Debate on precious resource full of hooks

By Geoff Cumming

Proposed reductions in the number of snapper that recreational fishers can catch created a political storm this week. Geoff Cumming explains what the argument is all about.

Recreational fishers say they would accept restrictions on their snapper catch if the commercial industry changed its methods. Photo / Kenny Rodger
Recreational fishers say they would accept restrictions on their snapper catch if the commercial industry changed its methods. Photo / Kenny Rodger

A winter of discontent in heartland National Party territory has nothing to do with the GCSB bill, as John Key likes to point out. It is threats to snapper bag limits that have drawn voters to often fiery meetings called by advocacy group LegaSea in provincial centres including Whakatane, Tauranga, Thames, Hamilton, Warkworth, Whangarei and Kaikohe.

National electorate MPs have felt the barbs of crowds ranging from 250 to 500, while Labour's David Cunliffe and Shane Jones have dined out on the potential backlash at the polls next year over new management proposals for the struggling Snapper 1 fishery, covering the east coast of Northland, the Hauraki Gulf and the Bay of Plenty.

Key showed the issue was clearly on his radar after last weekend's annual party conference, noting that while the GCSB bill attracted 124 submissions, the fishing proposals have drawn 33,000 submissions.

It is over to the inexperienced Minister for Primary Industries, Nathan Guy, to chart a course which offers both a political lifeline and long-term improvement for our most prized fishery, which is officially overfished.

Guy stresses he is not bound to adopt any of the three options put forward by fisheries experts in the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) and can widen the net. But, after consultation closes next Friday, he will have only weeks to set the rules before the new fishing year begins on October 1.

Why the flap?

All three options shortlisted by MPI would restrict the annual recreational take, estimated at 3365 tonnes - which is 765 tonnes over its allocation. At the extreme end, the minister could reduce the daily bag limit from nine to three or increase the minimum legal size from 27cm to 35cm. Only one option also includes a reduction in the commercial catch - by 7 per cent. But that option cuts the estimated recreational take by 30 per cent.

As Ngapuhi chairman Sonny Tau told the Herald this week, people won't put petrol in their boats or walk miles around rocks to take home only 3 snapper. While recreational fishers say they could live with slight reductions, they are angry that the proposals largely avoid the commercial sector, whose indiscriminate trawl and seine nets and dumping practices - both legal and illegal - are thought to be a major cause of the stress the fishery is under.

Why are restrictions needed?

A stock assessment, the first in 12 years, shows the fishery has bounced back from its badly depleted status of the early 1990s but stocks remain well short of the internationally accepted target for a productive and healthy fishery, and there are signs the recovery is levelling off.

Scientific modelling suggests stocks in the Bay of Plenty are severely depleted - as low as 6 per cent of pre-commercial fishing levels - though scientists concede more information is needed. Stocks are healthier in the Hauraki Gulf and east Northland but estimates are still close to the "soft limit" which triggers rebuild measures.

Further restrictions to help stocks towards the target level would allow significantly increased yields in the long term and cater for population growth.

What do fishers make of the science?

Both recreational and commercial fishers say the fishing has never been better - that stocks in all three areas are much healthier than the modelling suggests. There are acknowledged gaps in the science - due to lack of investment in research by government and the industry - but the scientists are standing by their findings.

Recreational fishers enjoyed bumper summers in 2011 and 2012 (last summer was harder) but this has come back to bite them, with MPI warning that their take is well above their allocation - which was set in 1997.

Er, what?

That's right - MPI is asking the recreational sector to "accept responsibility for constraining catch to ensure the recreational allowance and the total allowable catch is not exceeded". The recreational allowance has remained at 2600 tonnes, out of a total allowable catch of 7550 tonnes, since 1997. Since then, population in the three regions has grown by 28 per cent.

What's more, 2600 tonnes was always regarded as an underestimate of the true recreational take, giving commercial fishers a bigger share of the total allowable catch at a time when the fishery was in serious trouble. Recreational leaders say MPI is using the exercise to introduce proportionality by stealth - enshrining a 40/60 split between recreational and commercial.

Where do the real problems lie?While there's scope for improvement by recreational fishers, commercial activity is thought to have a far greater impact on the fishery's health, chiefly through trawl and seine net methods which trap and kill undersized juvenile fish which are dumped during sorting.

Another problem is dumping of legal-size snapper to avoid huge penalty (deemed value) rates if commercial fishers land more than their catch entitlement under the quota management system.

Claims that as much as a third of the inshore catch is dumped are gaining credence. But the official extent of these problems is unknown because of lack of monitoring and research. The same issue dogs stock assessment: the last tagging survey in Snapper 1 was in 1993; trawl surveys are another valuable method not recently funded.

What are the alternatives?

Recreational fishers say they would accept some restrictions if the commercial fleet bore its share of responsibility. They want the recreational allowance increased by 500 tonnes to reflect population growth and the improved status of most of the fishery since 1997. MPI is promising more monitoring by observers and on-board cameras to restrict dumping but some fishers say the quota rules must change.

Net design changes to allow juveniles to escape could also help. Most importantly, better information is needed on the fishery to provide a firmer basis for management.

- NZ Herald

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