Fixing the Kaikoura pāua fishery

Randall Bess—Fish Mainland

Slow decline is hard to notice. Each generation can have quite different views on what constitutes natural or normal fishing. Those who have fished for several decades can recount how fishing has changed in their lifetimes.

For example, in the Kaikoura region, there are longstanding locals who can recount when pāua were so abundant they were readily harvested in shallow, wading depths. Most of us never witnessed such abundance until the 2016 earthquake uplifted pāua habitat from several metres’ depth and the stock rebuilt while the fishery remained closed.

This all changed when the pāua fishery re-opened 1 December to 28 February.

According to Professor David Schiel, the University of Canterbury research shows that, with up to 1,000 people a day harvesting pāua, 75 percent of the pāua biomass over the 125mm Minimum Legal Size (MLS) was removed from the shallow, wadable depths.

This level of removal was foreseen, causing several to sound warnings and propose measures that would have significantly constrained the anticipated recreational harvest.

However, the government opted to forego acting on such warnings and related measures. It appears the government placed little value on preserving the future of the abundant fishery in shallow, wadable depths.

If this attitude persists, then we may never again witness such abundance in the pāua fishery. At best, the fishery could revert to abundance like what was ‘normal’ pre-earthquake. At worst, the fishery could be at risk, requiring several years to recover.

This would be a travesty of fisheries management. Why?

Recreational lawful pillagers

First, the fishery shows better than most that commercial fishers are not the scourge of the earth and responsible for all that might go wrong in fisheries management. In fact, the commercial pāua fishers continue to show exemplary voluntary efforts in halving their total allowable catch and harvesting pāua above the 125mm MLS.

Second, recreational fishers were lawfully allowed to pillage the easy pickings in shallow, wadable depths. However, such pillaging compromised important, vulnerable breeding populations that support recruitment across the wider fishery.

Third, the government’s information on recreational fishing in the Kaikoura region was highly inaccurate. This explains why the recreational allowance was set at 5 tonnes (in PAU3A) yet the historical harvest was likely much higher; the estimated harvest during the 3-month opening exceeded the 5-tonne allowance more than 8-fold (42 tonnes).

Fourth, despite the warnings, the government’s actions comprised familiar measures (season length and daily bag and size limits) that alone could not stem the tide of excessive recreational effort.

This situation requires a complete re-think of how to fix the fishery to avoid further decline of the fishery, especially in shallow, wadable depths. And most agree that the long-term fix must include the input of all concerned and significantly better information on recreational catch and effort so that the fishery can be closed once the recreational harvest reaches the allowance.

Mainland Catch App expanded

For this purpose, Fish Mainland is expanding its MPI-funded recreational fisher self-reporting system that initially was developed for the South Island blue cod fishery. The system, with its phone app appropriately named Mainland Catch, is being expanded as a key component to fixing this fishery and other shared fisheries that are important to recreational fishers.

For now, the Government is proceeding with consultation on changes to near-term management measures that could allow for the next pāua opening. However, the current regulatory timeframe constrains the near-term options.

We hope the measures put in place for the next opening will sufficiently constrain recreational harvest to preserve a new normal for the fishery, abundance in shallow, wadable depths.

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