Where to for recreational fishing...

Dr Randall Bess
The Dominion Post
1 August, 2016

Where to for recreational fishing as commercial industry targets double the exports?

There is a saying, 'If people concentrated on the really important things in life, there would be a shortage of fishing poles.' Well, perhaps we should first concentrate on the shortage of fish.

For several fisheries in New Zealand's inshore waters, commercial, recreational and Maori customary fishers have a shared interest. All three groups have an interest in catching more fish, and they value their share of the catches quite differently.

But, for many of the shared fisheries, there simply is not enough to go around. Worse yet, the combined effort of all three fishing groups, along with poaching and land runoff, too often causes localised depletion, especially in waters near densely populated areas.

So, when the commercial fishing industry recently announced it is on track to double the value of seafood exports by 2025, recreational and customary fishers likely wondered what it might mean for their ability to catch fish in the future.

The export-doubling goal, set by the Ministry for Primary Industries, is in line with the Government's Business Growth Agenda objective to increase exports as a percentage of gross domestic product from 30 to 40 per cent.

When the export goal was set in 2012, the value of seafood exports, including aquaculture, was $1.5 billion. The fishing industry recently pointed to record high exports of $1.8 billion in the year to April as evidence that the industry is on its way to doubling exports.

Those who have been around the fishing industry for some time can recall a similar goal set in 1993 to reach $2 billion in export value by 2000. At that time, the $2 billion by 2000 goal was considered ambitious, as the export value was $1.2 billion. By 1996, it became apparent this goal was unattainable.

The double export goal is also ambitious, to say the least, considering it took 23 years to increase seafood export value from $1.2 billion to the current $1.8 billion – a 50 per cent gain in value during a period when the consumer price index increased 62%.

This level of long-term industry performance is hardly impressive, but as the financial advice goes, past performance is no indication of future returns.

But, no worries, the Government also set a goal to increase aquaculture value to $1 billion by 2025. Values will need to triple to meet this goal, which would be a great leap forward given that new aquaculture ventures continue to languish. The recently announced new salmon farms in the Marlborough Sounds will go some way towards doubling aquaculture production, but it will take 16 years, until 2032, for them to be fully productive.

While aspirational, these Chairman Mao-type exhortations lack much relevance in the real world of fickle export markets and the gyrating value of the New Zealand dollar. They hardly make much sense when considering that shared fisheries by definition are fully exploited, meaning the total catch levels are at their peak for sustainable management.

This is why the fishing industry cannot rely on increased catches to reach the double export goal. In fact, the total volume of commercial catches has flat lined for the last few years. The industry's stated intention is to reach the double export goal by producing more value-added products and using a global market strategy. But, that is what they said in 1993.

We might hope the best for the fishing industry in reaching the double export goal through innovation and productivity gains, not by a 50 per cent devaluation of the New Zealand dollar, because in theory we will all be better off with an economy that is a bit stronger. But, more exports are not all that New Zealanders value.

The different values that many recreational fishers, including tourists, and Maori customary interests place on some fisheries are increasingly important considerations in the allocation of catches; but, any favourable allocation shifts their way would likely be at the expense of commercial fishers, which may lead to compensation for any losses.

Allocation decisions involve tough economic, social and cultural trade-offs, and pressure to make these trade-offs will likely increase as more people concentrate on what is really important in life, fishing. If we find it creates a shortage of fishing poles, well at least there will be growth opportunities for fishing gear businesses. But, that will increase fishing effort and pressure for more trade-offs.

For those who do not place much value on the fishing experience, rest assured there will be a steady supply of good quality seafood in supermarkets and restaurants.

Dr Randall Bess is Research Fellow at The New Zealand Initiative.

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