The release of “Reconstruction of marine fisheries catches for New Zealand (1950-2010)” by the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries and the University of Auckland Business School identifies the scale of data misrepresentation that renders the sustainability of New Zealand fisheries dangerously close to an uncontrolled fishery, rorted by inaccurate data. Unreported and discarded fishery catches over the past 60 years threaten the economic viability of New Zealand’s Quota Management System (QMS). More fish has been taken out of our waters and not reported than officially caught and accounted for - both before and after the QMS was introduced in 1986. New Zealand’s fishery catch is currently estimated to be 2.7 times more than previously reported.
Historically, New Zealand has reported its catch data to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Information received found that this did not include illegal and unreported commercial catches and discards. The problems in the industry have been observed for some time by ministry officials with efforts to stem the influx of foreign exploitation of New Zealand fisheries through the establishment of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in 1977. Incomplete data collection has continued and the misrepresentation of fish landed compared to what was originally caught has become profitable. The QMS is seen as a ‘broken’ system whereby misrepresenting a vessels total catch is an effort to avoid tax, and over-fishing penalties are viewed as an operational ‘cost of business’. With less than half of the industrial catch actually accounted for in the QMS, Sea Shepherd New Zealand Managing Director Michael Lawry concludes that ‘sustainable’ fishing practices are merely a marketing term and the cosy relationship big fishing has enjoyed with successive New Zealand Governments must end if we are to clean up the industry.
Multiple data sources from fishery archives, interviews, and observers were triangulated against each other to identify what has actually been occurring off our coasts. Responses contained in the report indicate a level of frustration of having to work within a system designed around a single species take when multiple species are always caught. Threats to the QMS have been researched by the Ministry of Primary Industries, and subsequently hidden from public view. One Ministerial study reported that between one to two thirds of fish caught by inshore trawlers were dumped, and in another study observers noted systematic discarding of quota fish that was sometimes 20 – 100% of fish caught. Observers further noted a Hector Dolphin death whereby the dead dolphin was released from the net before it could be landed on board. The non-reporting of dolphin deaths is an offence and which further highlights the disregard the fishing industry has shown over many decades to many marine species to flagrantly ignore New Zealand’s fishing laws and regulations.
New Zealand’s first comprehensive study of the fishing industry rightly concludes that our QMS needs a substantial overhaul and the system that replaces it needs to be genuinely enforced. Fisheries officials need to effectively engage with the fishers to manage a real system based on mutual transparency of all stakeholders. We can’t change history but we can understand it better, and we can utilise data effectively that creates viable policy. We now know of the hidden and undercover fishing practices in New Zealand and our oceans need better protection.