Out with the Old and In with the New or Not?

Daryl Sykes a regular correspondent for the industry provides a brief overview of the challenges and opportunities facing a new Minister of Fisheries in 2024 and beyond.

It’s Christmas, and right behind it is New Year 2024. The Chinese will celebrate that as the Year of the Dragon (the house and street parties start on February 10th), but for us in New Zealand, it will be the first full year of a new Government, and the fishing fraternity also gets to see how a new Minister will respond to the many fisheries issues that were either or both ignored or poorly managed by the previous incumbents.

First to the new Minister. The Honourable Shane Jones needs little introduction, and for those who may not know other than his historical headliners, he is an astute, quick-witted, deft politician, a superb orator and has an intense personal interest in regional issues. Jones’s political career began in 2005 as a list MP for the Labour Party. He briefly held various senior positions before Labour was relegated to an opposition party in 2008. In 2013, Shane unsuccessfully contested the leadership of the Labour Party and subsequently left Parliament in 2014 for a brief diplomatic posting. Upon his return to New Zealand, his political allegiance switched to New Zealand First.

Shane held ministerial portfolios for regional economic development and forestry until 2020. Following on from the coalition government agreements in 2023, Shane is now Minister for Oceans and Fisheries, Minister for Regional Development, and Minister for Resources. He is no stranger to fisheries issues at a high level, having been a chairman of Sealord for a period and later was appointed by National’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Murray McCully as a fisheries economic ambassador, working to help Pacific islands get the most from their fisheries.

We have not yet seen the full suite of policy scripts for Oceans and Fisheries as set out in the coalition agreement. Still, it is very possible that Minister Jones will be casting a critical eye over the current state of the fishing industry and the tensions that arise as a consequence of a prolonged failure to effectively manage fishing.

The Minister has been around long enough to appreciate that New Zealand adopted a rights-based fisheries management regime in 1986. He is astute enough to realise now that the system has been neglected, compromised, and mischaracterised and has failed to meet a number of the foundation objectives anticipated by the 1986 policymakers and politicians. The failures are essentially bureaucratic and administrative and occur across several Government agencies. I have argued in the past that for too long, the New Zealand Fisheries Management regime (which, by the way, is not just the Quota Management System) has lacked a credible champion, or indeed champions, and that Government agencies have failed the policy settings that would have enabled better fisheries outcomes than we have to live with today.

Over the years, somewhere in several agency back rooms, amongst a succession of self-serving bureaucrats, managing fishing just became too hard. Rather than stand on the credibility and potential of the legislated rights-based regime and implement effective strategies, the agencies opted for the most politically expedient positions. The media reputation of several agencies took priority over their efficiency, effectiveness, and competency – all wins were widely and colourfully reported; all losses and squandered opportunities were ignored.

The fishing community at large has been the loser, but so too have some particular fishing sectors. There are some spectacular contemporary examples, so let’s briefly go from south to North.

In Otago, a South East Marine Protection Plan has been announced. It has its origins as a vanity project initiated by a former Minister of Conservation, Nick Smith. The Plan has been controversial from the outset, and the recent response from fishing communities was both fast and somewhat furious as it had been for years. Back in 2018, Tautuku Fishing Club president Brett Bensemann said the wishes of recreational fishermen had been overlooked in favour of environmentalism. In the same media report, commercial fishing spokesperson Simon Gilmour strongly objected to the planning process, noting the absence of any coherent risk assessment and the lack of recognition of existing reserves and well-established and sustainable fishing practices. Their complaints fell on deaf bureaucratic ears.

In Taranaki, a 70km stretch of coastline is now under the effective control of a hapū that, in November 2023, won an Environmental Award for their initiative. A spokesman commented that he hoped the Rāhui Tīma could be extended to allow time for a mātaitai, or customary reserve, to be established where commercial fishing was banned, and hāpu will recommend by-laws on customary and recreational catches.

The Rāhui Tīma was an understandable response to decades of pillaging inshore shellfish, particularly intertidal shellfish, bought to a head by bus-loads (literally) of people from Auckland descending on the reefs between Opunake and Oakura.

How did the situation arise that enabled the relevant agencies to abandon shared fisheries policies and hand over authority to an obviously well-meaning but, in fishery management terms, poorly resourced local community group?

Head across to the Bay of Plenty and witness the loss of fishing access due to rules being introduced to protect indigenous biodiversity and acknowledge the significant marine, landscape and

cultural values in the area. The three areas comprise what were accessible, productive and economically significant fishing grounds for all extractive users.

Further north into the Hauraki Gulf. The proposed Hauraki Gulf/Tīkapa Moana Marine Protection Bill includes:

Extending the country’s first marine reserve, Cape Rodney – Okakari Point Marine Reserve (Goat Island) and Whanganui A Hei (Cathedral Cove) Marine Reserve, on the Coromandel Peninsula

Creating 12 new highprotection areas to protect and restore marine ecosystems while allowing for customary practices of tangata whenua.

Five new seafloor protection areas to preserve sensitive seafloor habitats by prohibiting bottomcontact fishing methods and other activities which harm the seafloor.

If the provisions of the Bill are legislated, fishing will be crowded into ever-decreasing spaces with little apparent regard for the consequences of effort shift and competition for available catch. But an issue being lost in this and other similar situations is how on earth we got to the point where closing areas to fishing became the primary management response.

One immediate answer is that the responsible agencies have consistently failed to effectively manage fishing (including adverse method impacts on the environment). Local communities understandably felt that if nothing was done, they would lose the quality of the marine environment they had long enjoyed. And now, they and we have pretty much lost access to fishing and ended up with a myriad of ocean aquaria.

There are other answers, the most likely being that fishing has simply become the ‘fall guy’ for all environmental problems observed in and around the Hauraki Gulf. It’s been a great diversion strategy for land-based polluters and those responsible for massive sediment run-off to support the efforts of the armchair eco fraternity to ban fishing.

And so to the far North – and back to the Shane Jones connections. Media reported in October 2023 that new no-take fishing rules imposed by the Environment Court without fair warning or consultation mean all recreational and commercial fishing is banned from a part of the Bay of Islands and Mimiwhangata.

Northland Regional Council adopted the rules in July after an earlier landmark Environment Court decision ruled fishing protection should be included in its Regional Plan – despite fishing not usually being managed by councils.

There are many casualties in all of this – legitimate recreational fishers, smallscale commercial fishing businesses important to local communities, charter fishing industry operators, gear suppliers, and larger commercial fishing interests who have collectively invested in the rebuild and maintenance of stock abundance in areas such as the CRA 2 fishery.

The Honourable Shane Jones, Minister of Oceans and Fisheries, will find a different agency landscape than he knew through his historical fishing links. The Ministry for Fisheries has been usurped and/or had its authority and responsibility greatly diluted as various well-funded anti-fishing and marine protection agendas have emerged since 1996. The rights-based fisheries regime, which the new Minister would fully acknowledge, gave rise to the Fisheries Settlement, matched with a proper focus on managing extractive removals from coastal fish stocks, which can enable what most sector representatives would regard as equitable shared fisheries outcomes. I hope we can all be confident that the new Minister will assert his experience and not allow the responsible fishing sectors to be further deprived of access and utilisation opportunities.

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