Improving New Zealand’s Fish Stocks

If you’re interested in the state of New Zealand’s fish stocks, you’ll find an enourmous volume of publications from government and ministry of fisheries claiming that they are on the rise, improving in quantity and quality. NZ fish and commercial fishing methods applied are up with the world’s best.

Well, I’ve lived 13 years in New Zealand and one thing every immigrant learns quickly is that New Zealand is world class in EVERYTHING. Full stop. I believe we also make some of the best mozzarella cheese worldwide.

Bullshit Baffles Brains – Repetition Equals Proof – Pride Conquers Knowledge

Some years ago, I startled the then Minister of Fisheries by asking, after he finished his lengthy lecture about the shape of NZ fish stocks,
what he meant by sustainable fishing. Ecological or economical sustainability? Simple and necessary question when it comes to the hype-term “sustainability”, but obviously he was never asked that before. A smarter person would have replied immediately that ecological sustainability is the highest priority, the Minister continued, however, with a: “We work hard to achieve both.” Season the bullshit buddy.

In recent years, private organizations (such as LegaSea) have been challenging the government’s biased claims and ask for evidence-based research rather than colourful power-point slides. People are catching less and less fish, and want the government to also acknowledge the economical power of recreational fishing for New Zealand. More and more restrictions are put on recreational anglers, while commercial fishing continues to employ methods that are forbidden in other parts of the world due to the devastating effect they have on the sea beds and fish stocks.

Ecological Sustainability or Control?

I provide an example of the recreational fishing regulations that are in place for the area I live in for one fish species. I may take up to 7 snapper per day by line and hook, each of them must be at least 30 cm in size. I can do this all year round on any day (a few years ago 9 snapper per day and minimum size was 27 cm).

While I agree with a daily bag limit for each and combined fish species, I argue that the size limit idea is without question the least effective way to keep fish stocks healthy. I understand that it is easy to enforce size limitations. A fisheries officer can stop me, count my snapper and measure them. There are regulations in place limiting my freedom to fillet or cut the head of a snapper off whilst on/at sea.

If I have intentionally and/or repeatedly disobeyed these laws, the government will fine me and can forfeit everything I used to go fishing (for instance, boat, trailer, car, rod, reel, tackle, diving gear etc.) to the crown. It doesn’t matter if the things I used are my property or not.

At this time of the year, there are vast amounts of small snapper inshore. This is by the way not a sign of healthy snapper fisheries! Three days ago, two friends and myself were rockfishing for kingfish, snapper and what ever else showed up. After catching and releasing 30 undersized snapper, I stopped fishing altogether. The two other anglers released about 50 undersized snapper.

I was gutted. Some of these snapper were 10 cm long and smaller. How many of these fish will survive? In 10 years of fishing, I have only caught one fish that had a rusty hook inside the mouth and only a few times fish, that clearly had been caught by a hook before. I claim that too many fish will not survive even if they are sensibly released. The smaller the fish, the smaller the likelihood of survival after release.

During this fishing session, a school of kingfish showed up. To the experienced eye, half of them were undersized, and there is no way to only target the larger fish in a school. We were fishing off the rocks. My mate cast a popper and a kingi jumped over another and took it. There was a bit of commotion, standing on rocks, a strong fish pulling, your target fish, everyone is on edge. When the fish was tired out, and I had a better look at it, I called immediately that I won’t gaff it, it is too small.

According to the fisheries laws I must measure any fish taken to assure compliance. The size limit for kingfish is a minimum of 75 cm. Again, there is no way I can measure a fish in water. The fish must be taken on land to be measured when rockfishing. I couldn’t net this fish either, and it was the anglers first kingfish hookup. Both travelled from the UK to target kingfish off the rocks. What would you do in such a situation?

I grabbed the leader and pulled the fish up, repeating that it is too small. To measure it, we’d have to put it on the rocks (hot at that time of the day, not a single rock-pool around). In other words, there is just no way to measure a fish like that without hurting it significantly. The angler wanted a picture with the fish. We replied: “No way buddy, we’ve got to release this fish quickly, this fish will die if you hug it with your dry clothes for a photo.”

Whilst holding the leader, which was already cutting into my flesh, I asked the angler to unhook the fish carefully and release it immediately. “It is going to be a good feeling, don’t muck around, release it now.” Well, the angler unhooked it and started walking to the edge but lost control of the fish. It dropped 3 meters onto a flat rock.

The law requires us to release any undersized fish, even if it is going to die or is already dead. The rationale being that you cannot argue with the fishery’s officer about undersized fish at all. If you have undersized fish, you have broken the law. There are no “buts”. You must put them back. Even if the only decent fish you caught after a 2 hour hike and 5 hour fishing session is a 70 cm kingfish that will not survive a release. However, we are told that size limits are in place to keep fish stocks sustainable. How is releasing a dead fish going to be sustainable for that fish species?

Ben Island’s Solution to Better Fish Stocks

Size limits have more to do with controlling and fining people than with ecological sustainability. The rationale of having to put back even dead, undersized fish is based on law enforcement, distrust in the people and has little or nothing to do with ecological sustainability. Look, you can gut-hook a 74 cm kingfish. It will still give you a battle and by the time you landed the fish and realised it is gut-hooked, you’ve ripped a gap into its stomach and caused other internal, permanent damage. This fish will die, but you cannot take this fish, that you caught, and eat it.

Get rid of size limits. Simple.

In my area, I’m allowed three kingfish per day (75 cm and more) and 7 snapper per day (30 cm and more). How about fresh thinking? I’m allowed the first three kingfish I catch and the first 7 snapper. Full stop. Fuck the control, most people would do the right thing. Sure you’ll get home on average with smaller fish, but you’d be guaranteed a feed (always) and you also know that the big, breeding fish are still out there. You might still get lucky and catch that trophy fish, you might have enough for dinner even without catching your daily limit and most importantly, you’re not constantly hurting and taking fish out of their environment, and continue to hurt them before you release them. How many undersized snapper were caught and released on that day in Tryphena? Judging by all the boats that came too close to us and then drift-fished for 5 nautical miles, before starting over, WAY TOO MANY!

You Might Disagree

Many will probably disagree with me, and that is fine. If we can, however, put aside cultural thinking (this is how it always was, I’m just a person fishing, the commercial fishing sector has to get its act right, not me) and prioritise what is important to you and me and for everyone else to come, we might agree that every stakeholder of NZ Fish Stocks can do more to improve fish stocks. Even people who don’t fish at all. We might be able to sit down and come up with regulations that benefit all, especially the fish.

Allow me to finish with a statement you probably have not heard before. Due to politics, one-size-fits-all approaches and the goal of constant economical growth, New Zealand is world-leading in animal cruelty.

I believe that New Zealand and New Zealanders stood out, due to geographical isolation, low population density, and the great things that were achieved in all areas, be it sports or chemistry, were a result of different thinking. Of finding solutions that work for this small country and are tailored for this country, culture and its residents. By adopting methods and approaches of countries and economies that are different, we continue to lose identity and blind ourselves with pride and short-lived economic gain that is not spread evenly anyway.

2 thoughts on “Improving New Zealand’s Fish Stocks”

  1. Nice one Ben, got me thinking…
    The system is certainly profit driven, not eco driven. Why should Asian/European countries PIG OUT on our fish when kiwis in some places now struggle to find a feed…

    1. We can’t expect to be a country to look up to, if we simply adapt the capitalist systems that have never worked for the masses. I agree Ronan, all natural NZ resources should FIRST be offered to people living here at a fair price. The remainder, if any, can then be exported for bigger profit.

      I can’t prove this, but it wouldn’t take much to show that this option would be more profitable for NZ and the people living here. The profit maximization goes into very few hands and the average person sees nothing of it. Cheers, Ben

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