One of the biggest myths in primary industry – up there alongside dairying is clean and forestry doesn't deplete the soil – is the idea that fishing is sustainable. It's not.

Not by current industry standards, that is. There are too many boats from too many countries catching too many fish over too great an area with too little oversight and, perhaps most importantly, too much indifference as to whether stocks survive or not.

They aren't. Surviving, that is.

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And you only have to look at the number of poachers and crooks, commercial and recreational, that regularly parade through the courts to realise that without breaking the rules most fishermen would be out of a job.

Else why risk losing their boats and facing million-dollar fines?

The really stupid bit is at the rate they're plundering the seas – worldwide, not just here in New Zealand – they're going to be out of a job soon anyway because there'll be nothing left to catch!

Bruce Bisset
Bruce Bisset

Oh, but we've got the oldest and supposedly one of the best management regimes in the world; our quota system is specifically designed to sustain fish stocks, right?


There are three main things wrong with the quota system.

First, large gaps in information mean the modelling is not just imprecise but often downright fanciful. Orange roughy is the classic example; the model said a huge number of roughy could be caught before stock dropped to unsustainable levels, but didn't take into account those fish only start to breed at around 80 years of age.

Second, it's predicated on total biomass of a given area of ocean, not on the actual number of fish – let alone specific species – present. If the population of some parts of the total explodes – think jellyfish in mid-ocean, or invasive species in harbours – actual fish numbers can shrink to next to nothing before anyone realises.


Besides, that "total biomass" is only a best-guess estimate. Yet it's the basis for setting catch quotas.

And third, the sneaky little lie in the fish pie is that the regime is designed primarily to sustain not the fish stocks, but the fishing industry.

All of which is compounded by the fact quotas can be traded, and by-catch legally dumped to suit.

Some 20-odd years ago I agitated for a temporary ban on all fishing of snapper in Auckland's Hauraki Gulf because it was patently obvious that particular fishery was in serious trouble.

Even the quota management system's modelling agreed with me; the model said if total biomass dipped below 40 per cent of nominal maximum, the fishery could not sustain itself. A moratorium seemed a sensible solution.

Of course both commercial and recreational fishers were up in arms at the suggestion, and what happened? The boffins at the ministry tweaked the model, and suddenly 35 per cent became the minimum biomass for sustainability. Carry on, boys!

No surprise then that the fishery continued to decline, resulting in various commercial method restrictions and stricter recreational limits. But sadly the Gulf's waters may be barren before anyone admits they need further protection.

Meanwhile "fisherman's friend" Shane Jones has prevailed on Minister of Fisheries Stuart Nash not to impose camera surveillance on all fishing vessels, effectively turning a blind eye to illegalities.

Those like Jones who rush to defend poor industry practices exacerbate the decline of our precious finfish stocks toward the abyss of extinction.

They're as guilty as the poachers and crooks they inherently defend in promoting the myth that our quota system is a tool for sustainability. It is only so by chance.

Bruce Bisset is a freelance writer and poet. Views expressed are the writer's opinion and not the newspaper's.