In the first of a three-part inquiry into New Zealand's fishing industry, Andrea Fox looks at tensions between commercial and recreational fishing.
As cracking fishing yarns go, the one about New Zealand's seafood industry is hard to beat.
With high-seas adventure, a whiff of danger, obsession and superstition, fierce rivalries, big money, big and small boats and human struggle, it's a compelling script which usually delivers a satisfying ending – at the barbeque after a great day out with mates, or a deep-sea bounty to keep export customers happy.
MORE FROM THE SERIES:
• Tomorrow: The commercial sector
• Monday: Fishing for fun
It's odd, then, that this multibillion-dollar industry is considered the least understood of our food producing sectors.
As one industry leader puts it: "Most New Zealanders don't understand anything about their food source.
"Never at any time in history have humans been so far away in understanding where their food comes from, yet have such high expectations of how it should be delivered to them – and for as little cost as possible."
And even within this complex, many-layered industry, understanding between factions can be limited when it comes to something New Zealanders consider their birthright -- the right to throw a line over the side of a boat.
Tensions between commercial and recreational fishing are running high - even as some experts say overfishing is only about number seven or eight on the list of threats to the health of our oceans.
Other threats such as climate change, pollution from onshore activities and sedimentation of the sea floor have pushed the fishing take well down the list of concerns.
But that isn't stopping some of the country's 600,000 or so recreational fishers from agitating for commercial operators to be banished from inshore fisheries to allow fish stocks to grow and breed.
Social media and the more extreme end of the pleasure fishing advocacy continue to be venomous about commercial operators, claiming they're running amok and being allowed by governments to pillage the seas. This is despite scientific research from government body Fisheries NZ showing that 97 per cent of all fish landed in New Zealand come from stocks that are sustainable and healthy.
Then, among commercial operators -- whose catch, unlike the recreational sector's, is strictly controlled by laws, quota and a swag of regulations -- there are growing calls for leisure fishers to be licensed so their catch can be properly measured. (Recreational fishers are subject to bag and size limits for some species such as snapper. It's now well accepted that in the country's main leisure fishing area, the Hauraki Gulf, they catch more snapper than the total annual commercial catch.)
The commercial side has a particular beef about charter boats not being classed as commercial operators. There are hundreds of them, they operate as businesses and their multiple customers can take a lot of fish on a single outing.
For small commercial companies who say their access to inshore fishing is increasingly restricted while their costs are rising with enforced technology monitoring and reporting, the different political treatment irks.
Among all this internal huffing and puffing, and material about the industry being riddled with contradictions, counter-claims and bureaucratic-speak, it's hardly surprising the general public is as clueless as about the fishing business as the industry alleges.
And why should they care anyway?
Aside from the obvious reason - that New Zealand is a maritime nation with the world's ninth longest coastline at 15,134km, and the fourth largest exclusive economic zone and territorial sea - the saltwater fishing industry is an economic force. It's the country's fifth biggest export earner, just behind fruit and ahead of wine.
Next year its export earnings are expected to crack $2 billion.
Commercial sector advocate Seafood NZ says about 600,000 tonnes of seafood, excluding aquaculture, is harvested commercially from New Zealand waters each year. Last year, 268,000 tonnes of that was exported.
Recreational fishers take an estimated 10,000 tonnes a year.
In the process, they spend about $946m each year and generate $1.7 billion in total economic activity, according to a 2106 report by the NZ Marine Research Foundation. Their passion supports 8100 jobs and is a significant tourism earner.
A Fisheries NZ survey, taken over 2017-18 and recording the outings of 7000 recreational fishers, estimates that they caught 7 million individual finfish and nearly 4 million individual shellfish. From the survey it's estimated 14 per cent of the population over the age of 15 went fishing at least once during the year. An estimated 2 million fishing trips were taken.
More reasons to be interested in New Zealand's fishing industry: it employs more than 13,000 fulltimers, with 2500 people working at sea most days.
Our quota management system (QMS), introduced in 1986 to halt what industry veterans say was "a race for the last fish", is considered world-leading, and New Zealand is ranked among the word's best performing fisheries nations.
Iwi own more than 33 per cent of commercial quota and the largest quota holder at 20 per cent or 111,961 tonnes is iwi-owned Sealord.
The second biggest player is publicly-listed company Sanford, with South Island-based, family-owned Talley Group in third position and Kiwi-owned, Christchurch deep sea operator Independent Fisheries at fourth.
There are about 800 quota holders in total.
Māori are guaranteed 20 per cent of all quota for any New Zealand fish stock that is introduced to the QMS.
Seafood NZ says 123 species are commercially fished in New Zealand – 98 of which are managed under the QMS in 641 stock areas. Each year the government reviews the total allowable commercial catch for fish stocks and sets limits so fish remain for breeding.
Enough of numbers.
Seafood NZ chief executive Tim Pankhurst thinks we should care about the fishing industry because "the oceans will save us".
"No other form of protein harvesting has such a small impact on the environment. It doesn't add fertilisers and chemicals, it doesn't draw on freshwater, shellfish strain and cleanse the seawater and absorb carbon. It's also healthy and nutritious.
"No land-based cultivation comes close to that."
Yes, he says, the industry has its flaws.
"The system is very bureaucratic and it's slow to respond in terms of biomass (fish stock). In a number of cases it's the fishing companies themselves that will decide they're not going to catch the quota because they don't think the fishery is in a strong enough state.
"But overall, our fisheries management system is proven, it has been adopted worldwide and it is sustainable.
"We are not going to run out of fish," says Pankhurst, who like other commercial sector leaders says the industry is in good shape.
Try telling that to LegaSea, the recreational advocate set up by the NZ Sport Fishing Council, which claims 55 affiliated fishing clubs with 35,239 members.
One of LegaSea's missions is to restore coastal fisheries. It wants more regular fish stock assessments and better fisheries management.
Regarded by the commercial sector as representing the "extreme end" of the recreational fishing lobby, LegaSea has no time for the QMS.
When Fisheries Minister Stuart Nash announced a 10 per cent cut to commercial catch limits for tarakihi from October 1, LegaSea said it should have been 40 per cent. That was what was needed to restore the east coast fishery where stocks had fallen "unacceptably low". Now the fishery may not rebuild to acceptable levels now for another 20 years, claims LegaSea.
LegaSea spokesman Scott Macindoe concedes that snapper stocks are doing "reasonably well" (the commercial side says their numbers have increased five-fold in the past 20 years), but says the rest of the inshore fishery isn't.
Snapper is by far the most common recreational catch, says Fisheries NZ. In 2017-18, nearly 50 per cent of finfish caught were snapper. Next was kahawai at 14.3 per cent. In 2011-12, snapper was 52.3 per cent and 13.4 per cent were kahawai. Blue cod is the main catch in southern fisheries.
Macindoe: "Snapper is a tough little animal, it's a serial spawner, can live in clean or dirty water and eats anything. A remarkable creature. The rest of the inshore species are in trouble.
"We've lost the memory almost of john dory. They've gone. They may still be available to the consumer because trawling scrapes up the last of them. The same can be said of gurnard and tarakihi.
"Places where we've been accustomed to catching tarakihi, they're empty. There's nothing there."
Macindoe calls the Bay of Plenty the Bay of Empty because "it's been trawled to death".
He says trawling is "despicable".
"Imagine a long table at a restaurant covered in stemware and crockery and flowers. When a trawler has been through there's nothing left on the table. Everything is broken and shattered – it's over, no more party.
"They trash the environment day after day. These operators are using military technology GPS and sonar and adapting it to their inshore fish jihad. An hour's trawling today bears no resemblance to an hour's trawling 20 years ago.
"We've got a snapper fishery in the Hauraki Gulf and that's in no small part due to no trawling for many years – the rest of the country's not so blessed with these exclusion zones."
In 2007 the Government, with fishing industry support, closed 1.1 million square kilometres of seabed to bottom trawling and dredging – close to a third of New Zealand's entire Exclusive Economic Zone. The 17 separate closed areas, known as benthic protection areas, mainly cover parts of New Zealand waters never trawled.
LegaSea's number cruncher Trish Rea says not all snapper fisheries are healthy.
"The snapper fishery off the [North Island] west coast hasn't been assessed since 2005. At that time it was between eight and 12 per cent of the original [virgin] stock size so any improvement there is an improvement. Anything under 10 per cent needs to be considered for closure. If they are rebuilding it's from a low standard."
Rea says the commercial sector has "so much sway" over what stocks are researched and how because it helps pay for the work.
That'll be news to commercial operators.
One of the inshore commercial sector's main worries right now is the economic hit fishing companies – particularly small, family-owned provincial operators – will suffer from Fisheries NZ proposals to tighten the threat management plan (TMP) for the endangered Māui and Hector's dolphins.
Seafood NZ says thousands of fishing jobs and livelihoods are at risk from the most extreme of four proposals, which could prevent access to whole inshore fisheries. The proposals have been out for public consultation and the decision now rests with Nash and Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage.
One company feeling little reason for Christmas cheer is New Plymouth's Egmont Fisheries. Owner Keith Mawson says the 23-year-old business, which employs 40 people at sea and onshore, will be finished if the most severe option is adopted for the Taranaki inshore fishery. Māui dolphins, a subspecies of the Hector's - New Zealand's only endemic dolphin - are the world's smallest. Distinctive because of their black dorsal fins, they are said to be found only on the North Island's west coast.
Fisheries NZ told the Herald the likelihood of a Māui or Hector's dolphin death from fishing was considered to be "very low" and measures required to further reduce the risk are likely to come at a cost to fishers.
"However, the consequence of a mortality to the population is very high because the population is so small (about 63). This is the reason why further measures to manage the risk from fishing have been proposed."
A Mawson fishing boat pulled in a dead dolphin in a net in 2012 and reported the event. Mawson says for his crews, many who have been fishing for 40 years, it was first Hector's or Māui dolphin catch they'd known.
Since 2004, there have been four dolphin threat management restriction measures imposed on the Taranaki coast, he says.
"If we can't go fishing for those set net species for which we have purchased quota, then my asset has no value. With [the cattle disease] Mycoplasma bovis, the farmer got some sort of compensation from the Crown; we get absolutely nothing."
The recent TMP consultation attracted more than 13,000 submissions and a petition with76,000 signatures.
Dion Tuuta, chief executive of Te Ohu Kaimoana, which aims to advance Māori interests in fishing and related activities, says the Māui dolphin debate illustrates the industry's balancing act between tolerance and intolerance.
"You have so few Māui dolphins that concern about their welfare leads to quite severe options. Even though a Māui dolphin has not been caught for nearly a decade and even then it wasn't sure it was one, the Māui dolphin has become an icon for the green movement, it's become a symbol."
The commercial sector says disease and pollution from onshore urban sources cannot be ruled out as equal, if not greater, threats to Māui and Hector's dolphins as netting and trawling.
Where this fragmented, fractious industry is solidly united is in the opinion that the system is highly political - therefore thoroughly bureaucratic and as slow to react as a month of wet Sundays.
While it's generally accepted – except perhaps by LegaSea - that the QMS saved fisheries from near collapse, and that it put New Zealand up on a global management pedestal, the Beehive's heavy involvement sometimes irks.
Minister Nash cheerfully bats away charges that he favours one fishing sector over another.
He disagrees that assessing fish stocks – for all sectors - is largely guesswork.
"We do rely a lot on modelling to tell us what is happening and of course modelling is imprecise. But really it's the only thing we can go on in terms of getting an understanding of what's happening out in our oceans.
"What the QMS allows us to do is to take into account the requirements of the commercial, recreational and customary fishing sectors. So when I'm assessing a total allowable catch for a species, I do make allowances for all three sectors but I also make allowances for fish that are stolen – for example crayfish – and fish that may be killed through the process of being hauled up from the bottom."
Nash reckons the available data he uses to make decisions for recreational fishing is as good as it is for the commercial side.
"I make decisions without any fear or favour ... I base all my decisions purely on the evidence and I pride myself on that."
The idea of licensing recreational fishers and/or their boats wouldn't be enforceable, says Nash.
"It's not something I'm looking at. You could argue it's been a right people have had in this country to go out on an afternoon and throw a line over a boat to feed yourself, your family and your friends.
"I think if you start charging people for the right to do that then we change the fundamental nature of fishing. The other thing to keep in mind is that the commercial guys do make a profit out of fishing – there's a slightly different motive as to why people are out there."