Editorial: Fishers must hold on to united voice

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Nathan Guy. Photo / Chris Gorman
Nathan Guy. Photo / Chris Gorman

The willingness of fishing folk to talk up their difficulties arguably outstrips their enthusiasm for whoppers about the ones that get away. An increase in the legal minimum size of snapper in our most popular fishery will make it undeniably more difficult for some of them, some of the time, to take home a "feed" of their preferred fish.

But as the flap settles, it must dawn on recreational fishers that Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy's decisions on the Snapper 1 fishery represent a windshift in their favour. They need to seize the moment - and therein lies their biggest challenge.

The more dedicated fishers already observe a self-imposed rule of returning anything under 30cm to the sea. Some will raise hell, but a daily bag limit reduced from nine to seven will not stop them fishing, whatever the perceived injustice that commercial fishers escape further catch restrictions.

Environmentalists understandably are concerned that the 500-tonne increase in the total allowable catch will further compromise the recovery of our most pressured inshore fishery.

But they also know that stocks in the Hauraki Gulf are considerably healthier than 20 years ago, despite more intensive fishing, even if Northland and Bay of Plenty stocks are officially in trouble.

The outcome - both for recreational fishers and the fishery's long-term health - could have been a lot worse, had the minister followed his officials' initial wish to restrict the recreational take to a conservative "allowance" set 16 years ago. The public outcry which followed this newspaper's revelations about the state of the fishery and the default response of fisheries managers may have been about minimising cuts - but Mr Guy has responded with measures that go to the long-term management issues which the Herald has exposed.

These include the entrenched neglect of research to understand the fishery's dynamics; lack of monitoring of commercial activity, the wastage of juvenile fish caught in commercial nets and the perverse incentives in the Quota Management System which encourage illegal dumping.

A $7 million satellite tagging programme to be jointly funded by industry and the state should go some way to addressing the data gaps that are hindering scientific management. On-board cameras and observers and GPS tracking should give better insight into juvenile wastage and deter illegal dumping. Related measures require the commercial fleet to lift its game.

There is some sleight of hand in the minister's give-and-take response; the industry was working towards many of these measures anyway. The package is a political facesaver - John Key was not being flippant when he noted New Zealanders were more exercised by the snapper debate than by the GCSB domestic spying bill.

But the suite of measures suggests the ministry, whose relationship with the fishing industry has long favoured exploitation over conservation, has this time had to bow to public sentiment. Most significantly, the minister has signalled an intention to improve the recreational "share" of the allowable catch to 50 per cent as the stock improves - scotching the sector's fears that "proportionality" would work against them. And he wants recreational, commercial and customary representatives to forge a consensus on the fishery's future management.

The biggest fear of one leading lobbyist is fishers now going "back to sleep". The sector is notoriously divided: three or four groups, some with ministry links, claim to represent recreational interests and most fishers remain independent. The campaign led by advocacy group Legasea, an offshoot of the Sport Fishing Council, shows fishers will unite when threatened. They need to galvanise that spirit to become an effective voice at the fisheries management table.

- NZ Herald

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