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Facing Fishing Facts

Friday 24 June 2005

Facing Fishing Facts

It is tempting indeed to accept oversimplified information - mis-information, an emotive plea or a single supposedly 'telling' image and not over work our brains with the more complex, but accurate facts. When assessed objectively it is clear that bottom trawling is not having the adverse environmental effects or risking resource sustainability as alleged. Indeed the section afforded "absolute protection" in our marine area is, even on a proportional basis, several times greater than that of our landed environment.

New Zealand fisheries waters extend over 4.4 million square kilometres of ocean and contain some of the nations most productive and fertile resources. Over 90% of the New Zealand catch representing 550 fish stocks, now fall under the stewardship of the Quota Management System ("QMS"). In the last annual review only two of those stocks had quota decreases, a further 18 were increased on the basis of improved stock abundance.

With sustainability now bed rocked, environmental attention has shifted from "over fishing" to matters of environmental performance.

Quite rightfully, the QMS is not only about sustainability of fish stocks but also the effects on the marine environment. Fishing is subject to some common sense environmental riders that say quite simply and correctly that we should not extract or utilise fisheries resources in a way which is not sustainable or in a way that causes adverse effects on the aquatic environment. Those principles are not new and they themselves pose no risk to a prosperous fishing/trawling Industry, in fact they support it.

It is an absolute necessity that the life supporting capacity of all fisheries is preserved. Habitat destruction and long term damage to important trawl grounds will only reduce recruitment, productivity and long term yields. Fishers know that.

There can be little doubt that trawling has an 'effect' on the benthic environment. When utilising any resource there will be some effect - "effects" are inevitable with an extractive use, sustainable or otherwise. Every time a fish is removed, a rock is turned or a piece of coral damaged there is a clear effect on that particular section of aquatic life. No doubt.

However the principle of sustainability does not lie on the assumption there will be no effects. It is based on the idea that those effects must not be adverse, that is, they are of such a nature and scale that they won't compromise resources for the future or undermine the sustainability of those resources for generations ahead. Anyone familiar with the Resource Consent process under the RMA will be aware of the distinction and importance between mere 'effects' and 'adverse effects'.

With the current issue the question must be - is bottom trawling having an 'adverse effect' or threatening the sustainability of our marine resources (as opposed to simply having an effect)? There are some key factual considerations.

In perspective, fishers are utilising only a fraction of the marine area to sustainably and repetitively harvest a marine resource. The actual footprint of trawling is negligible. Consider:

* Over 65% of New Zealand fisheries waters cannot be trawled by reason of closure, terrain or depth. The remaining area (less than 35%) is only partly fished and in many respects mostly untouched.

* There is over 102,000 sq km of area closed to trawling in New Zealand specifically to protect seamounts. That area is three times the area of our National Parks or an area equivalent to 90% of the land mass of the North Island.

* Last year the Hoki fishers voluntarily closed a further 90,000 sq km of ocean on both a seasonal and permanent basis to protect spawning and juvenile habitat.

* Of the 1000 seamounts identified by NIWA in New Zealand fewer than 15% have ever been fished. Of those in other parts of the EEZ and within commercially fishable depths, the vast majority have never been fished. Many are incapable of being fished given the jagged (foul) nature.

* Of the approximately 15% of seamounts which are fished, only a portion of each seamount is actually affected due to the fact that bottom trawling typically only occurs on a few narrow corridors on the seamount, where the slope is sufficiently gentle and is not fouled by any rocks or the like. Trawling can only occur on seafloor features with a slope of 20o or less.

* The vast majority of trawl grounds are not of particularly fragile or delicate bottom, they are generally muddy or sandy.

* With advances in technology bottom trawling is becoming a much more discriminate and selective fishing activity with fishermen targeting specific patches of high concentrations and productivity as opposed to less discriminate practices of the past. It is also repetitive. The areas fished have been extensively fished for over 50 years, in some cases 100 years. Nets are placed within a few metres of earlier trawls. The areas under harvest are being farmed, year after year in the same area, repetitively and productively. The perception that trawlers continue each day to "clear fell" large areas of new ground is simply untrue. Highly productive fishing and trawl grounds are fished year after year on the same grounds with sustainable and consistent catches. These areas have been consistently fished and repeatedly modified and despite that fish have returned to that habitat year after year. These repeatedly trawled fishing grounds continue to produce and yield sustainable fish catches.

With many thousands of seamounts, underwater features and square kilometres of seafloor remaining untouched one must seriously question whether the cumulative effects that fishing has are threatening the sustainability of fisheries or marine resources as Greenpeace claims. Common sense would indicate not.

Whilst the practice is sustainable the Seafood Industry has an obligation to seek "best practice". Regardless of whether there is an adverse effect or not there is always, as with the land based Resource Management Act, an overriding responsibility to avoid, remedy and mitigate any undesirable effect. Trawling coral is not in anybody's interest. Steps are being taken to improve the performance of trawling gear, trial new technology, improve selectivity, and review rotational or permanent area closures for fragile grounds. Those measures will continue to discharge that responsibility and further protect our fisheries and marine resources.

We do not support a moratorium. A moratorium on bottom trawling on the high seas has nothing to do with sustainable utilisation of marine resources and everything to do with locking up marine resources because of the preservation sympathies of a few environmental idealists. To exclude fishing in an area and afford the area sanctuary status is to preserve that resource not to utilise or sustain it.

While catch cries, slogans and eco-vandalism may grab headlines and spotlight an issue they do nothing for improved resource management. Only facts and informed assessment will do that.


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