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Recreational Fishermen Endangered Species

Recreational Fishermen Endangered Species

Friday 17 Jan 2003 Gerry Eckhoff Press Releases -- Rural

The sea is fast having its treasures plundered.

New Zealanders' ability to gather coastal seafood goes back to the days of the country's earliest habitation, yet greed and ignorance are putting that opportunity at risk.

Large areas of our coastline are being stripped bare of shellfish, with our coastal waters offering little more than a token of days gone by. New Zealand's attitude to this free resource has changed little over the past few hundred years.

Excavation of ancient Maori middens shows large shells at the bottom, and very small ones at the top, indicating that Maori virtually cleaned out the resource before moving on to another site. The only changes - and they are dramatic - have, of course, been New Zealand's population and technology.

The early days of European settlement saw a "sustainable take", as much of the shellfish could not be gathered from outlying rocks. Traditional methods of extraction relied on relatively calm water and a good set of lungs. Today's sophisticated diving gear ensures nothing is out of reach, and the balance that nature once provided has gone.

Recreational fishing methods are so dramatically changed, from even 20 years ago, that it is little wonder that aquatic life numbers have plunged wherever fishermen are common.

Fish finders, aqua-lungs, spear guns and a dramatic increase in the affordability of pleasure craft have all combined to place intolerable pressure on seafood stocks. The balance has been lost. Add into the equation the reality that some cultures have no understanding of the ethos `take only what you need', and the unfolding disaster in our coastal waters was inevitable under our current structures.

While there is much hand wringing over this problem, few are actually prepared to identify the underlying cause of this destruction: public ownership. Our coastal waters suffer from the classical "Tragedy of the Commons", expounded by biologist/ecologist Garrett Hardin in 1968 - the concept can be traced back as far as Aristotle.

It must be remembered that land was once a "public resource" in public ownership. If all land in New Zealand were subject to the same management as our coastal waters today, the very same overuse would apply - not to mention the bickering between those who believe they have a `prior right'. In order to resolve this situation, property rights were accepted by society as the only sensible method of allocation. New Zealand's wealth is a direct result of such sensible distribution and trade.

Why, then, does New Zealand society still insist on perpetuating a system that patently ensures the loss of aquatic resources? Some, of course, insist that banning all take of seafood from designated areas (marine reserves) will ensure continuity of supply. While such areas do provide a base for breeding areas, many fish species never move more than a few metres from their habitat or reserve.

New Zealand already has large exclusion zones, where cables are laid and preclude all trawling. These areas can be over 100 square miles, yet still the inshore fishing resource cannot cope with the demands being placed upon it by the public. Fishing pressure precludes the ability for aquatic life to reach maturity. A paua, for example, takes around six years to grow to maturity. Fish have a chance to mature, but only if modern fishing technology is banned as a means of ensuring all fish stocks actually increase. This approach, given the large investment by the public in boats and technology, is hardly likely. Poaching would increase dramatically.

The answer lies with prescribing property rights to coastal waters. Property rights promote and reward responsible management. Marine farming has already established this, with the salmon and mussel industries set to provide billions of dollars for our economy. The real problem is with the allocation of property rights to the recreational fisherman.

It should be possible to allocate traditional recreational areas to clubs. Only members of the fishing clubs who hold the licence, and operate under club rules would be permitted to participate in that area. This would be no different from the way golf clubs or Fish & Game members operate. All accept that resources are limited, and all contribute to sustaining their favourite recreational pursuit. The days of hanging the sign `gone fishing' - without being prepared to contribute to the management of these areas - are well and truly numbered.

Local communities must also take responsibility for the policing of "their" shoreline if shellfish stocks are to remain. It is no longer acceptable to allow for the occasional visit by two fisheries inspectors as a means of sustaining fast disappearing shellfish stocks.

The answer lies with local people taking responsibility for their resources. Failure to do so is to rely on bureaucratic controls, which have obviously failed to date. Why should they succeed into the future?

The concept of local ownership, but with overall crown control, is not new. The Romans applied this principal (usufruct) with obvious success. The `secret', of course, is based on the benefits of local resources, staying in the area with local people and investment occurring on a regular basis.

The continuance of our current system will result in our inshore waters being progressively over fished. The use of output quotas in commercial fisheries ensures fish numbers will remain, but at a smaller size. Meanwhile, increasing recreational pressure depletes numbers wherever it happens. The demand for more control and more regulation will increase, which is somewhat foreign to the recreational fisherman's ethos.

Unless New Zealand is prepared to be courageous and change the way we conduct the business of inshore fisheries management, the opportunity for recreational fishermen to "bring home the big one" will become little more than a fond and distant memory.


For more information visit ACT online at http://www.act.org.nz or contact the ACT Parliamentary Office at act@parliament.govt.nz.

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