Guest post – I am a fisherman, I am conservationist and I’m not a criminal


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I am proud to be a commercial fisherman.  The fish I have caught has contributed to the NZ economy and kept thousands of Kiwis whether ashore or at sea in employment, a roof over their heads, food on their tables and money to achieve their dreams.

And I’ve had a guts full of being slandered, called a criminal and my integrity questioned by NGOs, environmental groups and other such organisations with political axes to grind and the ever growing need for funding from Mrs Smith donating $5 a week from her housekeeping she can ill afford.

I know my peers throughout the industry feel the same way.  It used to upset me when my children came home from school refusing to eat their fish and chips because teacher said I kill Maui dolphins.  They’re old enough now to see both sides and form their own opinions.

I have never, ever deliberately discarded or dumped fish.  I have lost bags of fish over those 40 odd years through gear failure and because Old Huey, Manawydan Mac Lir, doth smote me mightily but those instances I can count on the fingers of my hands…with a few digits left over.  These accidental losses were recorded.

The deep water trawlers I am currently involved with are the largest on the NZ coast, which depending on the species, have a capacity of around 80-100 tonnes of DRE (dressed) or HGU (headed/gutted) frozen product over a 24 hour period.  If I’m fishing for southern blue whiting for example, 100 tonnes of frozen product equates to 165 tonne of whole fish before processing.

Since the introduction of the QMS, Glenn Simmons claims I have dumped or discarded 2.1 times or 210% more than I actually recorded as having caught.  He would have you believe I am actually catching 511.5 tonnes and discarding 346.5 tonnes back into the sea every 24hrs, day in and day out.

Doesn’t the absurdity of those figures ring alarm bells?  If not they should because I simply cannot catch that much fish; my ship, her fishing gear nor the fish stocks allows me to.  It’s just not possible.  

The official, audited, scientifically robust data from MPI, NIWA and the Observer Programme puts the overall discards from the deep water fishery at 6.6% and this figure includes legal and reported discards!

Audited, scientifically robust data?  Yes it is.  It comes from the Trawl Catch Effort log books filled out by, well, the likes of me.  It is corroborated by data collected and observation made by MPI observers, block and carton weights carried out by MPI Fishery Officers and a host of other checks and balances sea and shore based; in fact the fishing industry is the most highly regulated industry in the country.

I am bemused by the figure of 2.1 that Glenn uses.  He hasn’t said “roughly 2 times” or “approximately 200%” but a definitive 2.1.  It is a precise figure, one which he obviously believes is robust enough to make these statements so why won’t he allow other parties access to this data?  Something smells rotten in the state of Denmark.

What I find it disturbing is Glenn Simmons deliberately ignores data from NIWA and MPI instead appears to use data extrapolated from anecdotal evidence from what appear to be disaffected aggrieved crew on foreign charter vessels.  I don’t care what field you work in, that is unprofessional and in my humble opinion brings into question the credibility of his findings and casting the net further, and no pun intended, by association the credibility of the institution he’s employed by.

I don’t want to rain on Mr Simmons parade but despite our fish stocks being rather healthy we are a very small player in the global sense.  We simply do not have the catching capacity in our inshore and deep water fleets to sustain or reach the level of discards he claims.  Had this discarding been happening to the extent he claims, our fisheries would have collapsed decades ago.  They haven’t and are in fact rebuilding despite Glenn’s allegations.

One MPI paper states that observer coverage for the total fishing effort is between 20-25% however in the deep water fishery, observer coverage is considerably higher between 60-100%.  I have worked with MPI observers for decades.  Their role over the years has expanded from one of fish, feathers and fur to health and safety, Maritime NZ compliance and a whole heap more and it can be a wet, cold and thankless job at times.  For Mr Simmonds to question their integrity by suggesting that they are ignoring, turning a blind eye and failing to record the dumping / discards of millions of tonnes he says is going on is simply wrong and insulting.

I am not saying I haven’t discarded fish.  I have; I’m allowed to.  In fact in most cases where I have discarded fish I was bound by NZ legislation to do so.  Where there is a minimum size limit I must ‘discard back to the sea’ those fish under that limit irrespective if they’re alive or dead.  Some species that are alive and likely to survive may be returned to the sea but must be recorded.  Protected species, i.e. sharks, must be discarded dead or alive.  If I haul a bag and it is contaminated which has happened from time to time with a 44 gallon drum of oozing sludge, broken glass or other contaminants that pose a food risk to consumers, I can discard the fish but for every discard I must have observer permission to do so and it is recorded by them and by me.

If Mr Simmons is happy to use interviews and anecdotal information to support his claim then I can too.  I ride around the country on my motorcycle talking to fisherman and writing articles for local and overseas magazines.  I’ve spoken with a lot of inshore fishermen over the past decades, most of whom state unequivocally that the inshore fishery is ‘coming back’; this rebuilding occurring despite the alleged unreported dumping.  Fishermen tell me they are finding it harder and harder not to catch fish, particularly those species they don’t want.  This is a good thing right?  Wrong!  Well, yes and no.

While it does have its idiosyncrasies, the QMS is a great tool for managing our fisheries and despite what the critics say and it pointless trying to convince them otherwise when their heads are buried in the sand, probably the best management tool in the world.  However it needs to be more responsive to yearly and seasonal fish stock fluctuations.  In years where a species is predominant the TAC can be raised, where another species is down, the TAC reduced but to be able to do this the science has to be up to date and able to respond quickly to these seasonal variations.  Currently it doesn’t and I can’t recall when the last comprehensive inshore surveys were done and TACCs adjusted to best reflect the current state of the fishery.

Which leads on to the elephant in the room; Deemed Values.  DVs were initially created to provide an incentive to land fish you could not cover with quota.  The objective was that the fisherman did not make a profit.  In other words, no-one lost money by doing the right thing; by reporting what you caught and landing it.

However, things turned to custard when Jim Anderton, the Minister of Fisheries at the time introduced a DV system that saw levies increase exponentially to a point where a fisherman trying to do the right thing could be severely fined, oops I meant levied, up to 600% more than what he could sell the fish for!

Rather than provide an incentive for good behaviour, this draconian and utterly punitive regime has achieved the opposite while adding considerably to the Crown’s coffers.  I would argue the Crown has deliberately kept TACCs simply as a money making exercise.

It has also pushed the ACE price for quota through the roof beyond the point most fishermen and companies can’t afford.  Given the choice of going broke or going to jail, DV’s have forced many smaller operators from the industry which has had a very negative effect on their local communities.

I am a fisherman, I am conservationist and I’m not a criminal.

Chris Carey

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As much at home writing editorials as being the subject of them, Cam has won awards, including the Canon Media Award for his work on the Len Brown/Bevan Chuang story. When he’s not creating the news, he tends to be in it, with protagonists using the courts, media and social media to deliver financial as well as death threats.

They say that news is something that someone, somewhere, wants kept quiet. Cam Slater doesn’t do quiet and, as a result, he is a polarising, controversial but highly effective journalist who takes no prisoners.

He is fearless in his pursuit of a story.

Love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore him.

To read Cam’s previous articles click on his name in blue.