A New Day Dawns

The April 2024 Fishing Year brings changes for Commercial and Recreational operators .

Daryl Sykes provides a brief update on changes recently announced by the Minister of Fisheries.

Packhorse Rock Lobster

A new rock lobster fishing year commenced on April 1st and will run through to the end of March 2025. Commercial operators will be gearing up during April, but the winter catches won’t really start showing in pots until early May in most of the nine management areas around the country and not until June in parts of the Bay of Plenty (CRA 2) and Northland (CRA 1).

The biology and behaviour of lobsters in concert with moon phase, weather and sea conditions all determine catchability. Fishing success is very much down to the skill and experience of the fishermen, including their choice of gear and bait.

When the new fishing year commences, all mature female rock lobsters are usually egg-bearing (berried) and, therefore, cannot be retained and landed. Having finished their breeding season, male lobsters are now preparing to moult. They will feed for several months to store up the energy reserves they require to shelter during moulting and the post-moult period when they are extremely vulnerable to predators.

Across not along

Commercial fishermen operating in the Autumn/ Winter (AW) season, which runs from April to September inclusive, set gear to avoid catching berried females and are otherwise particularly careful to avoid handling damage if those do come up in pots. Regulations require lobsters to be sorted, measured, and, if necessary, returned to the sea alive as each pot is hauled aboard.

New Catch Limits

The new fishing year started with a validation for the southern rock lobster industry (CRA 8), which was allocated a 141-tonne increase in the total allowable commercial catch (TACC) for the new season. The recreational allowance was also increased to 39 tonnes.

CRA 8 has been a real success story in terms of fisheries management initiatives and outcomes. It has also been the industry that has driven all the important stock rebuild and maintenance initiatives over several decades. It was interesting to note some of the congratulatory social media commentary (most often critical of commercial fishing generally) about the TACC increase when it was announced by the Minister for Fisheries, the Honourable Shane Jones, late in March.

Minister Jones also announced a reduction to the CRA 3 (Mahia/ Gisborne/East Cape) total allowable catch (TAC) and TACC, accompanied by new restrictions that apply to amateur daily bag limits for CRA 3.

One of the most notable aspects of this decision is that the Minister accepted MPI advice to turn down a CRA 3 industry proposal to retire (or ‘shelve’) 30% of the available catching rights (58.5 tonnes) before the 2024/25 fishing year commenced. The Minister opted for a lesser 20% (39 tonnes) TACC reduction. He did, however, commend the industry proposal – “as such voluntary initiatives can increase the agility of the fisheries system, and demonstrate the industry’s commitment to collective stewardship and acting in the long-term interests of this important shared fishery”.

The Minister’s action was clearly less than the industry itself was prepared to take. In response to his announcement, they then took action to complete a 10% ‘ACE shelving’ before April to ensure the higher commercial catch reduction was in force for the new fishing year.

The changes to the CRA 3 amateur daily bag limit are consistent with those that have been applied in some other lobster fisheries for several years. The Minister reduced the previous recreational allowance (a 4-tonne reduction) alongside a corresponding decrease to the daily bag limit. In his decision letter, he noted that lowering the recreational daily limit from six to three spiny rock lobsters per fisher per day would help ensure that aggregate recreational catch is within the allowance.

The long and the short of Packhorse

One other regulatory change for rock lobster fishing came into force on April 1st, 2024: changing the minimum legal size method for Packhorse (Sagmariasus verreauxi) rock lobster from tail length to tail width, consistent with that for spiny rock lobster. The tail width method of measure is considered less stressful to lobsters and more straightforward for fishers when handling and measuring lobsters.

The new MLS for male Packhorse lobsters is 84mm tail width (TW) and for females 90mm TW. Standards-approved measuring devices are available from MPI at a cost of $202.75 plus GST, and Fisheries Officers will use these and only these in cases of disputed measurements. Other less expensive devices will no doubt be available for sale in fishing gear and dive shops, but buyers need to check their accuracy before purchase.

CRA3 Management Area

CRA 3 – one crisis after another

The combination of Cyclones Hale and Gabrielle in January and February 2023 caused unprecedented damage across parts of the Gisborne region. The marine environment experienced significant freshwater inflows, increased sedimentation, and input of land-based debris. Anecdotal reports indicated that some commercial fishers experienced significant impacts on their operation, such as reduced catches, massive damage to pots, and, in many cases, significant pot loss because of debris.

That damage caused the majority of CRA 3 commercial operators to lose a great deal of fishing time during a period of normally good catches and strong export market demand. When the Poverty Bay to East Cape voluntary commercial closure period commenced in September 2023, the CRA 3 TACC was well undercaught compared to previous years. The commercial operators fishing Gisborne to East Cape prepared to kick off again at the end of the closure period (mid-January) only to become victims of an unprecedented marine biotoxin event.

In November 2023, paralytic shellfish toxin (PST) levels in shellfish exceeded safe limits in a number of areas around the North Island coastline. This event happened at a spatial and temporal scale previously not seen in New Zealand, with biotoxin levels in CRA 3 lobsters being the highest ever confirmed. As an immediate response to the threat to human health and to avoid reputational damage in export markets, the rock lobster industry Biotoxin Response Plan was invoked, resulting in several large expanses of coastline being closed to commercial rock lobster fishing.

One of the worst affected areas has been CRA 3, with most of the management area from Poverty Bay to East Cape being closed to lobster fishing from mid-November 2023 to early February 2024. So again, in the same fishing year disrupted by massive storm damage, CRA 3 operators were standing on the beach looking out to sea for weeks, and for several, for months, during a period of normally very good lobster fishing and strong market demand in the lead-up to Chinese New Year.

As recently as late March 2024, the biotoxin levels in lobsters were still dangerously high in some areas of CRA 3. In line with the industry Biotoxin Response Plan, the coastline from Anaura Bay north to the Waiapu River remained closed to commercial rock lobster fishing.

The biotoxin event has caused and still causes extreme financial stress for the CRA 3 fishing industry. Despite their substantial losses, it really is a testament to their long commitment to careful stewardship and sustainable fishing that well before their disrupted season had ended, they made a binding commitment to voluntarily reduce the 2024/25 commercial catch limit by more than was decided by the Minister of Fisheries.

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