New Zealand – a Model for a Sustainable Fishing Industry?

Posted on July 1, 2010 by


The people of New Zealand have exclusive control over the fourth largest fishing ground in the world -4.4 million square kilometres or roughly one square kilometre per person in New Zealand. Much of this area is rich in marine life, with 16,000 species, 130 of which are fished commercially, providing export revenues of NZ$1.3 billion in 2007. New Zealand is also often praised for its world leading implementation of a ‘quota management system’ (QMS), a tool for maintaining a healthy and sustainable fishing industry. The QMS is a system of tradable fishing quotas which provide the right to an annual catch of a certain species. Quotas are set by the Ministry of Fisheries and are based on the principle of the maximum sustainable yield (MSY), the maximum quantity of fish that can be indefinitely extracted. This market based tool is cleaver in the way that owners of the quota have an economic interest in maintaining a healthy fish stock, and are therefore less likely to lobby for highly unsustainable quota levels, because they own the quota and the value of that quota will plummet if the fish stock collapses. This, along with the fact that there are very few international boundary disputes (as in the EU for example), provide New Zealand with a unique ability to pursue a sustainable fishing industry. These measures have allowed for steadily increasing quota holding values as well as an increasing value of export revenues, due at least in part to New Zealand’s reputation for sustainable fishing practices; and all this has been achieved with a smaller fishing fleet, fishing more productively and efficiently.

It sounds pretty good right? Well it is, but it is only a step in the right direction and there is still a lot further to go. Here are of some of the criticisms. Firstly, quotas are still often based on little more than guesswork. There are few detailed studies regarding the natural biomass (stock) of many commercial species, which leaves industries open to the risk of accidental collapse. A prime example occurred with the Orange Roughy, a deep sea species that was discovered and fished in large quantities, and only after a major collapse was it discovered that it is a very long-lived fish (100 years) that takes some 25 years to reach sexual maturity. Some of these fishing grounds have now been closed indefinitely with only a fraction of their original quantities remaining, and no guarantee that the stock will ever recover to its original size. The science and research often lags the industry.

More important than the quota levels are the methods used for fishing, which include drift nets, long-lines, and bottom trawling. They are damaging for a variety of reasons. Huge drift nets (which are banned in several other countries including the EU) are used. They are not target specific, but rather catch a wide variety of non-commercial species, perhaps the most worrying of which is the endangered and endemic Hector’s dolphin. Although it is not illegal to accidentally catch these mammals, they must be reported to the Ministry, yet is seems a strange coincidence that all reported cases were made from the small percentage of boats with independent observers on board. Many other dolphin carcasses have been found mutilated, probably to hide evidence and avoid the risk of public pressure to ban this method of fishing. Surface long-lining is also used to catch species such as tuna. The many kilometres of line is bated, but many of these remain free when being hauled in, which provides a tempting morsel for the threatened albatrosses and other sea birds in the south of New Zealand waters. Many albatrosses are caught in this way and usually die in the process. Sharks are another unintended bycatch on long-lines – in fact more sharks are caught by the tuna industry than tuna itself. Shark populations are in decline globally and 28 of the 112 species found in New Zealand waters are listed as threatened by the IUCN. But the saddest part of it all is that shark fins are the only part deemed worthy enough to keep, so the fins are cut from the sharks (sometimes while the shark is still alive) before the shark is discarded and the valuable fins are exported to China to make shark-fin soup. Shark-fining is also illegal in many countries but still permitted in New Zealand. Finally, bottom-trawling, which also suffers from excessive non-target catches, damages the sea floor as the nets are dragged along the bottom. This harms the wildlife on the sea floor by stirring up mud which settles over plants, corral and other food sources that fish further down the food chain rely on. Removing this food source can therefore have follow-on effects right up the food chain.

While New Zealand’s QMS is often held in high regard, when Forest and Bird analysed 75 commercial fisheries in New Zealand (2007) they found that 26 were overfished, 51 caused habitat destruction, 42 killed significant numbers of seabirds, 45 killed significant numbers of mammals, 64 caught too many non-target fish, 58 had adverse ecological effects and 44 had never had a quantitative stock assessment.

The system is full of inefficiency which continues to damage the industry but the costs of which are externalised. If a holder of a quota for one species catches a certain amount of another edible species but doesn’t hold a quota for this species, the fish will be discarded dead back into the ocean. Bottom trawling and dredging, through damaging the wider ecosystem produce costs to the industry and the environment. Edible shark meat is discarded because it is not economically viable to bring ashore, and shark-fining is likely to continue to damage our international reputation, therefore denting the added revenue we can attain from environmentally conscious consumers. Lastly, highly endangered native species such as dolphins and albatrosses continue to suffer from unsafe methods of fishing. There are safer methods that will reduce bycatch of non-target species, it is only a matter for the Ministry of Fisheries to have the courage to further restrict or ban outdated methods. While the QMS may be a step in the right direction, it alone does not ensure that New Zealand’s fisheries are anywhere near sustainable.