Those of us interested in the marine environment either as fishers or as conservationists, have known for a long time that in general, current commercial fishing practices stink.

A Quota Management System vainly celebrated as the ‘world’s best’, that allegedly encourages misreporting and dumping as fishers seek to extract premium value by throwing less valuable stock overboard. An industry that University of Auckland Business School scientists say has discarded 2.7 times the reported quantities caught. Marine mammals such as Maui and Hector’s dolphins and New Zealand sea lions, and sea birds, are almost extinct because they’re by-catch. A fishing fleet that seems to act with ignorance, impunity, and a minimal level of observer coverage, compliance and enforcement. Assumptions that ‘deals have been done’ to avoid prosecution. Hitherto, labour abuses. Unsavoury links between the National Party president Peter Goodfellow, and the Seafood Industry Council and Sanfords where he’s a director and major shareholder. Scope for corruption given that an agency overseeing the small amount of fishing observation are also industry operators. There’s evidence of collusion, contradictions, denial, capture, and cover-ups.

As always, we should be grateful to the whistle blowers who leaked internal emails in which senior Fisheries management staff admit that fish dumping ‘is so widespread, the current system is failing’, and that officials ‘have been unable to get on top of it since day one of the Quota Management System (QMS)’. Fisheries managers have said unreported fish dumping is having an impact on fish stocks, and that if those wasting fish, and hiding dumping, were prosecuted in accordance with the law, about half the current fishing operators would go out of business. Both the public, and NGOs argue there’s evidence of a ‘systemic failure of the QMS’, and the failure to prosecute is no less than scandalous.

Commercial fishing operators held their stare the longest and managed, somehow, to exert enough pressure on Ministry of Primary Industries Fisheries managers, that clear evidence of tonnes of fish dumping, unreporting, and the killing of dolphins in nets, was considered not worthy of prosecution. It does make you wonder just what it would take to get a prosecution, if not this standard of evidence and scale of transgression.

Fisheries managers considered the reputational risks to MPI from not prosecuting, and the risk of not providing clear sanctions to the fisheries operators. They said in an internal email, that “the offending from (five of the) six vessels using camera monitoring as part of a summer Hector’s dolphin observer trial, was “of such a scale and blatancy that a warning (without prosecution) would seem disproportionate to the offending and could be seen as MPI sending the wrong message to industry, the public and our trade partners”, “as it may appear we are undermining our commitment to sustainability and conservation of our fisheries”. He also said “we need to hold people to account when they transgress”. The evidence was “overwhelming” and “beyond dispute”. Despite advice on the strong grounds for prosecution from the Crown Law Office, and penalties available including fines of up to $250,000 and forfeiture of fishing vessels, just warning letters were sent.

The Minister for Primary Industries and MPI senior staff try to quell the rising tide of public outrage by assuring us prior unreported dumping of perfectly good fish is irrelevant now because the Ministry is moving on. When Glenn Simmons from the Business School released the findings of his research about the scale of fish dumping earlier this year, Fisheries Manager Dave Taylor changed his earlier private tune and publicly said there was no problem. But in the independent report commissioned under pressure by MPI, Solicitor-General Michael Heron QC, said the failure not to prosecute was deeply flawed, and that there’s evidence that rather than tightening compliance efforts, MPI has subsequently failed to either change the law, or enforcement of it.

There’s a tragic and perverse irony that the leaked video footage showing the hauling up and throwing overboard of perfectly good fish, as well as endangered Hector’s dolphins, came about as part of a summer Hector’s dolphin monitoring programme. Six fishing vessels out of Timaru agreed to be part of the electronic video monitoring trial. But there’s speculation that most others refused because they’d be caught for the same thing. And if transgressions were found on at least five of the six boats monitored, just imagine what’s happening unobserved. No wonder Fisheries managers say a substantial quantity of QMS fish is discarded, that it’s “the single biggest issue we face in our wild stock fisheries”; that it’s impacting on stocks, as confirmed by Glenn Simmons’ report. Fishing skippers themselves admitted they ‘didn’t even really know the rules’, and ‘they’ve never been not guilty’ of fish dumping, and ‘that if they wrote down every species they killed, they’d need a stack of books a mile high’. No wonder Hector’s dolphin numbers have decreased in the last forty years from an estimated 30,000 to an estimated 7000 now, according to University of Otago figures.

Under pressure, MPI make promises of 100% electronic (camera) observer coverage – which is by no means perfect in itself. But there’s no evidence of improvements in any sort of hurry, in a dysfunctional relationship where the fishing industry seems to have more power than the regulatory agency tasked with monitoring them. Fishermen have presumed immunity, they’ve been able to refuse observers on board, the fishing industry is both poacher and gamekeeper. There’s been little prosecution against ‘those who transgress’.

Meanwhile, those dolphins that were supposed to be managed through this observer programme, have been filmed hauled up drowned in nets, with reporting inaccurate there too and no prosecutions taken. It’s reminiscent of another hollow promise where Minister of Conservation Nick Smith, made a big song and dance in 2012 about introducing 100% observer coverage on fishing boats operating in the core habitat of endangered Maui dolphins off the North Island West Coast, but doing so has required the removal of observers from the East Coast South Island fishing effort out of Timaru, itself killing Hector’s dolphins and dumping fish. Even now, total observer coverage for Maui, the most endangered marine dolphin of them all, stands at around only 25%.

Public confidence in MPI is shot. This country’s environmental reputation takes yet another blow. That Fisheries manager was right when he said, with the fisheries abuses allowed by MPI, “we are undermining our commitment to sustainability and conservation of our fisheries”.

We can judge society by how it treats its weakest and most humble, just as we can judge industry and industry regulators by how well they manage and prosecute against their own injustices. In New Zealand’s fisheries, because of the economic imperatives involved, and strong links between the government, the fishing industry and supposed fishing regulators, systemic injustices prevail. These injustices are committed against the common environmental interests of New Zealanders, against our endangered dolphins, against fish stocks and future generations.

Christine Rose is employed as Kauri DieBack Community Co-ordinator by the Auckland Council. All opinions expressed herein are Christine’s own. No opinion or views expressed in this blog or any other media, shall be construed as the opinion of the Council or any other organisation.

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