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Ministry Stretches Law to Shrink Fish Stocks

Fisheries Ministry Stretches Law to Shrink Fish Stocks,

Courts International Condemnation over Orange Roughy Losses.

The Ministry of Fisheries is continuing to play fast and loose with the law, national and international, and is trying to obfuscate its way out of what is all too plainly a dereliction of its duty to maintain fish stocks, says Cath Wallace, Senior Lecturer in Economics and Public Policy, a specialist in fisheries management and chair of the Environment and Conservation Organisations.

"The Fisheries Act 1996 is clear that the "The Minister shall set a total allowable catch that maintains the [fish stock] at or above a level that can produce the maximum sustainable yield" (Section 13(2)a) or that if the stock is below that level, the stock is restored to at or above this level (Section 13(2)b). Section 5 of the Fisheries Act imposes a duty to comply with our international obligations.

The Ministry and the entire official stock assessment process has established that for orange roughy that level is 30% of the unfished biomass. It is sophistry for the Ministry to say that this is a target not a limit.

The term "shall" does not leave the Ministry or the Minister the discretion to allow orange roughy fish stocks to decline to the levels that the Ministry has for years allowed the stocks to decline, despite the clear warnings of the stock assessment scientists over the years. The Fisheries Act 1996 also contains environmental principles that the Ministry for years simply dismissed as "the religious bits".

Fisheries management and science will never be exact, and there may sometimes be some overshoot - but this is quite different from allowing largely unchecked environmental damage and the fish stocks to decline year after year, not only below 30% of the unfished stocks, but below 20% which carries an acknowledged level of risk of stock collapse, and still further, to much lower levels.

The Ministry uses a lot of environmental rhetoric and it takes refuge in the one or two out of 11 orange roughy stocks that are in reasonable shape (north East Chathams at 34-44%; NW Chathams at 21-44% of unfished fish stocks) according to officially accepted 2003 stock assessment figures.

The Ministry fails to note the other stocks at, in 2003, 11% (the East Coast North Island); 12% (West Coast South Island); and the two that were allowed to be fished right down to 3% (the Challenger Fishery); 7% ( the Puysegur stock) before these were closed. The South Rise stock is at 24%, the East Cape at 25% the Mercury-Colville Box is at 10-15%. The stock status is unknown in the other two stocks.

There are some adjustments for 2004, but the story is essentially unchanged: fishing continues to be allowed on fish stocks clearly in trouble. That fishing is done by bottom trawling and is immensely destructive. It is like squashing an ancient forest to catch the birds, except that deep on the seafloor what is crushed are delicate and centuries old gorgonian corals and other communities of animals.

The overfishing and environmental damage is fundamentally a dereliction of the Ministry's duty both in domestic and international law.

This week New Zealand has come under critical UN scrutiny for its international trawling activities(1). New Zealand has international obligations to "protect and preserve the marine environment" (UN Convention on Law of the Sea Article192) both in the High Seas and within our Exclusive Economic Zone and Territorial Sea. The Ministry has environmental responsibilities it makes little attempt to discharge.

It is not economically efficient to destroy natural capital at this rate, and it is not legal either. The Ministry simply knows that environmental organisations lack the money to take it to court so it allows the fishing industry to push it into letting them have more and more fish, despite the requirements of the law.

The amazing thing is that the government has allowed the Ministry to behave in this way. It is time the public knew about the destruction of the fish stocks and the seabed communities - then there could be a discussion of fisheries management and guardianship of the environment.

The seabed and foreshore debate focussed on who owns what. The real debate is what are our collective responsibilities, how much damage should we allow to be done to the seabed, and how much fish should we leave to the future. We think most people will believe that the rapidity of the last 20 years of loss of fish stocks and extent of destruction of the seabed is too much, once they know the facts.

(1) at the United Nations Informal Consultation on Law of the Sea (UNICPLOS) meeting in New York, 7-11 June 2004. New Zealand officials came under intense pressure for the damage being wrought by New Zealand trawlers in the High Seas.

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