New Zealand's inshore fisheries - a game of chicken

Dr Randall Bess
The National Business Review
15 September, 2017

With some exceptions, there is a distinct lack of co-operation among the various interests in New Zealand’s inshore fisheries.

The lack of co-operation worsens as competition increases for limited fisheries resources. This is largely due to each interest asserting its rights of access to the resources prevail over others. There is no easy solution to this standoff.

It is a classic game-theory problem known as the game of chicken, which was first popularised in the movie, Rebel Without a Cause. In the movie, James Dean and Buzz race stolen cars towards the edge of a cliff. The first to jump out of a car is the chicken, conceding the dispute between them. It’s a game of brinkmanship.

James jumps first before his car plunges over the cliff. Buzz gets caught in the car door, preventing him from jumping and ending in a fiery crash at the bottom of the cliff.

So, how does the game of chicken relate to inshore fisheries and their many interests?

Stubbornly staunch

Though lacking the drama of a dangerous cliff, the varied interests still play the game by holding on to staunch views. They understand the key to winning. It is signalling you are more determined or crazier than the other interests. If convincing, the expectation is that others will yield.

In this standoff, commercial interests point to their legal rights associated with quota. Over time, these rights have gained private property-like characteristics. But the courts have clarified they fall short. Nonetheless, they are strong rights in a legal sense to harvest a proportional share of a fishery. Their strength is partly due to quota allocated to Maori having been integral to the settlement of Treaty claims to fisheries.

That aside, it will take more than the recent television promotions to overcome the public’s perception of commercial fishing: that is, when allowed, commercial fishers will harvest the last kilo of fish to make another dollar. In several inshore regions, recreational fishers are finding it increasingly difficult to catch a feed. They often blame commercial fishers for the cause of localised depletion.

For many recreational fishers, fishing forms an integral part of the Kiwi culture. The public right to fish is held up as an inalienable birthright. The more vocal proponents demand this right should prevail over others. This is to be expected when abundance cannot meet the needs of all interests.

They have a compelling case for a greater share of some fisheries. But, while phrases like “the fish belong to the people” make a good sound-bite, they overly simplify a complex legal situation. Others' rights must also be upheld.

If any group is entitled to first rights to limited fisheries resources, it is the non-commercial customary interests. This legal right is also integral to the settlement of Treaty claims.

Regulator has self-interest

Finally, the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) is not a neutral bystander in the standoff between fishing interests. It too is an interest group, as well as the regulator. It has self-interests and it promotes policy preferences, as the others do. Its self-preservation includes avoiding some of the tough questions in relation to the standoff. Several ministers of fisheries have also avoided tough questions.

There is nothing on the horizon that will rectify the standoff between the fishing interests. But there is an alternative scenario in the game of chicken. If the players agree to jump simultaneously, they gain some satisfaction but with their tough guy reputations somewhat tarnished.

The New Zealand Initiative’s fisheries research this last year has shown standoffs are common overseas. There are few exceptions, and Western Australia is one of them. The situation in Western Australia began to change when the minister of fisheries showed some leadership. The minister took steps to end the game of chicken and its “us and them”’ provocations.

As a consequence, working relationships have greatly improved. The Department of Fisheries has agreements with one commercial and one recreational representative organisation. These agreements alter roles and dynamics by providing incentives to collaborate. The fishing interests now find workable solutions to their differences and the department has an 86% public satisfaction rating for meeting management objectives. MPI must be a bit envious of this rating.

In Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean was the victor by default, despite jumping first. He overcame the desire to uphold his reputation in a competitive environment. Our fishing interests will need to do the same.

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