller than 34cm: raising the size limit would mean "some people will be going home hungry," says Recreational Fishing Council secretary Sheryl Hart.
"For the most part people fish for food - for some people it's the difference between having tea on not."
Recreational lobbyists also argue that their 2600-tonne allowance, set in the early 1990s, deliberately under-estimated the true harvest of recreational and customary fishers (allowing commercial fishers a bigger slice of the total catch). Since then, the population of greater Auckland has grown 28 per cent and is expected to grow by a further 500,000 in the next 15 years. The recreational share should not be capped at a 16-year-old estimate, they argue.
More fish in the sea
Solutions to the industry's dark practices are elusive. Some advocate removing the legal minimum size for commercial boats so all fish caught are landed, bringing more transparency. But consumers might not like seeing tiny snapper in the supermarket, and the industry would demand compensation for the price drop.
Putting full-time observers on vessels to monitor catches and practices is seen as too expensive and onerous.
The industry is more open to on-board video monitoring and providing more catch data. Other options include larger mesh sizes and nets with escape devices for smaller fish.
If juvenile mortality can be reduced, cuts may not be needed to rebuild the fishery, says Holdsworth. "Through productivity gains we could increase the allowable catch and still be heading for a healthier biomass. We need to identify the areas where there's a problem with juvenile mortality and remove the harmful methods from those areas. We have to get out and collect the data."
The recreational fleet can also do better. Up to 10 per cent of fish returned to the sea may not survive. Only a minority of fishers use techniques and gear such as lures and circle hooks to minimise harm, or know how to retrieve and release a fish safely.
Education will help but will produce only marginal gains, says Mandy Kupenga of advocacy group Legasea. Before further catch restrictions, Kupenga says a management strategy being planned by the ministry must be put in place - assessing the impacts of recreational and commercial fishing and the effects of conservation measures and specifying how to reach 40 per cent of the unfished biomass while allowing for population growth.
Forty per cent is a goal around which all factions can unite, Kupenga says, promising enough good-size fish for the growing recreational population and an increased commercial catch allowance.
All sides are paying lip service to the desire to move away from the "them or us" arguments of the past. The ministry's recommendations, due out next week, loom as the first real test of their ability to fish for a common goal.