Two weeks ago in this column we described how New Zealand bravely confronted the tragedy of the commons that was destroying our $200-million-a-year (0.2 per cent of GDP) commercial fisheries. That came in the form of the quota management system which assigned rights to catch fish. While the system was efficient and helped save our fish, it has been no panacea for the wider environmental problems of commercial fishing.
One last win-win remains in our fisheries: we could have more fish in the water. It would be better for the fishers, because in exchange for catching slightly less it becomes easier to catch fish. For commercial operators this means slightly less revenue but far lower fishing costs, so overall they can get greater profits. For recreational fishers it becomes easier to catch a feed, particularly if you aren’t one of the lucky ones who can afford a nice boat and fish finder. Finally more fish in the water is also better for the environment. At present we target reducing most fish stocks by 65 to 80 per cent from what we perceive as their original state. This removal of fish sends ripples through the ecosystem, reducing biodiversity by a third. More fish in the water makes for a healthier ocean, more capable of handling shocks such as climate change, run-off and the odd container ship hitting a reef.
Surely we can find a way to get more fish in the water? Yes we can. This is happening already for deep water stocks such as hoki, where industry can sort out decisions among themselves. Hoki is already voluntarily managed at a higher target of 35 to 50 per cent of the original fish stock, instead of the standard target of 25 per cent. This is a shining example of fish stock management, and industry deserves to be congratulated for it.
The question is why the same situation doesn’t exist for our precious inshore stocks. If anything, these fish stocks are more important because they are the ones recreational fishers care most about, and the environmental pressures on coastal areas are infinitely greater than in the deep water. The quota system saved our inshore stocks, but they have not yet prospered. For example snapper: Since the plundering days of the 1970s, stocks in the Hauraki Gulf have limped back up to target levels. Once the science confirms that the stock is above the meagre target level, the Government is likely to allow more fishing, rather than letting the population continue to rebuild. Meanwhile the West Coast population is still slowly recovering from overfishing.
The fact is that the tragedy of the commons still operates in our inshore fisheries. Sure, recreational fishers have daily bag limits, but this does not limit the amount of fish they take as a sector because there is nothing to stop more people fishing, or the existing bunch fishing more often. Recreational fishing operates entirely outside the quota and for all intents and purposes is out of control. Faced with that reality why would commercial operators ease off on their inshore fishing only for Jo Average in her dinghy to haul in the extra fish?
Recreational and commercial fishers are still locked in a race to fish. There is no point in either side easing off the fishing, because the other group might benefit from their prudence. This problem is compounded with an increasing population of fishers, and those fishers being armed with increasingly sophisticated gear. Everyone wants more fish in the water, but neither side wants to be the one exercising restraint.
Some recreational fishing groups expect that as their population (and the amount of fish they catch) grows, commercial fishers should take less. Meanwhile commercial fishers point to their property rights which allow them to catch a certain proportion of the total catch forever. They assume that if they have to cut fishing, recreational fishers should face a cut too. Recreational fishers counter that the quota system is flawed, and should be thrown out. The system is indeed far from perfect, but we can make it work if everyone is included.
Politicians are left in the middle to sort the mess out, but it is no surprise that most of them are too weak to do so.Siding with commercial interests will cost them votes, and siding with recreational interests will cost them money because court cases with the fishing industry will quickly follow. So they pass the problem to the courts, which can only rule on minor points of law. The whole area remains a mess. The result of all this is that the prospects of having more fish in the water look bleak.
Like 1986, we are overdue for a bold solution. We propose licensing recreational fishers and moving recreational fishing inside the quota.
If recreational fishers are inside the quota, we will be able to do deals directly with commercial fishers. We would be able to trade quota for key stocks, and create recreational-only fishing areas. No longer would we need politicians, bureaucrats and the courts to sort out our problems. Recreational and commercial fishers could work together to manage the fisheries, with less government interference, less bureaucratic oversight.
Sounds impossible? This already happens overseas, in Australia for instance. And of course the same already exists in our fresh water fisheries – through Fish and Game. The main complaint is that monitoring would be impossible, but Fish and Game has shown that once licensing is in place, fishers will largely monitor themselves. It is for that reason primarily it should be introduced. Any revenue collected would go to improve infrastructure (boat ramps for example), fish breeding and management, or a fund to buy quota from the commercial sector.
One sector that urgently needs to be brought into the quota system is charter fishers. This group hides behind the veil of providing transport to recreational fishers, but the reality is that they do the same damage as many commercial fishers. Bringing recreational fishing within the quota would close this loophole.
Paying to fish will put the wind up the hunting, shooting and fishing lobby. Yet we have seen time and again that the illusion of the commons cannot be sustained. We can’t go on taking all we like and expecting the ocean to hold up. Recreational fishers are willing to splurge millions of dollars on gear to help them catch that trophy fish. Their unwillingness to pay a pittance to make sure the fishing stays good is myopic and should be ignored. That they claim fishing for a feed is their right ignores the consequences of their actions. More important is our grandchildren’s right to have fish in the ocean when they take over. The endless finger-pointing between commercial and recreational fishers has to end, it’s been ineffectual and is getting boring. We all have to grow up. There are only so many fish to go around, and having more fish in the water has to be everyone’s priority. Recreational and commercial sectors have to work together in partnership to make this happen. Bringing recreational fishers inside the quota is one way to do this.
Over the past two columns we have highlighted the key problems we see in fisheries – inadequate environmental safeguards on commercial fishing, and the pathetic management of recreational fishing. Until these problems are sorted, consumers need to take responsibility, which we will look at in the next column.