It all started with birds. Ministry for Primary Industries was presenting at the 66th Conference of the New Zealand Federation of Commercial Fishermen in Tauranga on Thursday, when one of the delegates asked a question about bird strike. “Do we really need to record bird strike (when a bird collides with some part of the fishing vessel),” he asked, “when other marine vessels don’t?” 

The answer was yes, you do need to record every bird strike in the same way you would a capture in a commercial fishing net or on a line.

This then turned into a bigger conversation: what are we supposed to do when birds land on the deck because they are tired? (Which they do.) What if we are helping them off the deck in the morning because they won’t leave? Can you help a bird fly away, or do you just wait and hope? What if we find one that has died after landing on the boat because it wasn’t well? 

These questions from worried fishers might sound pedantic or vaguely farcical, but the very serious point behind them was that there are so many rules that apply to commercial fishing, it feels impossible sometimes to know and understand them all, more so when Fisheries New Zealand officials acknowledge there is a “grey line” with some of the regulations fishers face.

For the record, it seems like right now, you need to record every interaction with seabirds, no matter the circumstances. 

As an aside, imagine the extra paperwork for home owners if they had to file reports about every bird that hit their house after thinking a window was a flight corridor.

But the upside of this regulatory tangle is there is growing recognition that common sense needs to apply. And now, there appears to be an appetite in the regulator to investigate whether some of the less workable rules are actually fair and reasonable. 

As the 150 or so fishers and fishing adjacent people at the Conference heard, progress is being made. Conversations are happening about what is fair, affordable and sustainable. Later in the day, Maritime New Zealand spoke about how they are working to streamline pages and pages of regulations to make them more easily digested and understood. They will be consulting on this work soon; we'll let you know when it's live.

And there was plenty more positive news to focus on, for an industry that has been doing it tough lately. There were updates on gear innovation that ranged from the modest to the out there. NIWA talked about how much gear innovation has already happened with changes in fishing nets (materials, mesh orientation, and the openness and rigidity of the mesh). There could be much, much more dramatic change to come. 

Imagine if you will, a future driven by underwater fish selection made by AI. They showed a concept video (and it is just a concept at this stage) of a system they are calling Deep Vision, where cameras and selection gates in the trawl gear will identify and sort fish, releasing the ones that are the wrong size or species and funneling the rest straight to the deck where they are sorted into tanks by size and species.
If this seems like science fiction, remember its not that long ago that we thought New Zealand would never have a space programme, yet the Feds Conference also heard a presentation from Rocket Lab about how they are working to keep fishers out of harms way when they are launching rockets from the Mahia Peninsula, particularly if their launches don’t go to plan and debris ends up scattered over the ocean. 

No one wants to be hit on the head by a rocket. No one wants their vessel to be hit by a bird (or a bird to be caught in their fishing gear). The point of the 66th Federation Conference was that good things are being done; change is happening. We should keep our heads up and stay positive and, as the President of the Federation of Commercial Fishermen, Doug Saunders-Loader says, “The key is doing the absolute best we can.” Including, presumably, for the birds that want to have a nap on our vessels.