An outing to gather pāua on the rocky, fragile Kaikōura coastline was cut short when Sara Ruffell was ordered to remove her wetsuit and hand it to a fishery officer, along with the gear she’d been using to gather the seasonal seafood.
The Nelson woman, her partner and their combined three primary school-aged children were left reeling from the encounter during a day trip to gather the delicacy over King’s Birthday weekend.
Ruffell initially faced a $250 fine, which has now been waived and replaced with a warning, and a lawyer’s bill close to $1000 after an inquiry into her catch for the day.
Fisheries New Zealand argued she had exceeded the allowable quota of three pāua per person when she included the family in her total catch, who had been helping to measure and bag the shellfish.
Ruffell was left wondering how the law around gathering can be interpreted in so many ways after she claimed she was given mixed advice from fishery officers. She believes the rules need to be clearer, including those around what constituted “gathering” pāua.
Ruffell and her partner were keen and experienced hunter-gatherers, who enjoyed fishing and the outdoors. They thought they knew the rules related to the fishery and liked teaching their children too.
“We’re strict about educating our kids. We spent a lot of time last summer teaching them how to get pāua off the rocks as we are well aware they need to be actively involved if they want to take their share.
“The rule is, we thought, if you want to take your share you need to be actively involved.”
The children, who each had measurers issued by the Ministry for Primary Industries, helped to measure and bag the pāua after Ruffell moved them within reach.
Rules around seafood gathering within the Kaikōura fishery have been a moveable feast since it was devastated by the massive coastal uplift in the 2016 earthquake.
The fishery, which was closed to fishing of almost all species for the five years following the quake, was re-opened to pāua fishing for a limited three-month season from December 2021 to February 2022.
This year the commercial fishery opened permanently in January, but the recreational fishery opened for just two months from April to late June, with a daily limit of three ordinary black foot pāua and three yellow foot pāua - except within the Oaro-Haumuri Taiāpure zone on the coast south of Kaikoura, where the daily limit was two of each species.
Fisheries New Zealand compliance manager Howard Reid said these new rules and daily catch limits were well publicised through signage, regular online messages, media, the NZ Fishing Rules app, and by Fisheries New Zealand fishery officers actively explaining the rules to pāua gatherers.
Reid said that one of the rules strictly enforced during the second season was that only fishers actively gathering pāua were entitled to take the daily limit.
“What this means is a person could not take a daily limit on behalf of another person or persons or top up the catch of someone else having less luck fishing.”
Reid said enforcement of this rule came about from the consultation period before the second season, where feedback from local Kaikōura people suggested that during the first season, too many people were gathering for friends and family that were not actively fishing.
Ruffell, editor of the Nelson and Waimea Weekly newspapers, said Kaikōura was a favourite destination for family camping weekends, not only for the environment but it was where her partner was born.
During the recent June holiday weekend they decided it was too expensive to camp there over the three days, so settled on a day trip. It meant a 4am start to be on the road by 5am to make it to Kaikōura in time for low tide at around 9.30am.
“We thought we’d get in before the season closed, get a few pāua, light a fire, cook lunch and just have a nice day out.
They stopped in Blenheim to buy doughnuts for breakfast, and other treats to add to the planned pāua picnic.
“We got to Kaikōura, just before 9am and I knew where I wanted to go, which was an area near where there’d be baby seals for the kids to see.
“I got into my wetsuit, and the kids climbed out on to the rocks with my partner.”
Ruffell, the only one in the family to own a wetsuit, said the water was freezing.
It was when she returned to the car to get her gloves her partner noticed a fishery vehicle nearby. Ruffell wasn’t bothered, as she did not think they were not doing anything wrong.
Before leaving Nelson, she’d checked the Ministry for Primary Industries website and had even asked fishery officers about children’s allowable catch during an earlier outing to gather crayfish in April.
“We asked the three officers how that translated to pāua and were told as long as the kids were participating and measuring, and if they could show fisheries officers they could take pāua off a rock, they were fine to take their catch, even if they weren’t in the water.
“What they didn’t want to see was kids sitting in the back of the car on a tablet and then mum and dad saying, ‘Oh well, we’ve got their catch as well’, which is entirely fair.”
Ruffell said she noticed the fishery vehicle move closer after she’d taken her fourth pāua off the rocks and swum it over to the children to measure and place in the bag.
Still not overly concerned, she continued until they had 15 black foot pāua – three for each in the family.
It was when she planned to try her luck for a yellow foot pāua, which could be gathered under a separate quota allowance, that her partner approached the fisheries officers – a woman and a man, to make sure what they were doing was correct before they took the pāua away from the water.
Ruffell said the woman replied it was not okay and that she had photographs to show the allowable catch had been exceeded, leaving Ruffell to wonder why she hadn’t intervened sooner.
Reid said standard procedure when a fisheries officer suspected someone had taken more than a daily limit of a fish species was to observe, gather evidence and ask the person questions to understand the circumstances.
If they believed a limit had been exceeded, officials could seize the fish, and any equipment used to take the extra fish.
“My partner came back out on to the rocks and told me she wanted to speak with me, so I got out, walked over to her and she said, ‘You need to come with me, we need to have a chat’.
Ruffell said the officer asked if she wanted to change out of her wetsuit, but she declined, not thinking it necessary.
“I didn’t understand I’d done anything wrong as it was never made clear to me what she was concerned about, and what was happening.”
Ruffell said the officer then proceeded to photograph the family car, including under the hood and in the boot.
“She asked me again if I wanted to get changed, and again I said no, and she said, ‘I’m seizing your gear so get changed’.”
Ruffell said it amounted to being ordered to strip in a public place, and it was at that point she began to get upset.
“I had nothing on under the wetsuit and asked for privacy as I had nowhere to get changed.”
Reid said the female fishery officer asked the gatherer (Ruffell) to take off her wetsuit and believed she gave her appropriate privacy to get changed.
“However, we acknowledge the gatherer’s concerns and have passed these on to the fishery officer.”
The officer seized more than $1000 worth of Ruffell’s snorkelling gear including her boots, gloves, catch bag, wetsuit and knife, which have only just been returned.
Ruffell said she was eventually told that because she was the only one in the water, she was the only one allowed to take the pāua and that what she had done would have been acceptable last year, but not this year.
Reid said that based on the fishery officer’s observation and initial remarks from the party, she believed the person was gathering pāua for everyone in their group, including three children and her partner.
“There was not a rule entitling a combined limit of 15.
“Only people actively gathering – that is removing pāua from rocks, were entitled to a daily limit,” Reid said.
As the shoreline discussion was winding up Ruffell was told she would be called to an investigation meeting.
She said it was a miserable drive home to Nelson, even though she’d been allowed to keep three pāua – described as her allowable quota after she had asked for them.
“We quit our plan to hang out on the coastline because it had totally wrecked our day.
“We started the drive home, and I was still in a state of ‘what just happened’, thinking it was a misunderstanding and would be cleared up.”
Ruffell said it dawned on her in the days following that it was possible she may end up with a conviction.
She contacted her lawyer who told her to write down everything.
“Being a journalist, of course, I wrote six pages.”
Several weeks later Ruffell was interviewed by fishery officers in Nelson, who told her they would recommend no further action, which after input from other officials, was eventually a $250 fine.
It has since been waived after officials factored in her legal costs.
Ruffell still believed the rules needed to be clearer, including those around what constituted “gathering” pāua.
Reid said fishery officers were always happy to help anyone with any queries, especially about who was allowed a daily limit for any species they might be targeting.
He also encouraged all fishers, whether experienced or new to the game, to download the free NZ Fishing Rules mobile app.
Tracy Neal is a Nelson-based Open Justice reporter at NZME. She was previously RNZ’s regional reporter in Nelson-Marlborough and has covered general news, including court and local government for the Nelson Mail. Sara Ruffell is editor of the Nelson Weekly, which is the local media partner of Open Justice in Nelson.