How many snapper should anyone be allowed to catch in a day's fishing? Readers who do not go fishing for fun might be surprised at the bag limit: nine. That seems an excessively generous allowance for every person out fishing, yet the recreational fishing lobby is aggrieved at proposals to reduce the permitted catch in response to diminishing stocks in the Hauraki Gulf, east of Northland and the Bay of Plenty.
The Weekend Herald reported snapper numbers in the Gulf and Northland coastal waters to be down to about 24 per cent of the stock that would exist if the species was not fished. In the Bay of Plenty, the level is much worse - below the 10 per cent at which the stock is said to have collapsed and the fishery would be closed.
Fortunately, for those hooking snapper in the Bay of Plenty, their supply can be replenished from the Gulf. But over the combined sea area, estimated numbers are well below the 40 per cent of natural biomass considered necessary to sustain snapper for future generations.
The population has recovered from its dire position before quotas were introduced 16 years ago but the improvement in that period is just half what it ought to have been. An assessment for the Ministry of Primary Industries, the first in 12 years, estimates the recreational fishing is exceeding its allowance by about 40 per cent. The minister, Nathan Guy, is going to have to reduce the allowable catch or increase the minimum permitted size, for recreational or commercial fishing, or both.
Naturally the recreational lobby is arguing that it should not be singled out, that the industry is primarily to blame and that the pain should be shared. This is a familiar argument, invoking an almost cultural right to "catch a feed for the family", but does it stand up to scrutiny?
Nine snapper is a feed for a big family. If more than one member of the family is out fishing together, as is quite likely, they can take nine snapper each. A group of six or eight people on the same boat who drop their lines into a school can make quite a dent in the fish population.
So, of course, do commercial fishers. But their catch is at least certain to feed somebody. It seems fair to wonder whether the permitted recreational catch exceeds the likely consumption and has been set at a level that might not cut short a lucky day.
For one person to haul nine snapper would be a very lucky day. Most people would be happy to catch half that number. If the minister decides to halve the allowable bag limit, as the stock estimates suggest he should, it would hardly put a damper on anybody's pleasure.
Commercial fishing should take a cut, too, though the retail price of snapper puts a check on consumption that recreational fishing does not face. The industry's allowable catch was reduced in 1997 when the stock management programme started and a further 10 per cent reduction was suggested in response to the latest assessment.
That suggestion has been withdrawn and the industry is likely to face nothing more onerous than increased monitoring of its catch. Commercial fishing companies dispute the science of the assessment, insisting they are finding abundant snapper of the required size at present. But its price in the shops does not say so. The minister should trust the science.
Recreational fishers do not doubt the stock is not recovering at the rate desired and, as always, they blame commercial fishing. Their case would be stronger if they took a hard look at recreational needs and asked themselves seriously whether anyone needs to catch nine.