Commercial fishers have reconfirmed their support for on-board surveillance cameras - but say the true costs of a compulsory regime have yet to be calculated and recognised.
Following public criticism of the Government's delay in rolling out camera regulation until October next year, three of New Zealand's biggest seafood companies Sealord, Moana NZ and Sanford have publicly stated they have long supported cameras and have all taken part in trials.
New Zealand Federation of Commercial Fishermen president Doug Saunders-Loder has also re-iterated that his membership, which represents up to 30 per cent of the inshore fleet including crayfish operators, believes cameras are beneficial.
But all say complex issues have still to be worked through with officials - and costs, including the multimillion-dollar infrastructure needed behind the cameras, are the most concerning.
Fisheries Minister Stuart Nash, in delaying the scheduled July kickoff to obligatory cameras, said the technology was not ready and the costs too high for smaller fishing operators.
But large companies are also concerned about the cost unknowns and are asking why the 1000-vessel sector should shoulder them all. Public concern about bycatch of dolphins and seabirds has spurred calls for onboard cameras though fish discarding prompted the policy work under the previous National Government.
Sealord chief operating officer Doug Paulin offers the example of the operating costs that will be run up by deepsea vessels.
They can be at sea for up to 42 days and may need five cameras, he said.
The cameras won't be live because the boats are too far from land, so footage from five cameras operating 24 hours a day for up to 42 days will need to be viewed later.
"How many people will you have to hire to watch that? And who's going to pay? In reality this is being done for public good, for transparency, so surely the Government should pay."
Asked who will pay for infrastructure such as monitoring, MPI said details of the funding model "are still being worked through".
Andrew Talley of Talleys Group said the industry can't be expected to enter a programme for which the costs are unknown and no valid cost-benefit work has been completed.
He asks what are the costs of transitioning, storing and reviewing the data?
"Nobody knows but we know it is millions of dollars per year, not tens of thousands."
Herald inquiries suggest MPI's cost estimates for camera installation alone are still loose. And the ministry has confirmed industry concerns that replacement costs will be onerous in marine conditions.
MPI's basing its estimates on a Government-funded $17.1 million trial under way off the west coast of the North Island, considered a high-density territory of the critically endangered Maui dolphin. Twenty vessels with two or three cameras are participating in the trial which started in November and runs until mid-2023.
The $17m funding is for the purchase, installation and maintenance of the cameras, and the costs of storage, review and analysis.
As the federation's Saunders-Loder notes, $17m across 20 boats is $850,000 for each, way beyond the pocket of a small, family-owned coastal fishing company.
MPI has told the Herald the cost per vessel in the trial averaged $34,500 - this was to buy, install and test the cameras and included upgrading wiring where necessary. Annual support and maintenance costs are an additional $4000.
However as recently as November, MPI estimated the average cost per vessel was around $41,000. That was based on actual costs of buying and installing cameras and associated technology, according to an MPI document.
MPI said the trial shows the lifespan of a camera is three to five years.
Asked if it would enforce a camera standard, MPI said this was still to be determined.
"Public consultation on what a wider rollout of on-board cameras could look like will help to inform our technology requirements," its response said.
The estimated cost per vessel has crept up closer to $50,000, an industry insider understands.
That would mean an upfront bill of $50m for the country's 1000 commercial vessels, before infrastructure costs, and potentially $50m every three to five years for new technology. Many of these vessels already have government observers on board.
Sealord's Paulin says costs aren't the only complexities to work out.
Because his company has trialled cameras - a $100,000 self-funded exercise - it knows the logistics issues that crop up and they haven't been addressed yet.
"[For example] I'm working at the edge of the exclusive economic zone and a camera breaks down. Do I have to return to port? In the Southern Ocean it's two days to get back, and that trip to port and back could cost over $400,000.
"But because the camera's not working and we need a working camera to [be allowed to] fish we'd have to return for someone to do a 10-minute [fix] job.
"We're happy to have cameras on board but it's not simple."
Others like Talley and Saunders-Loder are concerned that cameras, while a useful fisheries management tool, don't address the problem that some fundamental policy settings within the Quota Management System are overdue for adjustment. One relates to fish discard.
Talley said the camera debate was driven principally off concern about discarding.
"The better outcome for any fishery is to stop discarding, not just photograph it.
"Fisheries are dynamic, they're changing all the time. As a result QMS settings need regular adjustment to reflect a range of changing variables like stock abundance, market prices, fishing techniques or environmental factors. They can't get stale."
Saunders-Loder said people need to think seriously about the objectives of camera use.
"The current rhetoric says 'put cameras on boats because we don't trust you, you're a bunch of thieving mongrels running round the sea beating up the environment and stealing fish.
"That's just nonsense ... inshore operators simply could not afford potentially $30,000 to $50,000 to set up a camera, particularly if there are not any identified objectives."
He said a small operator's annual income depended on many factors including fishery type, but could be as low as $200,000.