Foreword from the PMCSA

Kia ora koutou,

This report, The future of commercial fishing in Aotearoa New Zealand, was prepared at the request of the Prime Minister in late 2019 and has had a difficult gestation, having been rudely interrupted by a pandemic response which called on the time and energy of the team here in the Office, and the many participants on whom we relied for expertise and input. It has also had a difficult birth, as we strived to digest a deluge of feedback and listen to wildly different opinions on our early drafts. As such, it is worth emphasising at the outset that the views in this foreword are personal.

Beyond the foreword, the recommendations we present are those of the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor (OPMCSA). These have drawn heavily on the expertise of our panel and the large number of contributors and peer reviewers, but few would endorse the report in its entirety. As well as being available in this long narrative form, the report forms the basis of a web resource, which will be easier to browse, and our short report gives a more digestible summary of our findings. But first, some reflections on our foray into commercial fishing:

Juliet smiling wearing a rainjacket in the rain in front of the ocean

Scope of our report – science advice on commercial fisheries

The stakeholders we talked to during this project all shared a remarkable passion for the ocean. We thank them for their enthusiasm to share this passion with us. Many had deeply held views and it was a significant challenge to stay within our scope without straying into fraught relationships and decades-old feuds.

To be clear, the scope of this report is to provide science advice to the Prime Minister on commercial fisheries (excluding aquaculture), which sounds simple. It is not. Some stakeholders were placed offside from the start simply by the scope and the framing – an indication of the poor relationships and lack of trust that characterise this sector. So at the outset, it is worth acknowledging that science advice on commercial fisheries won’t solve all the many problems faced by an increasingly challenged marine environment, globally and locally.

The scope of this report is to provide science advice to the Prime Minister on commercial fisheries (excluding aquaculture), which sounds simple.

It is not.”

Solving these problems will need people to work together on a system change, as partners not adversaries. Such a system change needs to address not just commercial fishing, but recreational fishing too. It needs to address not just fishing, but the many other environmental stressors on the marine environment – climate change, land-based impacts such as sedimentation, and pollution. To acknowledge these sector challenges, we have tried to place our recommendations within a broader context. We stray beyond our scope in the first three themes of our recommendations, in our general call for overarching leadership in the ocean realm. That said, the specific recommendations in this report are within the scope of commercial fisheries and, if implemented, will make a difference.

Irrespective of individual – sometimes widely divergent – views of how environmentally sustainable commercial fisheries are in 2020, nearly every stakeholder we talked to agreed we could do better in at least some areas. There are many differences that can be made in the short term to help the pendulum swing towards a greater emphasis on the environment in which we fish, and away from emphasising just the fishing itself. There are conversations around innovation in data management, technology, policy, and collaboration that can pilot good practice to catalyse change. This benefits everyone, including commercial fisheries, which have everything to gain from a healthy marine environment.

Context and framing – the QMS is in place, but we can do better for our environment

The context in which our science advice is provided is important. Since our scope was restricted to commercial fisheries, we have placed our recommendations within the framework of the Fisheries Act 1996 which provides the legislation for the Quota Management System (QMS). Those seeking to completely revolutionise the management of fisheries need not read on – a review of the QMS was outside our scope.

Over the course of this work, many stakeholders identified the parts of the Fisheries Act 1996 that are under-used. These can enable protection of special marine habitats and an ecosystem approach to fisheries management (EAFM). The most striking example is perhaps Section 9(c), which enables the protection of habitats of particular significance for fisheries management – but has never been used. These provisions can be used in the short term and enable immediate action. We challenge the Minister and the regulator to strengthen their arm and use these provisions to catalyse change.

Many argue that the protection tool that should be used is a Marine Protected Area (MPA), under the purview of the Minister of Conservation, and some that the Resource Management Act should be more often used to protect the inshore environment and marine life. These conversations often run parallel, creating indecision and hostility.

A shared understanding of our environmental bottom line and collective aspirations for our environment are needed to harmonise these conversations and bring all voices to the table. This was beyond the scope of our work, but we highlight some local examples where a collaborative approach has made progress in setting up a framework for improving environmental outcomes. The single biggest challenge to progress is the lack of trust and shared vision between stakeholders – in stark contrast to our last project (on rethinking plastics), there is little evidence of widespread social and cultural licence for change.

The need for a partnership approach with iwi to respect the Treaty and the Māori Fisheries Settlement was emphasised throughout and needs to be fully understood by scientists seeking change.

“The facts”

There is no accepted single source of truth in the fisheries sector and this report does not claim to be one. Passionate debate arises from (over-)interpretation of uncertain datasets by all sides, which supports conflicting narratives of ‘what the evidence says’. We have tried to highlight where particular points of contention lie in interpreting data and were saddened by the number of incidences of ‘alternate facts’ that we navigated in this project.

The inherent uncertainty in fisheries management is very easily manipulated to support a particular narrative. From an agreed percentage of how many of our stocks have been assessed, to the size of the original non-fished biomass, to a percentage of this biomass that can be sustainably harvested, to whether our trawling footprint is increasing or decreasing – the very basis of our fisheries management is often fiercely contested. Where possible, we have tried to explain the alternate interpretations of uncertain information. In other places we highlight where data, the interpretation of data, or both, are contested.

Data, data, data – it is dark down there, but we must make decisions anyway

We do have a lot of data about the ocean but in many ways, we also know frighteningly little. What we do know is often uncertain, creating error bars in measurements which foster the differences in interpretations that fuel dissent. The data we do have is poorly integrated across different stakeholders. The mountain of electronic and other data collected for compliance purposes could be better mined for environmental, commercial, and social outcomes. New tools can support this if the data is shared. Aggregation of non-sensitive data from industry sources and integration with data from a wider range of scientists from different disciplines and regulators could radically change the amount of information available on which to base decisions, and the decision-making processes must be open to incorporate this data in a transparent way. Deep local knowledge and mātauranga Māori are also under-used and we could listen more to on-the-ground expertise.

In the meantime, lack of data is used by many to excuse lack of action – this must change. Data is expensive to collect and information will never be perfect. Transparency in what we don’t know, our levels of uncertainty, and how we manage this, is as important as sharing what we do know.

Research, science and technology efforts could be better coordinated across the sector

The industry levy funds vital data gathering and research for significant commercial species. It does not pay for basic public good research or research that would be valuable for other fished species. This creates a resourcing shortfall, unreasonable expectations on this funding, a lack of trust and perverse incentives. There are many new high-tech tools and cool new ideas that could change the way we fish, but public good funded research is not always well connected to industry questions or environmental challenges. Fishers understand the issues better than anyone and have many great ideas – we should empower them to innovate and try them out. Many fishers would love to understand the basic biology of commercial species more fully, to inform better fisheries management decisions that take an ecosystem approach – but this research is often not prioritised.

Relationships between researchers looking at different aspects of the marine environment, housed in different institutions, mirror the poor relationships in the sector as a whole. A lot of energy is wasted trying to deconstruct an opposing narrative, which could be better spent coming to a shared understanding.

We need to ensure the regulator is nimble, trusted and well placed for success

This contested environment presents our regulator with formidable challenges. More resource is needed to enable the regulator to keep pace with the ever-changing stocks. Plans are critical for success, but an agreed fisheries management plan is the beginning of a solution, not the end. Despite big strides in the introduction of electronic monitoring and initial cameras on vessels, we found that there is sometimes a lack of confidence that plans will be implemented. Making data and information more accessible will help improving transparency of prioritisation and decision making. This will benefit everyone by allowing more independent scrutiny, which will build trust.

Slow processes and high data requirements can provide unnecessary hurdles to innovators to try new fishing practices. A higher-trust, more permissive environment to trial and optimise new equipment could enable our innovators to flourish and address the many challenges in this environment.

But above all, we need overarching leadership

Although beyond the bounds of science advice, the need for leadership across the many different strands of oceans governance was clear. Science can support the journey, but the governance of the oceans needs to provide a framework in which to do so. We were delighted to see the Oceans and Fisheries Minister and Under-Secretary appointed after the recent election.

This report – fishing today, fishing beyond 2040

Our report begins by clarifying our Terms of Reference and outlines detailed recommendations in seven themes, which represent the conversations in our panel meetings.

We then provide the challenging context in which commercial fishing takes place and lay out the many stressors which the marine environment faces, in addition to those posed by all types of fishing.

To help understand how to make progress in this complex area, we try to capture the complexities of fishing in 2020. This is the most contested section of our report in that impressions of the status quo vary a great deal.

Finally, with the context set, we outline ideas and innovations that could help us fish smarter in the future. There are no silver bullets. Not all the ideas are new, and not all the new ideas will be successful. But we think they offer hope that challenging current thinking about how, where, and when we fish can move the conversation forward to create a future that is better than the past. We end with an aspirational vision of the future to challenge old thinking and encourage new.

Ngā mihi nui

I’d like to give my heartfelt thanks to our hard-working panel for their collegial spirit and painstaking explanations of the complexities of this field to us novices in the OPMCSA. Particular thanks to my co-chair Craig Ellison for his deep knowledge, enthusiasm for science, patient expertise, and for connecting us to the sector.

To the hard-working team in the OPMCSA who did a mountain of work in a gruelling year – thank you. Celia Cunningham led the project ably supported by Rachel Chiaroni-Clarke, Ellen Rykers, George Slim, Susie Meade, Manmeet Kaur and Daksha Mistry-Surti. Thanks all for all the hard yards. Ka pai.

Thanks to the fishing industry for letting us march into your world uninvited and sharing your thinking and expertise, introducing us to your members, and hosting us on vessels, in factories and in boardrooms. The depth of knowledge and ideas to protect your environment in your midst is under appreciated and I hope that we have helped to tell some of your success stories to balance the darker ones.

Thanks to the many researchers, officials, fishers and environmentalists who supported our kaupapa from within our limited Terms of Reference and scope, even though your frustrations with these in terms of addressing the wider problems in the marine environment were palpable. Your input was incredibly valuable, and we hope that you feel heard, especially in the first three themes of our recommendations.

And a final thanks to everyone involved for their energetic engagement. Even for those who were unable to contain the occasional outbursts of anger, hostility and despair, your commitment to our marine environment was clear and has earned my respect.

 He moana pukepuke e ekengia e te waka

Juliet's signature