Recreational fisheries face future quotas

Dr Randall Bess
The National Business Review
21 April, 2017

Putting a line in the water is one of the more popular New Zealand pastimes. But here’s a harsh truth. 

Unless the management of recreational fisheries changes, fishers will face a steady decline in daily bag limits, increases in minimum legal sizes and shorter fishing seasons. The recreational fishing experience will worsen as will conflicts between the recreational and commercial sectors.

The New Zealand Initiative’s previous report in this series, What’s the Catch? The state of recreational fisheries management in New Zealand, shows how maintaining an outdated management approach is doomed to failure.

New Zealand faces the same challenges of other fishing nations as demand increases for limited fisheries resources. Improving our own fisheries management will be easier if we learn from the successes and failures of other jurisdictions.

For that purpose, I travelled to Texas, northern California, British Columbia and Western Australia. Our new report, The Overseas Catch: The state of recreational fisheries management abroad, presents what we learned that might be useful here, particularly on issues arising from growth in demand for recreational fishing.

This report focuses on the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery, the northern California red abalone fishery, British Columbia’s halibut fishery and Western Australia’s approach to fisheries management. Each offers important insights into what works well and not so well.

Emergency measures

The Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery illustrates what New Zealand’s fishing future could be if we do not act soon. It exemplifies how controversial a fishery can become when management fails one sector. Emergency measures were introduced, leaving recreational fishers with just nine days to fish for red snapper in federal waters each year, and with a two-fish daily bag limit. The outlook is even less favourable.

Many of the recreational fishers feel animosity toward the federal government for what they perceive to be continuing partiality for commercial fishers. And many commercial fishers consider the recreational fishers blame others for the problems they have caused themselves, such as exceeding their allocated total catch limit.

Tensions are also mounting between the fisheries management organisations in the federal government and the five Gulf states. If passed, a legislative bill could transfer red snapper management from the federal to state level.

The high degree of uncertainty about the future of this fishery may well increase when considering the new federal government administration and legislature. 

Benefits of collaboration

By contrast, the northern California red abalone fishery, the largest recreational-only abalone fishery in the world, shows how collaboration can improve management during a crisis.

Warm water conditions and a spike in urchin numbers have created an unprecedented collapse of the kelp forests that red abalone depend on as a food source. Volunteer local divers, government and non-governmental organisations are collaborating to improve the fishery’s capacity to adapt to adverse natural conditions, which helps ensure it remains sustainable.

The dedication of local divers demonstrates how those with recreational interests can take up a stewardship role in the fullest sense. It also shows the potential benefits for government organisations when willing to work with non-governmental organisations and volunteers and valuing what they provide.

Since New Zealand implemented the quota management system (QMS) in 1986, fisheries economists have suggested the solution to problems in managing recreational fisheries is to integrate them into the QMS (for example, transfers of quota between sectors).

British Columbia’s recreational halibut fishery is the best example of two-way quota transfers between recreational fishers and others. If they want to fish beyond the catch limits and time available under the normal recreational fishing licence, they must first acquire an experimental licence and then lease or buy halibut quota.

But this is not without controversy. Recreational representative organisations object to the experimental licence, and strongly desire a greater allocation of the total catch.

Compensation demands

Commercial fishers, of course, object to any reallocation without compensation. If recreational quota acquisitions prove successful, the political fight over who gets how much halibut might well get resolved by letting people trade.

Western Australia has a reputation for well-managed recreational fisheries. This reputation can be attributed to the Department of Fisheries preparing for increased competition for limited fisheries resources and the ensuing conflicts that can adversely affect fisheries management.

The department asserts allocations of total catch levels between sectors can, and should, change over time to reflect changes in social values. For this purpose, the department is developing a reallocation mechanism.

It has invested in human and financial resources to improve recreational fisheries, including broad sector level representation that has improved relationships between competing fishing sectors. In addition, it has redirected fishing licence fees to research and projects that align with recreational fishing interests.

The trust and confidence that Western Australians have in the management of fisheries is reflected in a high public satisfaction rating.

The evidence shows Western Australia is doing some things well. In May, The Initiative will host a group of New Zealanders involved in fisheries to travel to Western Australia to learn more about its challenges and successes. What we learn from Western Australia and elsewhere will help formulate the policy recommendations in The Initiative’s next report.

The best way to avoid the recreational fishing experience continuing to come under threat is to debate what we want for the future and decide what changes are needed to our fisheries policies and practices to get there.

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