Recreational fishers should have a proportional share of the catch

Dr Randall Bess
New Zealand Herald
18 January, 2018

To say the new Minister of Fisheries, Stuart Nash, inherited some fisheries management problems is an understatement. The Ministry for Primary Industries and its predecessors have failed to grapple with the misreporting of commercial catch, discarding of unwanted bycatch and the high grading of targeted catch.

They have also failed to mitigate the tensions and conflicts arising from the way a fishery's total allowable catch is allocated between competing fishing sectors.

These problems can be considered "wicked", or difficult, if not near impossible, to resolve.

Their wickedness can be attributed to resistance to change, coupled with politically-expedient ways to avoid them. But, there are viable solutions to both problems.

First, quota-based management systems, like New Zealand's, somewhat perversely, increase the incentives to misreport, discard and high grade. These systems, therefore, require more rather than less monitoring and enforcement to ensure fish stock sustainability and to sufficiently inspect, audit and balance quota against catch.

There are successful overseas monitoring and reporting systems that can be readily adapted to New Zealand's situation. The challenge is in applying those systems across the entire commercial fishing sector. This will be a world first.

These problems must be resolved to restore the integrity of New Zealand's management system. And, they should be resolved before recreational fishers are expected to accept further constraints on access to certain fisheries.

Second, the onerous task of allocating the allowable catch remains a truly wicked problem because it inevitably means more catch allocated to one fishing sector and less to others.

The lack of information on commercial discarding and high grading and limited information on recreational catch compounds the problem.

The way an allowable catch is allocated in New Zealand leaves recreational fishers in a rather risky state, relative to well-defined legislated rights for quota and Maori customary food gathering. Maori also have a significant ownership stake in quota.

There is no legal protection for the recreational right to fish. The courts have clarified that a common law right to fish has been replaced by legislation governing all aspects of fishing.

This means that recreational fishing is subject to the full discretion of the minister. In other words, the minister alone decides how much of a total allowable catch will be allocated to the recreational fishing sector and other sectors.

The only legal guidance the minister has is that he must consider relevant social, cultural and economic factors when deciding what would be reasonable in the circumstances.

There are no legal limits on the proper exercise of discretion, other than the minister must first "have regard" to non-commercial fishing interests before setting the commercial allocation.

But, being first in line for ministerial regard is no guarantee the decision will be favourable, especially if subject to the vagaries of politics.

Nonetheless, the New Zealand Sport Fishing Council strongly supports full ministerial discretion. The council refers to it as the proper democratic process. That is, the council attempts to persuade the minister to provide a favourable allocation. If not, the minister's decision can be "adjudicated through the ballot box" during the next election.

Commercial fishers do the same thing. Both sectors waste considerable time and effort lobbying and counter-lobbying. This rent-seeking behaviour is divisive and diverts attention from collaborative efforts, such as increasing fish stock abundance to benefit all fishing sectors.

Ironically, the Sport Fishing Council incessantly harks back to a 1989 fisheries policy. This policy briefly provided the recreational right with priority status. But, it has not been adopted by any subsequent government.

In fact, the legislation makes clear that no one fishing sector has preference over the others. In other words, there is no legal basis for the right to catch a feed for the table far exceeding the right to make a profit.

Besides, it is illogical for the Sport Fishing Council to support full ministerial discretion, while at the same time advocating for priority status; they are mutually exclusive.

A viable solution for total allowable catch allocations is to set them on a proportional basis to provide certainty of catch for each sector and include a ministerial process that 1) transfers portions of the allowable catch to the recreational sector as demand for fishing increases over time, and 2) considers compensation for affected quota holders.

Proportionality, as proposed, would effectively ensure recreational fishing is preserved for future generations, while upholding the legislative rights associated with quota and Treaty settlement obligations.

And, it may well be the best way to move beyond the "us versus them" mentality that hinders collaboration.

These problems now seem less wicked.

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