Protecting the whitebait fishery in New Zealand

Whitebait are a New Zealand delicacy. Every year hundreds of people try their hand at catching the tasty translucent morsels that enter our coastal waterways. On the market, a kilogram of whitebait may fetch N.Z.$90.

Whitebait patties are how most whitebait that are caught end up. Their popularity is enduring by virtue of the relative ease and speed of making them. They were the entree at the A.P.E.C. 1999 State Banquet held for the then United States President Bill Clinton and the Chinese President Jiang Zemin.

But whitebait are in danger of extinction. Their immense popularity, damage to their habitat and (this is debatable)over fishing of the delicacy, which have five subspecies in New Zealand – climbing galaxias, common galaxias, banded kokopu, shortjaw kokopu and giant kokopu have brought about severe challenges for a popular recreational past time. This has brought with it, talk of possibly closing the fishery for a period of one or two years during which there is a complete ban on whitebaiting, with the idea being that whitebait would be able to regain some of their population.

Whitebait habitat damage, and in particular their spawning grounds is the most serious threat they face. A spawning ground might be only a couple standard glass houses in area, but in that area tens of thousands of whitebait will be depositing their eggs, and the destruction of that one spawning ground might be the difference between whether or not that particular river/stream/creek/estuary/lagoon has a meaningful whitebait population the following year.

I and my father whitebait each year. We have no problems with compliance and follow local regulations specific to the Canterbury area and fisheries. We do it because we enjoy eating whitebait and are not there to make a profit from doing so, which some are – our purpose has always been to put food on the table, which is what I believe all hunting and fishing should be about. We do not leave any litter or other debris behind that might enter their habitat and cause adverse effects.

Pollutants entering the habitat – cigarette butts, plastics, and so forth – are another threat that needs to be considered. This is a general common pollution issue that should be dealt with separately by way of enforcement action by local council rangers. Fines and – most appropriately – making the offender participate in a rubbish clean up would be a good way of getting the message across.

No quotas exist for whitebaiters. It is debatable whether there needs to be quotas. One will immediately ask, if quotas exist, how are they going to be enforced and the only answer from hard experience is by ground enforcement on the spot. There would need to be many rangers enforcing the quotas and there is a possibility that they would – like anyone involved in law enforcement – possibly have to deal with hostile people. The quota size itself would also be up for debate. Sometimes several kilogrammes of whitebait might be caught each day, and then there might be none or little for several days or even weeks – nearly all we caught this year was taken in the final week of the season.

Whitebaiters are permitted to whitebait from dawn to dusk. They are allowed nets and gobi’s (nylon fencing on poles)that extend from the net to the shore. The combined net/gobi arrangement cannot take up more than 1/3 of a channel width and must be manned at all times. A whitebait net cannot be less than 20 metres from another whitebait net. The season start time varies from one region to the next – the Canterbury one started in mid-August and ended at sunset 30 November.

I don’t want any children I might eventually have or anyone else who has children to be denied the opportunity to show them an easy and fun – albeit sometimes patience testing – mode of fishing. So, let us enjoy our whitebait, but apply a bit of common sense and protect the habitats, don’t take more than you want to use and respect the other whitebaiters who have come to try their luck.

Common sense really.

The need for a Kermadec ocean sanctuary

I was disappointed to see in the Sunday Star Times today that New Zealand First have shown resistance to the idea of an ocean sanctuary. The comments in the Sunday Star Times, which allegedly caught the Green Party unawares, point to a potential hurdle in the future that the new Government will not be able to bypass.

New M.P. and former Labour M.P. Shane Jones, who is a potential cabinet member of the new Labour led minority Government, disclosed before the election that Sealord and Talleys were bankrolling his election campaign in Whangarei. Mr Jones who has extensive links to Iwi and backs customary fishing rights under the Treaty of Waitangi and fellow New Zealand First Members of Parliament have been described as close to the fishing industry.

Given the lack of regard shown for the marine environment around the world, there is a strong case for an ocean sanctuary around the Kermadec Islands. Which is why I was pleasantly surprised when the outgoing National Government in 2015 announced that New Zealand would commit to an ocean sanctuary covering the Kermadec Islands. It would not permit mining, oil extraction or fishing. The sanctuary would cover the oceans around islands such as Raoul and Curtiss Island.

This is also why I support the need for a blue water navy. Defence policy aside, New Zealand has a vast economic exclusion zone that is prone to being raided by illegals who have no legitimate business in New Zealand waters. The proposed ocean sanctuary covering the Kermadec Islands would not be exempt from the potential ravages of these raiders. A blue water navy with appropriate surveillance, backed by a strong judicial system would show raiders that if they conduct their illegal business in N.Z. waters, there will be a price to pay.

Despite the Green Party saying that they are confident that an appropriate outcome can be achieved, I have concerns about how any agreement will be passed into law, and whether it will be effective in protecting the marine ecosystem.


Quota Management System for fisheries criticized

A couple of days ago I was writing about Individual Transferable Quotas. I mentioned how New Zealand came to have them, what they do and why they are useful. I thought I was finished until I saw an article by a fisherman complaining about the state of New Zealand fisheries. And when I read it, his grumbling covered much of what I have been studying on my Polytechnic course at the moment.

The concept on the surface seems fine: Individual Transferable Quota’s that assure certainty about the management of what was becoming an unsustainable and uncertain resource, through their key characteristics of permanence, exclusivity, security and transferability:

  • Permanence: Instead of dying at the end of ownership, quotas are able to be transferred to other holders
  • Exclusivity: to qualify for holding a quota, the applicant needs to have taken and held a certain amount of stock, suggesting it will be used
  • Transferability: in the event of a major accident, ill health or other circumstances rendering a quota holder unable to use it, the quota can be transferred to another holder
  • Security: how good is the title of your property or resource? The less secure the resource, the worse the security of your title

But not everyone believes that the Quota Management System is perfect. Tony Craig is a recreational fisherman and partner at Terra Moana sustainability consultants. In an article he complains about an “ever diminishing pie”.

It is possible that the Minister of the day has chosen to reconfigure towards moneyed up commercial interests who are not necessarily deserving of additional quota. In this case it would suggest interference in the property rights model of fisheries managed by quotas. If Mr Craig is to be believed, the Minister of Primary Industries, Nathan Guy is reducing the permanence of quotas by reducing their scope, thereby making it harder for those without significant monetary interests to stay in the game.

Aside from threatening to upend the Q.M.S. system of quotas that has been operating with notable success in New Zealand since 1986, it raises other questions as well. One of those questions concerns a loss of trust that arises from the wilful destabilization of a system whose parameters were understood and respected. This could be damaging if allowed to continue because it assists the potential return of a race to the bottom, a race to take as much as one can before their competitors.

The Tragedy of the Commons in other words.

Now, there is nothing saying that the Q.M.S. system of quotas that was introduced in 1986 is perfect – it is only as good as the data sets for individual species, and can be subject to fluctuations if unforeseen inputs such as economic downturn, an ecological disaster in a key habitat occurs. But no one is suggesting – other than Mr Craig – that the system is in dire need of an overhaul.

But it might be in need of a few more checks and balances to stop what on the surface looks like political interference.

Individual Transferable Quota’s in fishing: Part 2

In my previous article I introduced Individual Transferable Quota’s in regard to our fisheries as a resource. This article looks at some of the problems with I.T.Q.’s.

It is first important to know that there is no such thing as “the perfect system”. Any number and potentially any combination of variables, foreseen and unforeseen can interfere with the I.T.Q. system. They can be environmental, or economic, social or political, driven by local, national or international issues.

In New Zealand, perhaps the biggest problems with I.T.Q.’s are:

  • Enforcing them
  • Maintaining their sustainability against increasing demand both locally and internationally
  • Balancing the resource for commercial and non commercial interests

New Zealand’s economic zone has a varied marine life inhabiting it, from hapuku and hoki to Bluff oysters and crayfish

Enforcing New Zealand fisheries has been a problem. Other articles I have written allude to a problem with foreign flagged vessels that have been operating in New Zealand. Because of the vast area under New Zealand jurisdiction, it is necessary to involve both the New Zealand police and Royal New Zealand Navy in these operations as only they have the logistical and legal means. With regards to the I.T.Q.’s, these foreign flagged vessels have been caught catching over their quota’s and the crews have admitted to dumping the excess so as not to be caught.

It is not just a foreign vessel issue though. Many locals feign ignorance of the local rules irrespective of species. This is mainly around coastal fisheries and not on the open sea. Normally Ministry of Primary Industries rangers and local police monitor activity. They are looking out for over catching, undersized shells, inappropriate equipment and catching outside of designated areas or seasons.

New Zealand fisheries are highly rated overseas because of their purity and attempts at being sustainably managed. It is an increasingly important challenge to ensure that the catches reported each year fall within the yields permitted. Just because New Zealand has taken steps that acknowledge the fallacy of the tragedy of the commons, other nations trying to maintain their economic growth, for whom sustainability is a westernized concept, getting as much as they can is more important.

Domestically the biggest challenge is balancing recreational interests with commercial fisheries. This just happens to be a part of a course assignment I am doing at the moment, putting a case forward for the use of I.T.Q.’s, and in doing so, I am addressing a stand off between these factions, along with iwi and hapu whose food gathering areas may have rahui applied that mean non-Maori have to stay out of certain areas.

So as we move forward in the 21st Century against a backdrop of other nations still being afflicted by the thinking that goes with a “get as much as I can” mentality, New Zealand has its own challenges. Burgeoning demand for New Zealand fish stocks, balancing that demand with local and customary needs means although I.T.Q.’s might be a significant step forward, they can only work if all parties concerned are on board.

Individual Transferable Quota’s in fishing: Part 1

As nations struggle with the over fishing of their resources, it is appropriate to look at economic means of stabilizing the death plunge in fish stocks worldwide. Some nations clearly not having learnt from the tragedy of the commons, or environmentalists and conservationists sounding ever more dire warnings, now seek to exploit other nations fish stocks.

But it is not all bad news, even if the good news is somewhat dated. Individual Transferable Quotas have been around for awhile now and New Zealand was one of the fist nations in the world along with Iceland to implement them.

I.T.Q.’s were implemented in New Zealand originally in 1986 (Dewees, 1998). It resulted from the overfishing of the known stock, changes in the New Zealand economic model away from Government subsidised industries to privatised ones with. A characteristic problem of fisheries as a commodity has been historically a tendency for users to compete for the resource, thus establishing a sort “must get what I can, before my competitor does” type approach, or otherwise known as “The tragedy of the Commons”. This is not a sustainable approach and depletes fisheries, as well as causing damage to the environment. In the long term – for the very opposite reasons that I.T.Q.’s are useful mechanisms – this mentality has failed economically significant booms that have been followed by equally significant busts.

The paper by Dewees concluded that the introduction of an I.T.Q system stopped or at least significantly slowed down the race for fish because the Total Allowable Catch (T.A.C.) would be more evenly distributed. It encouraged quota users to better manage their resource by giving them certainty of having a portion of the total amount.

Determining the quotas depends on what the yield of scallops from the fishing area is (Lock and Leslie, 2007). The two yields mentioned are important in calculating the Maximum Sustainable Yield, which determines the maximum yield that can be permitted without compromising the fishery. Without these, it is difficult to calculate, and thus poses a challenge determining how much a fishery may yield.

This may vary from year to year, depending on a range of factors such as human pressure through fishing and pollution as well as interaction between species. The yield determined from knowing this is called the Current Annual Yield and reflects the year by year fluctuations of the stock.

The Maximum Constant Yield is the maximum volume of biomass that can be harvested each year without depleting the stock, and is considered to have an acceptable level of risk. In order for this to work effectively it is set at level low enough to yearly fluctuations in stock and still be less than the volume of stock during periods of low abundance.

Are I.T.Q.’s perfect?

No. But nor is any system. Some of the problems seen in the use of I.T.Q.’s in New Zealand shall be explored in my next article.