Fishing for fun now serious business

Dr Randall Bess
The National Business Review
16 September, 2016

The Auckland housing situation has been developing for several years, if not decades, but only recently has the government acknowledged it is at a crisis point. The continued denial that a crisis was looming allowed the problem to grow into something that will take considerable time and effort to fix.

We now face the prospect of a crisis with recreational fisheries. In New Zealand and overseas recreational fishing is no longer a marginal activity that has little, if any, effect on the sustainability of fish stocks. Recreational fishing accounts for increasing proportions of the total catch of many fish stocks, sometimes exceeding that of commercial fishing. Coastal nations can no longer afford to be complacent in the way recreational fisheries are managed.

The New Zealand Initiative recently launched its first report on New Zealand’s recreational fisheries. This report, ‘What’s the Catch? The state of recreational fisheries management in New Zealand’ warns that unless we act now and improve the current management system, future generations of New Zealanders will not be able to fish the way we have.

The hands-off management approach that New Zealand has used will not be enough to ensure New Zealander’s recreational fishing experience will continue as a favourite pastime, a way to connect with nature and tradition, something that is integral to the Kiwi way of life.

While fisheries legislation requires the Minister for Primary Industries to manage fish stocks at sustainable levels that does not mean all stocks are well managed, or that there will be sufficient amounts for all who want to catch fish. Some fish stocks important to recreational fishers are overfished or depleted and need to be rebuilt.

The snapper fishery is the largest recreational fishery in New Zealand. Some snapper stocks continue their rebuild, including the SNA1 stock from North Cape to East Cape. The effect of the decline in this stock has meant that the recreational daily bag limit has been reduced from 30 fish in 1985 to seven in 2014. Since 1985 the minimum legal size limit has increased from 25 centimetres to 30 centimetres, causing more undersized fish to be caught and thrown back, which increases mortality rates.

While the daily bag limits of the past may now be viewed as excessive, the downward trend in the limit will continue as the Auckland region’s population and tourism continue to grow. There will be further increases in the minimum legal size limit, which increases the amount of fishing effort needed to catch a dwindling daily limit.

So, what is the government doing about it? Well, it is too early to tell. In 2013 the Minister decided to establish the SNA1 Strategy Group, chaired by Sir Ian Barker QC, to develop a long-term plan to improve the stock’s management. The Strategy Group comprises two members from each fishing sector; commercial, customary and recreational.

On 2 September 2016 the Strategy Group’s plan for managing SNA1 was released. It is broad in scope and would lead to significant management improvements, if much of it was implement. At this time, the plan consists of the Group’s agreed recommendations, including some management targets, along with discussion on certain points of disagreement.

One point of disagreement relates to the most contentious issue in fisheries management, the allocation of a stock’s total catch between competing fishing sectors. This point specifically follows up the Minister’s stated intention to over time move the SNA1 total catch allocation to a 50-50 split between commercial and non-commercial fishing.

According to the plan, the commercial fishing sector has expressed support for this split, so long as the allocation does not change any further in favour of non-commercial fishing. The plan does not provide any guidance for movement towards a 50-50 split or what might be done should the demand for recreational fishing exceed 50 percent of the total catch. But, it does raise the issue of potential losses for commercial quota holders and compensation for any losses.

The red snapper fishery in the United States’ Gulf of Mexico faced a similar challenge and put a 51-49 split in place, slightly favouring commercial fishing. Other measures have also been put in place to constrain recreational fishing; the daily bag limit is two fish, and the 2016 season in federal waters lasted only nine days for individual fishers.

Despite the red snapper stock continuing to rebuild, the demand for recreational fishing has grown at a faster rate.

Recreational catches are now three to four times higher than in 2007. Fisheries managers and fishers are debating various options to replace the 51-49 split.

This comparison highlights that New Zealand’s snapper fishery is not so far behind the red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico and fisheries elsewhere. It also highlights the importance of leadership vision and the much needed technical support for that vision.

New Zealand has the opportunity to learn lessons from other coastal nations and, therefore, avoid the fisheries problems that so often characterise their recreational fisheries. There is time to plan for the future by finding workable solutions that enhance the recreational fishing experience.

But, to do so will mean acknowledging that fisheries can change very rapidly and the need to set realistic time horizon; it may not take that long for recreational fishing in SNA1 to exceed a 50-50 split, if implemented. If so, then what next?

The Strategy Group’s deliberations have taken up most of this electoral cycle, and they should be commended for their efforts. The New Zealand Initiative wishes them the best in their further deliberations and any upcoming Ministerial decisions.

There is the saying, ‘Intentions sound good, but they must be converted into actions.’ New Zealanders cannot afford many more electoral cycles before agreed positions and points of disagreement must be turned into plans that set out the results of tough decisions worthy of implementation.

Another consideration is that previous ministers have stated their intentions for improving the way recreational fisheries could be managed, and some have been put into policy. But, subsequent governments are not obliged to honour those intentions or policies. For that matter, we have not heard much about intended improvements for other fish stocks, with blue cod in the Marlborough Sounds being an exception.

The next report by the New Zealand Initiative will summarise the evidence gathered from experiences of recreational fisheries management systems in the United States, Canada and Australia. This report will outline how and why these systems have succeeded or failed, and the common lessons that can be considered here in New Zealand.  

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