The Kaikoura pāua opening – a recreational lolly scramble

While J.F. Kennedy was not well known for his interest in fishing, he did observe the public’s preparedness ‘to scramble to use the resource’. For him, fisheries presented problems that each generation must contend with anew, given changing circumstances, values, and information.

The pāua fishery along the Kaikoura coast (PAU3A) is a classic example. The circumstances changed abruptly in 2016 when the earthquake caused the seabed to rise one to two metres near the township and up to five metres to the north. The uplift destroyed many of the pāua beds and caused significant mortality. It also brought large-sized pāua from the deep to now easily accessible shallow pools. Shellfish harvesting was abruptly closed and the local community worked together to relocate stranded pāua below the new tidal zone.

The Kaikoura Marine Guardians and the commercial pāua fishers did everything possible to rebuild the fishery as the closure continued over the next five years. They took a precautionary approach to planning for the fishery’s eventual reopening.

Commercial fishers opted to initially halve their total allowable commercial catch, and the Guardians advised Government officials to implement a series of measures that would curtail the expected public demand and provide much needed information on the recreational harvest.

Caution ignored

The Guardians’ proposed limiting the opening to only three months, a larger minimum legal size, harvest limits per vehicle and vessel, along with a daily bag limit of three per person with an accumulation limit of six and a requirement that fishers report their catch.

Fish Mainland supported the Guardians’ measures and framed the management challenge in reopening the fishery as a variant of the 8020 rule; while the local community may take around 20 percent of the pāua harvest, 80 percent is taken by recreational fishers from outside that area, particularly those who transit through or relocate for periods of time, such as over the holidays.

It follows that the support by the local community for reopening the pāua fishery can and should have a significant impact on the behaviours of and opportunities for non-local fishers in the area.

Nonetheless, Minister Parker and his officials sided with those who wanted no constraints on recreational fishing beyond a daily bag limit of five per person and an accumulation limit of ten.

However, these measures alone could not stem the tide of eager carloads and busloads of people coming to the area to harvest their lawful quantum of pāua.

Government sanctioned lolly scramble

On any given day, hundreds of people gathered their daily limits within minutes by wading in ankle- to knee-deep water; with over-sized abundance in wading depth, there was no need to dive. The recreational harvest can aptly be described as a government-sanctioned lolly scramble.

The downside was, the recreational harvest during the three-month opening exceeded the set allowance seven-fold; based on survey results, yet to be released to the public, while the recreational allowance was five tonnes, the estimated total harvest was 35 tonnes, which was more than the limits on commercial, recreational, and customary harvests combined.

So, does this point to a management problem? Yes, because the management system failed in holding the recreational harvest to the five-tonne allowance. Stated another way, there would be howls of indignation if the total allowable commercial catch had been exceeded seven-fold.

We put our trust in the Minister and his officials to set enforceable harvest levels that ensure fisheries are sustainable. So, is the pāua fishery now at risk? We don’t yet know.

Based on survey results, we do know there are at least 100,000 fewer spawning adult pāua due to recreational over-harvesting, along with added mortality by inappropriate handling of pāua when returning them to the sea.

The abundant large-sized pāua easily harvested in wading depth was due to the uplift, not so much the rebuild over the five-year closure. So, there may well be sustainability risk if this added volume of spawning biomass is allowed to be harvested annually from the fishery.

What of the future?

What is clear is that the local community and nonlocals alike value the harvest of pāua in wading depth. Management measures must change to ensure this segment of the fishery remains sustainable.

Fish Mainland is working collaboratively with the Kaikoura community and Fisheries New Zealand to improve the management of this highly valued resource, given changing circumstances and the information on recreational over-harvest.

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