When the regulator lags behind

Dr Randall Bess
The National Business Review
7 April, 2017

When it comes to fisheries, the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) has been in the news for the wrong reasons.

Over the past year, the public has learned both MPI and its predecessor have failed to cope with problems of misreporting and illegal discarding of commercial catches. Questions have also been raised about MPI’s process for prosecuting fishers even when camera footage was involved.

Nonetheless, MPI’s solution is to place a camera on every boat. The MPI review, Future of Our Fisheries, is the vehicle for implementing this solution. More needs to be explained regarding how this solution will address the underlying regulatory and institutional problems that incentivise misreporting and discarding.    

The technical advisory group (TAG), chaired by Sir Rob Fenwick, has been asking tough questions and providing MPI with advice on misreporting and discarding, among other longstanding fisheries problems. To gain insights into these problems, the TAG met various groups, including The NZ Initiative. We were impressed with both the TAG’s understanding of the tricky policy issues and willingness to seriously engage over them.  

We also expressed our disappointment that the management of recreational fisheries is outside the scope of review, though we are pleased developing principles for allocating fish stocks are inside scope. Their development is welcomed, since allocations between competing fishing sectors are often the most contentious decisions in managing inshore fisheries. 

The Initiative’s previous report in this series, titled What’s the Catch? outlines fisheries management and highlight the problems, including the political fight over fish stock allocations. We have recently researched overseas efforts to address increasing competition for limited fisheries resources and the resulting conflicts between competing fishing sectors. These findings are set out in a second report, The Overseas Catch.

Emerging themes

Some of the emerging themes in this report are aligned with the TAG’s focus on the fisheries review and are summarised:

Fish stock rebuilding: After decades of overfishing, improving fish stock sustainability has been a high priority overseas. Rebuild efforts have included setting high abundance targets, and reductions in the order of 50% in total catch levels to reach the targets within a decade or so. It is noteworthy that these levels are often higher, and the timeframes shorter, than many of those contemplated in New Zealand. And protection of spawning biomass and juvenile fish is infrequently implemented here.     

Improved management decision-making: There is a concerted focus overseas to incorporate recreational fisheries into the policies and processes that have been set up largely for managing commercial fisheries. To cope with the greater complexity that comes from this, our research suggests that institutional arrangements with demonstrated, effective (and accepted) representation for recreational fishers is a critical factor in facilitating improved management decision-making. By contrast, in New Zealand recreational fishers are poorly represented and have few opportunities to voice their concerns, outside casting votes in general elections. 

The importance of data: Our research shows success in incorporating recreational fisheries into wider fisheries management processes is also dependent on improving data collected on recreational fishing. The research shows various options for improving data collection that may benefit New Zealand’s recent and significant improvements. The benefits would arise from increasing the frequency of data collection and including groups of fishers not well represented in the sample frame. These benefits would be particularly useful for those fisheries where reallocation is a consideration.

Effective allocation/reallocation mechanisms: Our research shows that elsewhere fisheries managers are formalising what is still a stated intention in New Zealand: developing workable mechanisms to allocate fish stocks and reallocate them over time. Our research suggests there would be benefits from exploring a greater range of options than those set out for the fisheries review.  

Costs and subsidies: In general, recreational fishing interests hold the view that their fishing for food and fun should come at no cost, or no more than a nominal cost (in terms of licence or other fees). This view raises important questions about the extent, if any, that taxpayers should be expected to pay for (subsidise) the cost of managing recreational fisheries. This theme is particularly important here.

Debate sought

The Initiative expects significant debate on these themes. The debates should be enhanced after a group of New Zealanders involved in fisheries travels to Western Australia in May to learn more about its challenges and successes.

We are impressed with Western Australia’s arrangements for fishing sector representation. Institutional changes have improved relationships and provided incentives for collaboration between recreational and commercial fishing sectors to find workable solutions. It is also known for its distinctly bold efforts to address situations when reallocation of fish stocks between sectors may be warranted and with compensation to affected commercial fishers being a consideration. The lessons we learn from Western Australia and elsewhere will be adapted for New Zealand’s unique circumstances, including the need to uphold the secure rights associated with quota holdings and Treaty settlement obligations.  

The Initiative’s third report in this series will set out policy recommendations to help debate what is possible in New Zealand and what solutions will work best.

Let’s hope our collective efforts help MPI to get in the news for the right reasons.

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