The Environmental Defence Society has called for an independent inquiry into New Zealand's fisheries management system over concerns highlighted in a new book by the group's policy director, coastal expert Raewyn Peart. She discusses her findings.

Can you tell me about the book, what the research involved, and what motivated you to write it?

There has been a lot of competing rhetoric about New Zealand's fisheries management system ranging from "we have the best fisheries management system in the world" to "it's a total disaster and we should chuck it out".

So we decided to find out what was really going on by talking to the people directly involved.

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Also, through my work on the Sea Change Tai Timu Tai Pari project, I knew that there were serious problems with some fish stocks in the Hauraki Gulf and I wanted to understand what had gone wrong and how we could fix it.

We undertook 60 in-depth interviews with people who were closely involved with coastal fisheries including independent fishers, quota owners, fisheries managers, recreational fishers, environmentalists and scientists.

We also reviewed relevant articles, reports and fisheries data.

What was the big picture - and the biggest concerns - that came out of it?

We found a system that was failing to live up to its promise for coastal fisheries.

There have been some notable successes, such as the partial recovery of snapper stocks and healthy state of southern crayfish.

But there have been many notable failures including serious declines in a wide range of stocks such as crayfish, flatfish, gurnard, john dory, hapuku, tarakihi, paua and scallop.

Many stocks have been left to languish with few if any adjustments to their allowable harvest levels over 30 years.

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As one interviewee observed "we set the TAC [total allowable catch] and walk away".

We are simply not managing the bulk of inshore stocks and many of them are suffering as a result.

We found a fisheries management system that had ossified, was highly politicised and was severely siloed.

There has been little appetite for change and little innovation in tackling our increasingly serious problems.

Where it has been active, fisheries management has largely focused on tweaking harvest levels, rather than on using the full range of management methods at our disposal.

We also found a system that was "missing in action" when it came to maintaining the health of habitats that fish depend on to reproduce and survive.

We encountered serious habitat threats around the country, but the fisheries management system seems to be blind to these risks and isn't even beginning to address them.

In fisheries around the country, what were some of the most worrying or alarming cases?

Raewyn Peart's book was inspired by troubles around fish stocks in the Hauraki Gulf. Photo / File
Raewyn Peart's book was inspired by troubles around fish stocks in the Hauraki Gulf. Photo / File

The most alarming case was the Challenger scallop fishery in Tasman and Golden Bays.

This was a highly profitable fishery which at its peak generated $90 million per annum.

But the chronic impact of heavy scallop dredging over many years eventually "tipped" the seabed from a highly productive environment supporting large populations of shellfish, to a muddy wasteland where scallops can no longer survive.

This was a slow-motion crash over many years, but nothing was done to address the impact of dredging on this vital habitat.

That fishery has been closed but we are still dredging in other areas.

I found the story of the flat-fishery in the Kaipara Harbour particularly sad.

This is our largest harbour, and iwi and local fishermen there had been stewards of a very productive fishery for decades.

In 1986, the fishery was amalgamated into an enormous quota management area encompassing the entire upper half of the North Island.

This allowed fishers from a very wide area to drive their trailer boats to the harbour, fill up the narrow waterways with nets, plunder the localised fish stocks, and move on when the fishery was decimated.

Local Maori in partnership with the community put enormous effort into trying to get better management of the fishery, but were effectively dismissed on the basis that there is no place for local issues within the system.

There has been virtually no management action for 30 years and the fishery is now at a very low ebb.

The fisheries management system is failing to live up to its promise for coastal fisheries, Raewyn Peart argues. Photo / File
The fisheries management system is failing to live up to its promise for coastal fisheries, Raewyn Peart argues. Photo / File

There are many other worrying and alarming cases, including the fragile state of the Marlborough Sounds where blue cod and paua stocks are dwindling, and the loss of highly productive kelp forest along the north-east coast.

But I will leave people to read more detail about these in the book.

The book suggests there's a lack of science to support our current quota management system, even after 30 years. Why is this and what are the problems that you feel sit behind that?

Our research identified chronic underinvestment in fisheries management science.

This is largely a result of the user pays system introduced in 1992 where quota owners are required to pay for fisheries science.

They therefore have a strong incentive to drive investment down as it is a direct cost to their businesses.

Scientists report an effective 50 per cent reduction in fisheries science investment since the 1990s at a time when the number of stocks being managed more than tripled.

As you would expect, there is often more industry interest in funding science where a harvest increase is likely rather than a decrease.

In addition, each stock is required to effectively self-fund, and for small or low value stocks, the commercial profit in the fishery is not sufficient to pay for the necessary science.

So, generally you will see inshore research directed towards high value and rebuilding stocks like snapper.

Much of the research we do fund is focused on "counting fish" rather than on understanding broader biological or ecosystem dynamics.

So when surprises happen, such as the recent failure of recruitment in the Hauraki Gulf and Bay of Plenty crayfish stock, we don't have the scientific grounding to understand what is happening or to effectively respond to it.

You've also looked into the structure of the commercial fishing industry. What were the big findings here?

The fishing industry used to be comprised of numerous local independent fishers supplying a wide range of fish wholesalers dotted around the country.

Inshore fisheries is now highly concentrated and it is largely controlled by just three corporate entities - privately-owned Talley's, publicly-listed Sanford and iwi-owned Moana NZ.

Most small communities have lost their fishing industries and consequent access to fresh, locally-caught, fish.

There is now a marked separation between quota ownership and commercial harvesting on the water.

The independent fleet continues to dwindle and many fishermen see little future for themselves or their children in the industry.

This is due to the high cost and difficulty of accessing quota - in the form of annual catch entitlements - to cover their catch and the increasing cost of running old fishing vessels, in the context of languishing market prices for fish.

"The sea can be enormously productive if we look after it and we can safely take substantial amounts of seafood out of it... if we do it with care," Raewyn Peart says. Photo / File

There is little innovation or new investment into the industry.

You just have to look around the fishing ports to see that most inshore fishing boats are old, run down and still using dated fishing technologies.

We have seen very little movement into the high-value chilled fish markets, with the bulk of fish still trawled and chucked into the freezer before sale.

So we are getting low prices for the bulk of the fish we catch.

The EDS has called for Fisheries Minister Stuart Nash to launch an independent statutory inquiry into the fisheries management system. What do you think this would have to entail?

Our research indicated that the problems with the fisheries management system are serious and systemic and are not amenable to partial or quick fixes.

We also found that there was very little stakeholder or public confidence in the current system, and in the ability of the Ministry for Primary Industries to fix the problems.

We also concluded that the current problems create significant risks for the country and there was some urgency in the need to fix them.

So we concluded that an independent inquiry into the fisheries management system, which had wide scope, and which reported directly to Parliament rather than to the Minister - who can be subject to change - was the only way to fix these problems in a publicly credible manner.

Such an inquiry would need to be headed by highly respected and independent people.

There have been many notable failures including serious declines in a wide range of stocks such as crayfish (pictured), flatfish, gurnard, john dory, tarakihi, paua and scallop. Photo / Raewyn Peart
There have been many notable failures including serious declines in a wide range of stocks such as crayfish (pictured), flatfish, gurnard, john dory, tarakihi, paua and scallop. Photo / Raewyn Peart

It would need to hear from all interested parties.

It would also need to draw on innovative solutions developed in other jurisdictions.

For example, we are now well behind international best practice in such matters as applying ecosystems-based approaches to fisheries management.

The last time we had a full review of the system was in the early 1990s so it is very timely that we do so again now.

If we don't manage and preserve our fisheries properly, what do we stand to lose?

We stand to lose our fisheries for good.

The sea can be enormously productive if we look after it and we can safely take substantial amounts of seafood out of it, over many generations, if we do it with care.

But if we squander the resource through taking out too much from any one ecosystem, through using habitat-damaging fishing methods such as dredging and trawling, and through ignoring other stressors such as sedimentation, we can "tip" our systems into much less productive environments and our fish stocks will dwindle.

Such changes are largely irreversible and future generations will suffer because of our actions today.

We should not take for granted our ability to go out on the water to catch a feed.