The controversy over the management of Snapper 1 stocks during recent weeks has generated more heat than light. But it has underscored how highly our community values this fish and the need to manage it wisely.
The best science from the Ministry for Primary Industries has told us three key things: the snapper stock is well below the size which will maximise its productivity; it is under increasing fishing pressure; and the Hauraki Gulf and Bay of Plenty stocks are now likely in decline.
The indication that individual snapper have been growing more slowly over the past 15 years is a sign that all is not well.
The situation in the Bay of Plenty is particularly dire, with the current stock estimated to be only 6 per cent of its original size. This is below the ministry's hard limit, designed to signal when a fishery is in deep trouble and should be closed to enable recovery.
Most of the increased fishing pressure is due to a substantial growth in recreational fishing. The estimated recreational catch in the Hauraki Gulf has more than doubled over the past 15 years, while landings reported by commercial fishers have been relatively constant.
Because snapper is such a dominant fish in the Hauraki Gulf, when all is not well with snapper all is not well with the Gulf. Significant reductions in the snapper population have destabilised parts of the marine ecosystem, enabling prey species such as sea urchins to multiply.
Increased numbers of these marine grazers have stripped the rocky reefs, replacing lush kelp-based communities with depauperate sea urchin barrens.
It is not all bad news, however. Before the recent decline, the Hauraki Gulf snapper stock had been slowly rebuilding from its very low level during the late-1980s. And if the stock is able to further rebuild, to 40 per cent of its original size, the ministry estimates we could harvest around 50 per cent more than we do currently, on an ongoing basis, without depleting the stock.
In other words, if we rebuild the stock size further, there will be a lot more fish for everyone to share in the long-term.
There could also be other positive consequences. Harvested species such as kahawai, john dory and shark, as well as shorebirds, eat juvenile snapper and could therefore benefit from a rebuild. Healthier fish stocks could enable reef communities to re-establish, supporting a more diverse and productive marine area, and benefiting a range of other marine life including dolphins, whales and seabirds.
So how can we achieve such a rebuild? The ministry has proposed three management options which would reduce the amount of snapper harvested by 9, 15 or 21 per cent respectively.
In a move that has antagonised recreational fishers, the ministry has proposed that they take a larger share of the cuts. Under all the options, their share of the harvest would be reduced from the current 46 to 37 per cent, which was the estimated proportional size of recreational fishing in 1997 when the stock was last reviewed. In contrast, the commercial fishers' catch remains the same in one of the options and actually increases in another.
There are three serious problems with the ministry's proposals. First, none of the options seem likely to result in a rebuild of the snapper stock. Modelling based on long term average recruitment data indicates that all the options will only slow the stock's overall decline with greater reductions required later to rebuild it.
Secondly, basing the allocation of shares on 1997 figures is arbitrary and recreational fishers have cause to be upset. It ignores the significant increase in the number of people living around the Hauraki Gulf since then.
In addition, recent Auckland Council research indicates that recreational fishing in the Hauraki Gulf contributes twice as much to the economy than commercial fishing.
The third problem with the ministry's proposals is that they fail to consider other measures which might enable the snapper stock to recover sooner. There have been some promising developments in fishing net design, which may help reduce the mortality of undersized snapper.
We could be creating more reservoirs of older snapper in a network of marine reserves, protecting those which have the greatest spawning potential, to help replenish stocks more quickly.
And we could be restoring habitats which are important to juvenile snapper, such as mussel and seagrass beds, so that the small fish have a greater chance of surviving into adulthood.
Crafting a management solution that will successfully rebuild our snapper stock, and fairly allocate its harvest, will not be easy. It seems unlikely to emerge from the ministry's current process. That's more likely to lead to protracted litigation rather than to an enduring solution.
But the Hauraki Gulf marine spatial plan initiative is getting under way and this will bring together iwi, commercial and recreational fishers, conservationists and others to work towards a common way forward. This is where a consensus to resolve the snapper dilemma could emerge.
• Raewyn Peart is policy director for the Environmental Defence Society.
Dialogue: Contributions are welcome and should be 600-800 words. Send your submission to firstname.lastname@example.org. Text may be edited and used in digital formats as well as on paper.