• Glenn Simmons, Hugh Whittaker, and Nigel Haworth, are researchers at the Universities of Auckland, and Oxford.
Last May we released a detailed report revealing wide-scale under-reporting and dumping of marine fish in New Zealand waters over six decades.
Ten months on, the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) is still refusing to release internal reports relevant to our ongoing research, many detailing the ministry's own investigations into reporting and dumping.
This not only obstructs academic research but it is vital that these reports are available so that all stakeholders, especially customary interests, industry players, NGOs and recreational fishers, can understand current policy settings and the way in which policy is being formulated in New Zealand fisheries.
• READ MORE: Ombudsman probes fish-dumping clash
Transparency is the only way we can get to grips with the problems facing the fishing industry.
Our "catch reconstruction" study, part of a 15 year-long global project, provided the best estimate to date of the amount of fish caught from 1950-2013. It revealed that more than half of the fish caught in our waters by commercial fishers has not been reported - overwhelmingly because of dumped fish.
This is a massive waste of protein and potential export earnings, and it undermines our much vaunted Quota Management System (QMS). Catch (along with effort) data is critical for determining the health of our fisheries. If we don't know how many fish we are catching, we cannot say if that catch is sustainable.
Our study included data from internal MPI reports, such as Operation Achilles, which raised serious questions about fisheries' reporting processes. Many of those reports show MPI has known for well over a decade about substantial misreporting and dumping, and did not always pursue prosecutions, allegedly because of a lack of evidence.
The QMS is clearly not working if we cannot have confidence in reported catch figures, or in MPI's oversight of that reporting. Reform of the QMS should follow an independent and comprehensive review of fishing policy.
As far back as 2008, an internal ministry report sought approval for a comprehensive review as misreporting and dumping posed a threat to credible fisheries management. The review, however, did not take place.
We are aware that there are more than 100 other relevant reports, presumably funded by the public purse, but not publicly available. We have been requesting 14 of these reports from MPI since May 2015. We cannot understand why they are still not being made available almost two years on.
The requested reports are Operations Apate, Apate II, Blade, Box II, Bronto, Horse, Kenwood, Mega, Mini, Maxi, Purse, Trios, Turn Up and Uzi.
MPI's response to our original OIA request asking for a list of compliance operations and copies of various reports, was that it "would take a minimum of three to four months' work".
We considered this excessive. Even so, we narrowed our request primarily to a list of compliance operations and reports that were "easily accessible and on hand", but MPI refused this request as it needed "substantial collation or research".
Compiling a list of compliance operations, and the photocopying of on-hand reports, did not strike us as particularly difficult. So we followed up with a complaint to the Ombudsman, with whom we worked to further narrow our request to the 14 specific reports listed above.
However, MPI has failed to comply even with this request, with the striking exception of Operation Horse, which appears to be the only one of these operations that resulted in a prosecution.
Why such a dilatory approach to our request? These are public good reports, and there is, or should be, nothing confidential about them.
The answer may lie in the outcome of the Heron Report. Released last September, the Heron Report into MPI's handling of three dumping and misreporting cases concluded that the law prohibiting discards "appears to be regularly disobeyed".
It included an email from MPI director of fisheries management Dave Turner saying "discarding is a systemic failure of the current system and something we have not been able to get on top of from day 1 of the QMS...if we found the golden bullet to stop discarding, we would probably put over half of the inshore fleet out of business overnight".
The Chief Ombudsman has said that OIAs are "not a game of hide and seek". What is going on in MPI? Why the seeming obstruction of standard OIA requests?