Snapper cuts a bit too fishy

Snapper cuts a bit too fishy

My very earliest memories are of fishing with my grandfather, and literally since I can remember I’ve been able to go out fishing and catch a feed for my family and friends. Admittedly I might not have contributed all that much to the table in my early days of fishing, but whenever I take kids fishing these days, I see the exact same joy in their faces as I had back when I was their age.

Let’s make no mistake about this: going out to catch a feed of fish to share with your people, is as entrenched in Kiwi culture as anything you could name. With over a million kiwis going fishing each year, it is the most popular recreational activity we have. And then when you consider number of friends, relatives and neighbours who get to enjoy the results, the spread is even larger still.

But now all this is under very serious and very real threat, and if proposals from Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) go through, recreational fishermen and women from Far North to Bay of Plenty (SNA1) will be allowed to catch no more than three snapper per day from October this year. This has the potential to be an election-losing issue for National, so how have they got this so terribly wrong, and why?

Let’s not get confused by misleading information from MPI about sustainability, the simple fact is that our fishery is rebuilding and all the evidence shows this. It’s just not rebuilding as fast as it might be. These proposals would mean, according to scientists, at best a 1% increase to our fishery over five years. That’s not a sustainability push, however it is dressed up. This is an economic push, pure and simple, and is a question of what is more important – commercial profits or our right as kiwis to catch fish.

What’s wrong with taking a cut in catch allowances if it preserves our fishery? Nothing. There’s nothing wrong with it at all and I don’t know a single recreational fisherman who has a problem with this in principle. We spend huge amounts of time (and money, frankly!) on fishing so of course we want to see the healthiest fish stocks we can have. So why have thousands and thousands of people sent submissions to MPI, phoned in to radio stations, commented on news websites? Simply put, it is this: commercial overfishing brought snapper in our area to the brink of collapse and on three occasions now, measures have been taken to try to preserve our fish stocks. And each time, commercial fishing has remained virtually untouched while the ability of everyday kiwis to go out and catch a feed has been eroded and eroded beyond any reasonable point. That’s right: commercial fishing takes the lion’s share of the fish and produces the lion’s share of waste (dead unwanted snapper thrown back overboard) and yet the current proposals mean that commercial fishing will take a cut of, well, have a guess. Actually, it’s zero.  And that’s not a typo.

Our government is proposing to curb indiscriminate net trawling by exactly nothing. But recreational fishermen will take a cut from nine fish per day to a proposed three. The Fisheries Act states that the Minister must first allow for Customary take, Recreational fishing and Juvenile mortality before setting the Total Allowable Commercial Catch, but apparently we’re past worrying about such small details now.

And it gets worse: in the EU, trawling methods mean that half of all fish caught there is thrown back overboard dead, as waste. Fortunately they’ve just changed their rules to prevent this lunacy continuing. However, in New Zealand, our MPI says that waste is just 10%. This 10% figure is not, by their own admission, monitored, measured or enforced in any way whatsoever and it most certainly isn’t accurate. I asked MPI staff at this meeting whether the number was likely much higher, probably in the region of 1500 tons per year and was told “what if it is 2000 tons? We just don’t know”.

Let’s just think about that: commercial fishing could be dumping 1500 tons or more of dead snapper in the Hauraki Gulf each year and the Ministry is proposing to do what about it? The answer is that they want to reduce the fish that we catch which end up not as exports, but as welcome and free additions to the dinner table for families and friends all over the country. I have three elderly neighbours who most certainly would not be eating snapper at $39/kilo from the supermarket. Whenever I go fishing I take an extra fish for each of them and perhaps a couple for my own household. Under MPI proposals, I will no longer be able to do this.

One of my very good friends always makes sure he brings an extra fish for his own grandfather who, like mine, taught him to fish. Under MPI proposals he’ll have to choose between enough fish for his family and dropping a snapper off for his grandfather who can no longer fish himself. The fish that I catch for my neighbours (on the days when I’m able to outwit a few more snapper than normal) will instead be caught by commercial interests and either sold at high prices or sent overseas. If this helped preserve the fishery I’d at least take some comfort, but the simple fact is that it won’t. The only thing which will restore our fishery is for commercial fishing to have far tighter controls on it and to stop this terrible dumping of dead unwanted snapper each year.

Not so long ago a commercial fisherman was prosecuted for leaving a 3km trail of dead snapper behind, after deliberately cutting his own net rather than land and pay for the 5 tonnes of fish he’d just killed. It doesn’t matter how many evenings I don’t bring a fish back for one of my neighbours, nothing will come close to wiping out just the single event. I know many, many anglers who have seen similar scenes while out fishing in the Hauraki, thousands of dead snapper deliberately discarded, while we fish with single hooks and lines in the lowest-impact method of fishing known to exist.

I desperately want to preserve our fishery but when our own government puts commercial interests ahead of environmental or indeed societal concerns, it is hard to see anything but a bleak future for it. Fortunately, we can all have our say on this and I’d urge anyone with any interest in catching or indeed eating snapper to do so at http://www.legasea.co.nz/sos/.

Forsyth Thompson is the head of ideas at Auckland-based digital agency Digital Hothouse and a Legasea volunteer. He really, really likes fishing. He also wants everyone to know that the fish in the photo was released.