Fix fishing from the top

Dr Randall Bess
The National Business Review
10 June, 2016

Political hierarchies are like fish: both rot from the head downward. So, when fishing starts to stink, we need to first look at the fisheries management hierarchy.

The recently released report on overfishing and discarding, along with leaked Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) investigation reports, suggest something is rotten in the way the quota management system (QMS) has been administered.

The fishing industry and the MPI acknowledge problems and improvements in progress but deny these are widespread. The topics have elicited considerable debate but the MPI’s assurances don’t seem to have set many minds at rest.  

When considering the QMS from economic efficiency and fish stock sustainability perspectives, it is fundamentally a sound management system. However, poor administration has clearly led to some failures, including that of public and consumer expectations. To restore confidence in the QMS, it will be necessary to implement changes similar to those in other nations that have QMS-type systems.

A clear example is found in the European Union, where the public and consumers increasingly view discarding as a wasteful and unwarranted practice. This has led to the adoption of a landing obligation.  It means all catches are kept on board and are counted against quotas. This obligation is being phased in with some exemptions that allow discarding under certain conditions, including when fish might survive their return to the sea.

Some innovative discard reduction measures have been developed, including electronic monitoring and reporting systems that provide complete accountability for all catches and landings.

A 2014 report to the European Parliament prepared by fisheries economist Ragnar Arnason provides a relative perspective on New Zealand. His report compares discard reduction measures in Iceland, Namibia, New Zealand, Norway and the US.

Discarding was legal in New Zealand until 1990. Since then a ban has applied to QMS-managed species with some exceptions. However, Professor Arnason concludes New Zealand’s monitoring activity is modest compared with many other countries. Relatively few at-sea inspections take place in New Zealand waters. The observer programme, which covers about 10% of vessels, is not extensive. And no readily available comprehensive estimates exist of the volume of discards.

Finally, Professor Arnason refers to the MPI having adopted a plan to install video cameras on all commercial fishing vessels by October 2015. However, that date has slipped, prompting the minister on May 24 to fast-track the installation.

This will significantly boost information about the extent of discarding and misreporting, particularly in the inshore trawl mixed fisheries where the problems are understood to be the greatest. 

However, video cameras will not be a panacea. Serious questions need to be raised about the underlying problems of discarding and misreporting, which involve policy, administrative and legal frameworks that incentivise more acceptable behaviour.

The leaked MPI investigation reports expose the extent of these problems that led to decisions not to prosecute those involved.

Disturbing statements

One of the leaked reports, Operation Achilles, makes some rather disturbing statements, such as having evidence of “what we have known for a long time” and did not act on, samples showing “between 20-100% of some quota fish are being discarded during every haul,” seemingly “callous disregard” for simple reporting requirements and the prospect that over the years some catch levels have been set based on incorrect and misleading information.

The same report also states the MPI may have provided immunity from prosecution as a condition for allowing on-board observers. It expresses concern the MPI might have erred in contracting out of the prosecution of offences, even warning that such contracting out may pervert the course of justice.

Serious questions

This report alone raises serious questions concerning recent revelations about the administration of the proposed electronic monitoring and reporting system. But, in principle, industry self-regulation can work well.

While each quota-holder may have incentives to cheat, each knows the long-term value of their quota will diminish if everyone cheated. Fishing companies’ quota is not worth much if a fishery collapses. An industry-level body including most owners of quota should have reasonable incentives to ensure long-term sustainability.

It is hard to square that theory with practices revealed in the leaked reports. To be fair, most of that happened under the MPI’s watch, rather than under industry self-regulation. And we do not yet know what the arrangements are in the proposed electronic monitoring and reporting system.

What checks and balances are needed to ensure self-regulation works as it should? Will there be appropriate data-sharing arrangements? And how will the results be shared with the broader public, so New Zealanders will know whether to trust the system?

A whiff in both the proposed electronic monitoring and reporting system and leaked MPI investigation reports suggests something may be fishy. The findings of the independent QC’s review of the leaked reports will provide clearer interpretation of the legal obligations and recommendations on the adequacy and appropriateness of MPI actions in those instances. But, that should be just the start.

New Zealand’s reputation as a source of sustainable seafood is at risk. A ministerial or select committee inquiry may be needed to restore public and consumer confidence in the QMS.

The system is fundamentally sound but obvious and public failures in its administration risk bringing it into disrepute. We need to build on the QMS’ successes rather than encourage its rejection.

QMS explained

When implemented in 1986, the QMS (quota management system) broke new ground as it sought to limit catches to levels that result in maximum production from the fish stocks, and to allocate fishing rights (quota) so the economic return to the nation is maximised.

Stay in the loop: Subscribe to updates