Whichever parties are elected to power this year, none of them sounds like they will let the fishing industry off the regulatory hook.
Addressing the seafood industry’s annual conference in Wellington on Wednesday, MPs from the four largest parties told industry leaders that environmental impacts continue to be a major concern for the public.
The only differentiating factor was the speed of change that would be forced on the industry, particularly around bottom trawling, which has emerged as the No 1 risk factor in terms of social licence.
The fishing method accounts for 60% of the value of fish landed by the industry; however, most of the species either can’t be caught using other methods or it isn’t economically viable to use other methods.
The problem is trawling is highly destructive of the seafloor environment – although the industry is quick to point out that only a small fraction of the area of New Zealand’s Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ) has been trawled.
The political problem is that a much larger proportion of the Hauraki Gulf – Auckland’s front doorstep – has been trawled, and scientific report after scientific report has confirmed what boaties can see with their own eyes – the fragile ecosystem is in a declining state of health.
Minister for Oceans and Fisheries Rachel Brooking used the strongest language heard from a government minister on the issue since Jim Anderton declared a few seamounts off limits to bottom trawling in the early 2000s.
Brooking told industry leaders that if they need convincing, to take a look at last week’s State of Our Gulf report: “It’s a frank and somewhat frightening analysis of what’s happening to one of the most beautiful and productive waterways in the world.”
She said of the 91 letters about bottom trawling her office received in the past week, all have called for a total ban.
“As an industry, you cannot ignore this depth of public feeling, and I urge you to think about how you are addressing it.”
Someone from the industry reminded her that 27% of the Gulf is already closed to trawling; the minister pointed out that this means 73% isn’t.
The government is about to roll out a policy that will see a much greater area protected – exactly how much will be determined by a statutory process, but the minister has made her expectation very clear that it “will significantly change the current situation”.
The Gulf is just the start as a separate process is looking at bottom trawling in the rest of the EEZ. With another Labour MP, Angie Warren-Clark, addressing the conference with such language as “phasing it out over time”, the industry should understand it doesn’t matter if Labour is voted out, change is coming, whether in this decade or the next.
National spokesperson Scott Simpson pointed out that change was forced on the dairy industry, forestry and poultry: “What I do know is that if the sector is not careful, it will be dealt to in the same way.”
His one consolation for fishers was that “right at the minute, we need to take account of getting the economy growing and going, and that’ll be the first priority for a re-elected National government”.
ACT spokesperson Mark Cameron also acknowledged industry needed to do more about the environmental impacts of fishing but pinned his hopes on better technology.
“I think we can continue to be innovative in finding solutions to minimise sea floor damage and bycatch, but I don’t think whacking the sector further helps the industry and consumers going forward.”
The Greens’ Eugenie Sage acknowledged that her party’s views on the oceans don’t always sit very comfortably with the industry, but she assured them the Greens were only looking out for its long-term interests.
She also acknowledged the progress that industry was making, but as ever, the political divide was around timing.
“I know gear has been tweaked, but it’s not going fast enough.”
She said the industry has the capacity and the innovation to do more to protect the reputation of seafood exports, “which increasingly consumers in Europe and beyond want to know are produced sustainably”.
She also reminded them of what can happen when such considerations are ignored, with the United States halting some imports while it assesses whether we’re doing enough to protect Maui dolphins.
The wider Green lobby is very clear about what the end game is and echoed the sentiment it was in the industry’s enlightened self-interest to get there.
Its main criticism of the government’s industry transformation plan is that it lacks a timetable for transitioning away from bottom trawling altogether.
Fish and Bird spokesperson Geoff Keey said that having 60% of the industry’s value gained through bottom trawling was “a huge risk”.
“At some point, when you lose your social licence, you lose your customers, and they need to deal with it.”