NZ’s “world leading” fish management system failing

A fishing trawler boat. The New Zealand QMS fish management system has been criticised for lacking critical data.

New Zealand’s $1.4 billion fishing industry is far from best practice, with critical data missing from the Government’s “world leading” sustainability management system.

A report from six universities, including the Universities of Auckland, Waikato, and Otago, found New Zealand’s Quota Management System (QMS) relies on self-reported fish catch data from commercial operations with no independent oversight.

The NZ Department of Primary Industries claims the QMS is a “world-leading” management system for the sustainable management of fish number with “a lot of international interest [in] how our system works and the level of success it has achieved”.

The recent report however, found the catch data for New Zealand fish species relies entirely on information provided by the fishing industry (for example, self-reported catches and fishing effort).

Report co-author, Professor Liz Slooten from Otago University, said failure to collect independent scientific data risks significant harm to fish stocks and the marine ecosystem.

“The majority of New Zealand fish species are managed on the basis of fishing industry information only, such as self-reported catch and effort data, without any independent science,” Professor Slooten said.

“Many of these fisheries are doing very poorly and causing serious environmental impacts.

“New Zealand is failing miserably at looking after the majority of our fish stocks for the public.”

Funding for New Zealand QMS fish stock assessment has more than halved, while the number of species to be assessed has more than tripled.

Dr Glenn Simmons, from the New Zealand Asia Institute at the University of Auckland, led a 2016 study, finding widespread illegal dumping and misreporting have also distorted catch statistics for decades.

“New Zealand now needs to focus on how to provide truly sustainable fisheries management, maximising long-term profits and minimising environmental impacts,” Dr Simmons said.

“We could provide incentives for fishers to use more selective, sustainable fishing methods.

“We could ensure that all fish is brought back to shore, as it is in Iceland, rather than some of it being dumped at sea, which would drive real innovation in unexpected ways.”

Discarding occurs where fishing operators catch species or amounts over their quota.

To make surplus catch legal, fishers have the option of trading quota with another operation, or surrendering the fish to the State for amounts significantly below market value.

To avoid the red tape and economic inefficiencies of making the excess catch legal, the fish are dumped (‘discarded’) back into the water, often dead or dying.

The NZ fisheries department boasts “three recent, independent and internationally peer-reviewed studies, in 2009, 2010 and 2011, have ranked New Zealand’s fisheries management as the best in the world,” according to the Department of Primary Industries.

These previous studies have been criticised for being selective in their case study data, including only high-value, high-performing operators, rather than randomly selecting operations.

The recent research found “the seven New Zealand respondents included three fishing industry employees or consultants, one person working for the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) and one person working for the agency responsible for stock assessment. The other two respondents remain anonymous.

The history of the New Zealand fishing QMS

Introduced in the mid-1980s, the QMS currently protects about 100 fish species, divided into about 640 separate stocks.

The waters around New Zealand are separated into 10 independently managed Fishing Management Areas, which make it “possible to maintain more control over the population size thus ensuring that it approximates a stock level that can sustain the Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY)”.

MSY refers to the maximum level fish can be caught without an overall depletion in stock numbers.

Commercial fishing operations are allocated catch quotas, which can be freely traded in part or in whole, with other operators.

The ability to trade quota has been criticised for favouring large fishing operations, forcing smaller operators out of business.

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