The public deserve the "true facts"

Dr Randall Bess
Insights Newsletter
5 May, 2017

The former British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was known for saying it would be a mistake to keep the “true facts” from the public.

Basically, we hope our political leaders and their advisors will follow Churchill’s advice. Regrettably, though, political expediency often wins out.

In May 2016, Auckland University released a report regarding widespread historical misreporting of fish catches and discarding of unwanted bycatch.

Our political leaders and Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) advisors were quick to deny any big problems exist. They fired shots at the messenger, with no real acknowledgement of the facts about known problems.

Their responses changed as three MPI investigation reports were leaked to the public. The reports disclosed disturbing evidence, including camera footage, of “what we [MPI] have known for a long time” and did not act on.  

MPI was quick to announce an independent Queen’s Council review, but it had already defended itself on 3 News. Advisors asserted on air that the decision not to prosecute those involved in potentially illegal activities (caught on camera) was based on legal advice.

However, 3 News recently revealed an Ombudsman’s investigation, which concluded that no such advice ever existed. MPI had to admit this “true fact”.  

Meanwhile, the commercial fishing sector has ramped up some legitimate challenges to the Auckland University report, following the late 2016 announcement that the orange roughy fishery has made a remarkable turnaround.

For decades, the orange roughy fishery elicited criticism worldwide for getting the science wrong, causing the fishery to become severely depleted. The fishery’s reputation was redeemed by rebuilding sufficiently to earn Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification, with conditions.

The MSC is an independent body dedicated to addressing problems related to unsustainable fishing practices. MSC certification is increasingly important for consumers, because it independently verifies the facts about a fishery’s management and value chain against set criteria.   

The commercial fishing sector should be proud there are now six offshore fisheries that have earned MSC certification. This fact raises some questions about the relevance of the Auckland University report’s historical focus.

But, at present, the extent of reporting and discarding problems in inshore fisheries is unknown. Also, the sustainability status of several is poor or unknown. If key inshore fisheries were assessed against MSC criteria, the facts about these problems might be flushed out.

Let’s hope our political leaders and their advisors find Churchillian courage and determination in addressing these problems. 

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