Snapper One’s Race for the Last Fish

Gareth MorganFisheries Management

snapper1How should the Government deal with the issue of a threatened fishery like Snapper One? There are three ways of approaching this issue, and because of these different perspectives people often end up taking past each other, with the debate containing more heat than light.

Firstly there is the view that New Zealanders have a right to fish in the ocean as much as they like and because it’s the Commons nobody should interfere with that. This view is pretty marginally held but logic would suggest an unfettered fishing effort would result in the last fish being extracted. This tragedy has occurred elsewhere and is the subject of many books– for example, Jared Diamond’s Collapse. The view in essence is steeped in self-interest, contains absolutely no respect for future generations or environmental sustainability. This is why we call it redneck.

The second perspective accepts as a given successive governments’ laws around commercial fishing and the Quota Management System (QMS). This is the perspective we tend to come from, acknowledging that the government long ago privatised a major portion of the Commons by handing quota to the commercial fishing industry. Although changes have been made, such as a step back to proportional rather than absolute quota shares for each fishery, the windfall to commercial fishing interests was stunning. In our book we totally disagreed with this decision to hand over quota but the fact is it is history, the rights have been given away. Any attempts to wind that back will of course invite court action just as settling Waitangi claims with private assets would. The only way to address this travesty is for a government to change the law on the QMS and have the taxpayer pay the bills.

So given the QMS we have a situation where in the offshore fishery, where rec fishers are absent, sustainable management of the fishing stock is reasonably successful. Of course the methods of monitoring and enforcement are under continual improvement but in general it’s a success in terms of the fishers acting to preserve the fishery. The problem arises in the inshore fishery where commercial and rec fishers have to co-exist. In essence there is no upper limit on the annual rec catch in any fishery – daily bag limits do not cap how much fish is taken and as the population of rec fishers has risen and their technology improved and become cheaper, the rec catch has grown. Commercial fishers who are concerned with the sustainability of their livelihood struggle to adopt environmental best practice in these areas because every fish they return to the sea for another day is able to be taken by the rec sector. They have no incentive to take care of inshore fish stocks like they do offshore where there are no rec fishers.

A way to address this conflict of interest in the inshore fishery, short of paring back or even eliminating the commercial rights, is to estimate the rec catch and establish a quota for it. With a cap on rec fishing, rec fishers and commercial fishers would then have a reason to work together to improve the fish stocks, as happens in the offshore fishery. This is the policy prescription we advocate. Remember we are taking as a given the commercial fisheries private property rights in the inshore fishery.

Which brings us to the third way of looking at things. The government could now in retrospect decide that it was a mistake to gift commercial quota to the industry, and that recreational fishers should take precedence over that property right.  This would acknowledge that a quota on the commercial sector doesn’t work for inshore fisheries like Snapper One because of the conflicts with recreational fishers described above. In other words the government would need to start again, when it comes to the regulations around inshore fisheries, particularly in areas like Snapper One where the population of rec fishers is booming.

Under this option we would see commercial rights pared right back to make room for growth in the rec fish take. Done correctly, the sustainability of the fishery could be protected. It seems to us this is the option the rec fishing lobby group LegaSea – unsurprisingly – wants. Immediately the question of compensation for the commercial fishers arises though and presumably the rec fishing lobby wouldn’t be prepared to write a cheque. So either the taxpayer does or the laws are changed in a way that destroys the commercial industry’s private property rights. Fascinating.

Presuming that this course of action was entertained – and in our view it does correct an historical wrong and sets an awful precedent in terms of disrespect for private property. Personally we’d love it, being keen rec fishers and each year catching well within our bag limits but miles more than the average rec fisher. But then this discussion should be about more than personal, self-interest shouldn’t it?

Finally, there’s the cop-out option that predictably the politicians have opted for. Here the government invokes tokenism only, is seen to be doing something but in reality is not achieving anything near what’s required to protect the fishery. That would be to trim the daily bag limit for rec fishers to a level that annoys us a bit but in essence makes the political issue go away for now. This is what the Government has done and some would say is the charming nature of realpolitik where more often than not we end up with policy soup – inadequate and inconsistent but a compromise that gets difficult decisions off the politicians’ desk.

The entrenched debate over Snapper One exists because the adversaries aren’t arguing from the same perspective. The redneck argument for destroying the fishery is incompatible with the other two and you can’t decide how to solve sustainability unless you first make a call on whether you’re prepared to usurp the private property rights of commercial fishers. LegaSea needs to be honest about that, it clearly wants those rights surrendered so should be demanding that Sealord, Talleys, Sanfords and Co have their inshore quota taken off them. Calling a spade a spade seems one step too far for this lobby group.

Gareth Morgan & Geoff Simmons

Authors of Hook, Line & Blinkers: Everything Kiwis never wanted to know about fishing

Snapper One’s Race for the Last Fish was last modified: December 15th, 2015 by Gareth Morgan
About the Author

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.