Greenies Sacrifice Humpbacks for Toothfish

Gareth MorganEnvironment, Fisheries Management

Toothfish more important the Whales? - Photo Niwa

Toothfish more important the Whales? – Photo Niwa

Recently the green NGOs accused the Government of siding with the fishing industry when they refused to back a United States proposal for marine protection in the Ross Sea.

Is the Government kowtowing to industry as they suggest, or is this yet another green own goal? The US proposal preferred by the greenies is not as environmentally friendly as the NGOs claim.

Let’s start with where the greenies are right. It would be better if NZ and the US agreed. CCAMLR (the international body running this gig) operates on consensus. We have to convince all nations involved to sign up to any change, so starting off with disagreement doesn’t help. But does that mean we should toe the US line or should they have agreed with us?

It is also true that the US proposal would make life for those fishing the toothfish fishery more difficult, because it bans fishing in some of the most productive fishing areas. But would it actually improve protection of the environment overall?

The US proposal is zoned in more than half of its area to allow commercial fishing for either toothfish or krill, whereas the New Zealand proposal is for a ‘no-take’ marine reserve throughout. So the quality of the reserve in our proposal is superior, there’s been a lot of political slipperiness over recent years over the use of the words “marine reserve”. We all know size isn’t everything, but even if you include the ‘reserves’ where they allow fishing, the area of the US proposal is still smaller than the NZ proposal. On the face of it this doesn’t sound like the greener option. When examined closely the US proposal doesn’t protect some environments at all. The idea of ’representative’ areas of MPAs is to protect a bit of all types of ecosystems, as an insurance policy. The US proposal fails this important test.

The US proposal doesn’t protect one important ecosystem at all: the highly productive area around the Balleny islands. These islands support large colonies of penguins, seals, and seabirds, and this is also the place where the recovering humpback population migrate for their summer feed of krill. The smorgasbord provided by the melting ice during the Antarctic summer fattens up the humpbacks for their winter breeding stint in the tropics. To add insult to injury the US have proposed a krill fishery in this incredibly delicate and important area. Not even the die-hard fishing members of CCAMLR suggest fishing where it will be stealing food from whales and breeding predators. Do green groups suddenly prefer toothfish to humpback whales? Ill-informed can be the only explanation.

Another important area to offer some protection is the northern spawning areas. These are the seamounts where the toothfish go to breed. The US proposal again falls down here. Their proposal offers almost no protection to the spawning area that seems to provide eggs to replenish the Ross Sea stock. Even worse, given that marine protection as defined by the US doesn’t stop fishing, their proposal would move fishing away from the less important seamounts and onto the important spawning seamounts.

Some aspects of the US proposal are just bizarre. They have created one area which is only subject to one kind of fishing: Spanish long-lines. There is no environmental justification for this; after all a fish caught on a Spanish line is just as dead as a fish caught by any other method… it just seems a blatant shot at New Zealand, as our boats would be the ones eliminated. This is despite our fishery being rated as one of the most environmentally responsible in the world; the Korean and Russian vessels that are favoured under the US proposal have no such rating. The greenies need to go figure on that before they get so raucous.

Of course the US proposal does protect more of the slope area where the toothfish feed than the NZ one. However, again this is not straight forward. New Zealand’s marine protection proposal was informed by science, rather than a political exercise in drawing lines on maps. The idea was that a proposal informed by science was more likely to fly with other nations. But the swaggering US is not swayed by such an approach; they think they are still a superpower and seem desperate to prove it. They have simply not produced the science to justify their proposal. Greenies that are rational should be deploring that approach.

To implement a science-based approach, New Zealand asked a group of international scientists to identify 27 areas of highest ecological importance in the Ross Sea region.  The boundaries of these areas were peer reviewed and approved by the same American scientists now attacking the New Zealand proposal (funny enough the US scientists did not offer their own work for peer review). Of high priority for protection for New Zealand were areas where fisheries could potentially interfere with important feeding grounds for other animals in the Antarctic ecosystem. When you do the comparison, the New Zealand proposal would protect more of the foraging area of Adelie penguins, Emperor penguins and Weddell seals than the US proposal. The US proposal just pips the New Zealand proposal in protecting areas where orcas feed, but only by 1%. And this slight win comes at a huge cost.

In the end this comes down to what our objective is. Is it to protect the toothfish at all costs and damn the other species? This is unlikely to be aim of nations like the UK, Norway, or Russia, who see this as a valuable and sustainably utilised resource. Or is the aim to protect as much of the environment as we can by eliminating fishing in areas where it might have negative effects and encouraging fishing in areas where fishing has the least impact? More nations are likely to agree on this aim and that’s important because all members of CCAMLR have to agree to any proposal – including fishing nations like Korea and the Ukraine. And on this count the New Zealand proposal wins hands down: the numbers don’t lie. If you evaluate both proposals they achieve very similar levels of protection, except where we’ve noted that the New Zealand proposal offers more. The only thing that the US proposal does better is punish fishermen without scientific justification – a terrible slip in credibility for science-based proposals were it to be taken up.

It is even arguable if the US position would help the toothfish. We already have regulations that limit fishing in the Ross Sea region. Any new MPA won’t change those regulations, so the same amount of fish will be caught, just in different areas. The risk of the US proposal is that it will push fishing into smaller areas, or into more ecologically sensitive areas which could cause major local depletions of toothfish populations or other environmental effects. We don’t know what the implications of this would be. The one thing we do know is it would be worse for the fishermen, worse for the scientists trying to understand and sustainably manage our interactions with this ecosystem, and unmistakably worse for humpback whales.  The AOA insists they are not anti-fishing, but unless they reverse their stated preference for the US proposal, it seems that not only are they most definitely anti-fishing, but that their dislike of fishermen is even more powerful than their love of whales, and their respect for science doesn’t exist.

The US proposal is driven by politicking rather than science. Key and co have made the right call.

Greenies Sacrifice Humpbacks for Toothfish was last modified: December 15th, 2015 by Gareth Morgan
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Gareth Morgan

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Gareth Morgan is a New Zealand economist and commentator on public policy who in previous lives has been in business as an economic consultant, funds manager, and professional company director. He is also a motorcycle adventurer and philanthropist. Gareth and his wife Joanne have a charitable foundation, the Morgan Foundation, which has three main stands of philanthropic endeavour – public interest research, conservation and social investment.