Opinion: Clear and growing imbalance in fishery decisions

Captain Andy Smith is chair of the High Seas Fishing Group and an adviser to New Zealand commercial fishing companies.

It is curious to me that, in our modern era where we are unequivocally enjoined to lean into the advice of scientists on all matters ranging from Covid-19 to climate change, governments and ENGOs choose to close their ears to the science that might support commercial fishing.

Why is it that the loudest voices get the airtime, despite those voicing the opinions at full voice being the least informed? Why, when it comes to fishing, is it not about real science, but a quest to advance a particular political agenda or ideology?

Whatever the answer, decision makers are now ignoring clear science and are making decisions based on the rhetoric of those who advocate the notion that the New Zealand commercial fishing sector is a prime contributor to the destruction of ocean habitats and ecosystems.

Fishing an ocean or puddle?

I ask you, how can a New Zealand sector that fishes less than 3% of its own waters and less than 0.1% of the high seas in the South Pacific be responsible for the decline in ocean health, when the vast majority of the ocean is far beyond the depth we can fish?

At a recent international meeting, the total allowable catch of sustainably caught orange roughy was halved in the limited area we are licenced to fish. It is not often reported that more

than 99.9% of the high seas in the South Pacific is already closed to bottom fishing, as was stated by the New Zealand Commissioner at the meeting. But despite not being able to fish in 99.9% in the first place, by halving the quota, our vessels are being driven from fishing in the tiny 0.1% sliver that is left.

The High Seas Group made it clear this reduction in allowable catch was over the top, for the aforementioned reason, and that the effect of this reduction (on top of a decade or more of similar reductions) would have the (intended?) consequence of ending the New Zealand’s industry’s ability to fish in this area of the high seas.

Well, now it is definitely too risky and uneconomic to send a vessel to fish there.

There is a clear and growing imbalance in governments’ approaches to managing the impact of bottom fisheries on the high seas, with many decisions being inconsistent with prior (agreed) scientific advice and international precedent. This disconnect between the management measures passed and the scientific advice, makes the legality of these new management measures highly questionable.

Net effect hits Kiwis in pocket

So, what does ignoring science and the law mean to a New Zealand fisherman? Jobs gone, income for the country gone, fish supply slashed and no discernible environmental benefit.

I regard the right to fish sustainably as a privilege.

I am very proud of the fact that fishing contributes over $1 billion to NZ’s GDP and seafood processing contributes another $1 billion in GDP (BERL 2020).

Being able to harvest fish sustainably is embedded in international and domestic law, together with a long list of other subsidiary agreements.

We are required to have, and do have, careful regard to “rational or sustainable use”, “adverse impacts” “maintenance of biodiversity.”

Headlines say there are limited or no controls on fishing the high seas. This is just not true; there are many regional fisheries management organisations responsible for regulation of fishing the high seas. States such as New Zealand and Australia are integral and well-respected members of these many organisations.

Our vessels all fish in highly regulated areas within our Exclusive Economic Zone and on the high seas, yet we are often painted as villains, wilfully destroying vast tracts of the seabed in an unregulated and cavalier fashion.

Who are the real eco-terrorists and villains?

Fishing produces high quality food protein, a tangible commodity demonstrated to have a lower ecological footprint than most other forms of protein. With a growing world population, food security is needed, so why are there constant moves to shut down fishing, which is proven to be sustainable and low impact environmentally?

I suggest to you that it is because there are powerful anti-fishing lobbies, government departments and groups advancing their own political or ideological agendas by shutting down commercial fishing. These groups are well coordinated, well-resourced and funded but rely for their funding on selling a story that New Zealand fishermen are eco terrorists and villains—and ignoring the science.

Their emotive narrative is framed in a manner that convinces the public that commercial fishing is causing widespread environmental destruction and therefore we should lose our social licence to fish. The truth is, we do not cause widespread destruction and science properly applied supports our true story of legal, sustainable fishing for the people of New Zealand.

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