The Bait Box with Retired Fisherman Norm Hawler

If I had wandered off in Northland earlier in the year I would have been road-blocked by a group of locals claiming ownership and control of the beach, the water and the fish in the water. I am not too surprised by their actions – or again, by the lack of consequences – when I see the Ministry responsible for fisheries routinely handing over the management of large and small tracts of coastline in the North Island to local hapu groups. There is an ever expanding network of what are termed as Section 186 declarations and mātaitai for which the authority to fish and the conditions that apply to fishing are able to be vested in the appointed kaitiaki. If you read up on this stuff I think you will come to appreciate that the applications for these areas arise from a very genuine concern about the state of local fisheries. That big Section 186 area in Taranaki is a good example – the shellfish stocks were being plundered season after season and locals felt powerless to stop the pillaging and illegal sales.

It was so bad that organised paua harvest tourism was operating. The Ministry responsible for fisheries consistently failed to properly monitor and manage the situation – in fact they exacerbated it by tinkering with regulations allowing smaller sized paua to be legally harvested.

There was little supervision and policing, no effort to monitor either the recreational or dubious ‘customary’ catches and the situation just became an embarrassment to them. So what did they do? They handed the problem over to locals. It will be interesting to see if the well-publicised rahui measures are successful in restoring shellfish abundance along that coast.

Across on the other side of the central north island the declaration of Section 186 areas and prohibitions on taking paua have caused real problems in the adjacent areas. Displaced effort always finds a new place to dive and fish and piles in on top of whoever is already harvesting. Rapid stock depletion is inevitable. The frustration at not being able to get a daily bag limit fuels the temptation to cheat a bit and keep a feed of unders. And so it rolls – the locals in that adjacent area start chasing the Ministry to implement protection for them.

Everyone living on the coast has an ingrained sense of ownership and a protective and custodial attitude to fisheries resources and I know from my own experience that residents of small coastal communities strongly resent the seasonal pillaging of ‘their’ fisheries.

For my money the challenge for the Ministry is and always has been to manage fishing and as I have seen written many times, they cannot manage what they do not know. And I am pretty sure they cannot manage fishing by using a random patchwork of area and/or method closures at the discretion of local community groups. But until the Ministry responsible for fisheries really gets to grip with the challenge, I expect that I will see a few more roadblocks and even more criticism of local fishing contests. It’s a Pity.

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