Creating rights to catch fish certainly got fishers acting responsibly with fish stocks, but there’s no incentive to give two hoots about the rest of the environment. And it shows. With summer rolling around, it’s time to bait up the hooks. Two weeks ago we described how the tragedy of the commons is being repeated in the global race to fish, devastating some fish populations and placing the ocean in increasing peril as its ecosystems are disrupted.
In New Zealand the rights to harvest fish stocks are estimated to be more than $4 billion. Just how good are we at managing that asset?
In the mid-1970s, the race to fish was devastating stocks of snapper – our iconic fish. Successive governments subsidised Kiwi fishers in the hope they would leave the snapper alone and instead go out and compete with Japanese and Russian trawlers for hoki stocks on the Chatham Rise. But fishers took the subsidy and kept plundering the ever-dwindling inshore stocks, leaving the deep water to the foreigners. Establishing the Exclusive Economic Zone made little difference.
In keeping with the other policy revolutions of the Rogernomics era, the Quota Management System (QMS) was a radical 1986 solution created to deal with these problems, at least as far as commercial fishing was concerned. We were the first (and so far, only) country in the world to try such a complete and bold move, and the QMS has remained a centrepiece of our fisheries management until today. Our Government and industry make claims that our fishery management is “world-leading”, but how much of this is reality and how much is chummy but deluded back-slapping? This is the core question we set out to answer in our book Hook, Line and Blinkers.
The QMS runs on the premise that if you give fishers rights to catch an amount of fish forever, they’ll have an incentive to look after the resource. Thus they won’t overfish and will make sure others don’t as well. Getting fishers to police themselves is a lot cheaper than having government officials running amok. Also, by letting fishers rent and trade these rights, they could catch the fish in the most efficient way possible.
There were huge teething problems in getting the system up and running, which resulted in a few expensive mistakes. Fixed-catch quota was soon seen as incompatible with the reality of falling fish stocks and so proportional quota was needed. Nowhere was the fickle science of fisheries exposed more than when slow-growing orange roughy were devastated because we assumed they took fewer years to mature and breed than the reality. And the coup de grace was Maori successfully proving the fisheries weren’t the Government’s to give.
These errors aside, over time the QMS has delivered on Roger Douglas’ vision. Economically, it’s a winner. New Zealand has one of the most efficient commercial fishing industries in the world, and is one of the few not dependent on the sort of subsidies that are so devastating elsewhere. The QMS has also given our fishers the certainty to invest in the skills and boats needed to catch our deep water fish like hoki. Despite the current furore over foreign trawlers in our waters, we catch more of our own fish now than when the QMS began. Finally the fishing industry has generally become a responsible custodian of its resource. The most recent example of the far-sightedness of the industry was Sanford questioning the Minister of Fisheries’ decision to raise the hoki quota. This Government is desperate to kick-start the economy, but the fishers themselves now take a much longer-term view.
The QMS was introduced in time to save the snapper, and before most of our fish stocks became overfished. This is indeed unique in the world, and it is this fact that has been used to claim that our fisheries management system is a world-beater. But the fact that we never systematically overfished owed as much to good luck as good management. We have a small population, a weak fishing lobby and are far away from other competing fishing nations, all of which bought us time to put a fisheries management system in place before it was too late.
But how does our fisheries management stack up today compared to other nations?
The harsh truth is that we lost our top spot a while back, and we’re steadily slipping further behind. Our fish stocks are in reasonable shape but, increasingly, so are those of many other developed nations. A World Wildlife Fund review of fishing practices around the world put us eighth, not first. There are a few lingering problems that, for whatever reason, we’ve swept under the carpet.
The first oversight often raised with our QMS is that it handed a $4 billion asset to fishers, which is now held by a small group of large companies. This was probably the biggest swindle since the European land grab here of the 19th century. It would have been better for the government to lease the quota, or at the very least charge the fishers rental for the public resource they were using. Of course, this is all water under the bridge now, and is difficult to change. But we get constantly pilloried at international fishing conferences for that “privatisation with favouritism” mistake without even a resource rental to temper the windfall.
Creating rights to catch fish certainly got fishers acting responsibly with fish stocks, but there’s no incentive to give two hoots about the rest of the environment. And it shows. Bottom trawling and by-catch of marine mammals and seabirds are the best-known examples of fishing’s negative impacts. Parts of the fishing industry, particularly deep water, have done things to reduce their impact. But some animals still appear to be on their way to extinction, often thanks to the smaller and more numerous inshore and recreational fishers. We need to monitor the environment and fisheries impacts better, and set strong environmental standards. If these standards are breached, the fishery closes, as happens overseas.
But even if our catching methods protect our blessed coral, dolphins and birds, there’s plenty of damage happening that we can’t see. Fishing down to the “sustainable” level (typically 20 to 35 per cent of the original population) sends shockwaves right through the whole ocean ecosystem, reducing the number of other species by a third. Considering the pressures the ocean faces – climate change, acidification, coastal habitat change, soil run-off and nutrients from dairy farms – this pushes the environment to the limit. The sea surface may remain an alluring blue but all hell is breaking loose beneath it.
As insurance against human-induced catastrophes, we need a decent network of representative marine reserves covering 10 per cent of our ocean, plus other protected areas (like mataitai, recreational only areas, or benthic protected areas). No-take marine reserves can handle environmental upheaval much better than areas disturbed by fishing and other activity. New Zealand has a paltry 0.2 per cent of our mainland territorial waters (within 12 miles of shore) in reserves – there’s a long way to go.
Industry will no doubt agree with this, as long as the taxpayer pays for environmental monitoring and pays compensation for creating marine reserves. This is short-sighted, particularly since it got the quota free. Property owners on land pay rates to safeguard the environment that underpins their asset. We need to do the same in the ocean; zone it, and charge property owners’ rates. The good news for the industry is that once environmental standards were created, this would also allow politicians and bureaucrats to step back from micro-managing every detail of fisheries.
It would also help if we eased off a bit on the fishing. The good news is that all fishers want to do this too – it would mean more fish in the water, which makes them easier to catch, which means lower fishing costs. The reason they don’t is because the race to fish still exists with recreational fishers, which we’ll look at soon, after we’ve chased off the red herring of Foreign Charter Vessels.