Amid fresh revelations about fishing industry donations to NZ First, sparks are flying between New Zealand deep sea fishing companies and Greenpeace and its associates over a recent high level international fisheries conference.
The New Zealand High Seas Fisheries Group is disputing what Greenpeace and its associate the international Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC) has told the public about what happened at a recent meeting of the powerful South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation (SPRFMO) and how Talley's vessel Amaltal Apollo came to be removed from a blacklist.
The group, whose members include some of New Zealand's biggest fishing companies including Talley's, has also taken issue with a Greenpeace claim that it was clear at the Vanuatu conference that New Zealand government officials have been captured by the deepwater fishing industry.
Talley's Apollo is at the centre of Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) legal action. MPI is prosecuting Talley's over an alleged fishing breach by Apollo in May 2018 in closed waters near Norfolk Island, 1250km from its Nelson base. The matter is next due in court on March 4.
Greenpeace, speaking also for DSCC, said officials carried out "heavy lobbying" on Talley's behalf at the SPRFMO meeting at Vanuatu. SPRFMO manages and regulates fisheries in the South Pacific. DSCC said removing Apollo from the draft Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) list was inappropriate given the current prosecution.
Greenpeace's Jessica Desmond, there as an observer, said New Zealand officials had argued on behalf of Talleys at this year's meeting and last year's, in what had become "a pattern of behaviour".
MPI said the decision to remove the vessel from the list was taken collectively by the member countries.
"We reject any claim that New Zealand has unduly 'lobbied' to have the vessel removed from the IUU list," said Philip Houlding, MPI's director international policy.
The campaigners were also reported as saying the officials sided with deep sea fishers who argued at Vanuatu against an EU proposal to sharply reduce threshold weight rules for stony coral. (Trawlers must move to a new area if they reach set weights of vulnerable species, such as coral.)
The New Zealand High Seas Fisheries Group has come out swinging against the lobbyists' version of events.
The group represents deep sea trawling companies Talley's, Sanford, Sealord, Richardson Fishing and Westfleet Fishing.
Chairman Andy Smith, operations manager for Talley's fishing business, said the campaigners provided no context or background to support their public claims.
The allegation that officials lobbied for Talley's was "a blatant and unsupported misrepresentation of what occurred at the meeting", he said.
"Each of the 15 member states represented at the SPRFMO forum agreed that New Zealand had taken effective action against the vessel (Apollo) and supported the removal from the draft IUU list with several countries endorsing the severity of the measures taken against the company, notwithstanding the prosecution is not yet finalised," Smith said.
"The required separate consideration from each of the countries present, and the measures taken by New Zealand, were carefully reviewed and discussed over four days before they unanimously voted for the removal of the vessel."
Talley's and New Zealand self-reported the 2018 incident to SPRFMO.
Talley's has said the incident was the result of a mistake by the skipper and the MPI observer on board. It was not bottom trawling at the time but mid-water trawling. The incident had no impact on the sea bottom, Talley's has said.
The Apollo was taken over by the Government and its $120,000 catch forfeited.
Smith said the area where the vessel fished in error was open to fishing until 2015, closed for two years after, and reopened in 2019. It is currently open.
SPFRMO rules required the vessel to be put on a draft IUU list until the organisation decided whether effective action had been taken against the boat and the company, and through the New Zealand prosecution process, Smith said.
He said Greenpeace and the coalition had lobbied vigorously at Vanuatu to increase regulation of New Zealand-flagged vessels operating in the SPFRMO area.
They had "deliberately omitted" to mention that New Zealand-flagged vessel access to high seas fisheries was subject to "the most restrictive and precautionary regulation on the planet".
More than 99.8 per cent of the high seas were closed to bottom fishing, he said. Of the remaining 0.13 per cent, only 0.019 per cent was physically trawled by five New Zealand-flagged vessels over a limited period of six weeks a year. The rules included that vessels must have government observers on board, watching every tow.
To suggest all the rules amounted to a delinquent approach to fisheries management "would appear to be more focused on securing publicity and funding for DSCC and Greenpeace than the facts", Smith said.
At Vanuatu, the EU, supported by Australia, proposed reducing the threshold rates on stony coral from 250kg to 25kg.
The High Seas Fishing Group, which was only an observer at Vanuatu, supported the 250kg threshold given that 99.8 per cent of the area was closed to fishing, Smith said.
The scientific committee of the SPRFMO wanted more work done to determine whether the current settings were sufficiently precautionary he said, but under pressure from the EU, which had been heavily lobbied by DSCC, the threshold was changed down to 80kg, he said.
"To suggest the New Zealand Government is lobbying for industry is patently incorrect. The SPRFMO convention mandates a balance between utilisation and conservation, and the MPI-led delegation at the meeting sought to achieve this by pushing back against the EU and Australia (lobbied by DSCC) on the suggested measure, which would have resulted in Kiwis losing jobs," Smith said.
He said while the High Seas group could only be an observer and was not part of any bilateral discussions, the DSCC had been invited to the discussions by the EU.