New Zealand's system of managing fish stocks by tradeable quotas has attracted a great deal of praise in the world since its introduction in 1986, without becoming global practice.

A study estimating New Zealand's true catch published yesterday, suggests why it has not been widely copied.

The research estimated the quantity of fish dumped once the quota had been filled, the unreported "bycatch" of other species and under-reported recreational fishing, multiplied New Zealand's total catch by 2.7 times the official tallies.

The findings are all the more disturbing because they are not really surprising. The theory of tradeable quotas always sounded too good to be true.

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A total allowable catch was set for each species based on its sustainable population in New Zealand's exclusive economic zone. Quotas were then issued to fishing companies which they could buy and sell, giving them a vested interest in maintaining a sustainable stock in our areas of ocean.

But if their boats have been catching more than their quota and dumping the excess at sea, it suggests the quota owners' vested interest in conservation has been lost in the transmission to the fishing crews, often on chartered foreign vessels.

The research led by the Auckland University business school concludes that "the quota management system, despite its intentions and international reputation, actually undermines sustainable fisheries management by inadvertently incentivising misreporting and dumping".

That may be somewhat harsh; without a quota system the excess would still be caught, the only difference would be that it would be brought ashore, reported and sold. The official statistics would be more accurate but the fishery would be no better off.

The lead researcher, Dr Glenn Simmons, says the quota management system needs a "robust critical review" that would include a consideration of alternatives using the latest information, processes and technology.

That should mean something more sophisticated than more patrol boats and larger armies of on-board inspectors out on the ocean. If ways can be found to strengthen the incentives to conserve fish stocks, so much the better.

After all, the study's findings suggest the quota management system has been an improvement on previous regulations. The country's estimated catch has been 2.7 times the official figures since 1950, when the period since 1986 is taken alone, the figure drops to 2.1 times the reported catch.

Nor should recreational fishing be ignored. The idea that everyone on a pleasure boat has a solemn right to seven snapper every day they go out can be no good for that species.

Recreational fishing is just that, the notion that it is essential to the feeding of some families today is a self-serving myth. But the study estimates recreational fishing accounts for only 1.3 per cent of the total catch in New Zealand waters.

Commercial fishing is estimated to be catching more than twice as many fish as they have been reporting.

The industry is killing its future.

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