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Auckland University catch reconstruction – is it science?

Wednesday 12 October 2016

The New Zealand reconstruction was part of a worldwide initiative to estimate the total extractions from the world’s seas by the Sea Around Us, a marine research institute based at the University of Columbia, Canada.

While the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has collected international catch statistics since 1950, that reporting is based only on commercial landings. The Sea Around Us project sought to estimate total extractions, landed and caught, commercial and recreational, through a series of country-based estimates.

The Sea Around Us reconstructions used official statistics where they existed and, where necessary, estimated other catches and landings. Where data was missing, the reports generally used country or international research to supplement the information.

The New Zealand Re-construction

The re-construction estimated that New Zealand’s catches for the 1950-2010 period were 2.7 times (a total of 38.1m tonnes) the amount reported to FAO (14.0m tonnes). To put this in context, of the 247 catch reconstructions, New Zealand’s reporting integrity ranked fifth to last, with only Haiti, Guinea-Bissau, French Guiana and Cambodia behind it and with nations such as Zaire, Somalia, Ghana, ranking ahead of it.

For a nation which prides itself on the sustainable management of its fisheries and was ranked fourth best on the Corruption Perceptions Index produced by Transparency International, how did such a result arise?

Some of the answers lie in what is and what is not reported in the FAO statistics and some of the answers lie in the reliability of the Simmons estimates.

FAO Reporting

FAO requires the reporting only of those catch statistics where the information is robust. Commercial sector landings have been reported by fishers in part or in full for the 1950- 2010 period and were reported to FAO.

For much of the review period, New Zealand only reported landings by vessels operating under New Zealand registration. Landings in New Zealand waters from vessels from other flag states were reported by those flag states. Catches by the recreational sector and non-landed catches are not robustly reported to New Zealand and are not reported to FAO.

The FAO reported catch for New Zealand was only part of the total catch in New Zealand waters. The Sea Around Us datafiles indicate New Zealand reported 9.1m tonnes of commercial catch and other flag states reported catches of 5.9m tonnes.

Other Landings and Catches

The following figures are derived from the Simmons report and the Sea Around Us datafiles but there are inconsistencies between the two information sources. The report indicates a reported catch of 14 million tonnes, unreported catch of 9.2 million tonnes and an unreported discard catch of 14.3 million tonnes. The estimated invisible landings and unreported commercial catch together exceed the reported catch. But how robust are the figures for invisible landings and discarded catch?

The report does not provide a robust detailed description of the methodology that was used to inform those estimates. Unlike other country analyses which use available scientific information or international studies and rather than using scientific estimates such as the NIWA estimates of nonlanded catch from the deepwater and midwater trawl sectors, it appears the Simmons methodology relies heavily on a “critical reality” approach based on 308 interviews with a range of “expert” stakeholders including academics, fishing company executives, vessel officers and crew, former Government officials, former industry representatives and scientists and confirmed by other supporting material where possible.

The technique is a valid social science methodology commonly utilised where objective statistics do not exist. The approach depends on the representativeness and knowledge of the interviewees and the depth of material supporting the results.

A figure of 308 interviews sounds impressive but the expert factor becomes less robust when over 200 of the interviews were with Foreign Charter Vessel (FCV) crew members, less than 50 were actual fishers and few if any experts are currently employed in the seafood sector.

Rather than prove the representativeness and experience of the interviewees, the report paints a fanciful multi-hued picture of the New Zealand fisheries - littered with excerpts from the interviews including references to fishermen’s cats eating unreported catch, fish traded for sex, dumping when the Government’s observer’s attention was diverted and so on – all entertaining hearsay but hardly the stuff to support the estimates in his report.

The report contains lengthy passages on a wonderfully wide range of topics such as conversion factor fraud, on-board consumption, black market landings, damaged fish, oversized fish, undersized fish, lack of hold space and quota restrictions – all designed to demonstrate the knowledge of the authors but sadly lacking a factual basis that might result in robust estimates of unreported catch.

The report also includes findings from a small number of Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) compliance investigations into specific issues. There is a great deal of verbiage but very little fact. The Simmons estimates of New Zealand catch have then been attributed to fishing nations, fishing sectors and species.

Recently Sea Around Us provided an updated attribution.

Those attributions have included:

– Changes to the level of catch for species, years and nations previously reported to FAO;

– An annual average of 110 tonnes of orange roughy catch attributed to the recreational sector since 1950;

– An annual average discard of 20,00 tonnes of commercial orange roughy catch since 1950 compared with an annual reported catch of 10,000 tonnes;

– Changes to the levels of reported catches between iterations; and

– Changes to species caught.

The FAO does not report recreational or customary catch or discards. No-one would deny that unreported catch occurred in the past and to a lesser extent still occurs today but are the Simmons’ results credible or not? Making an allowance for recreational and customary catch, the Simmons report indicates that unreported catch for the commercial sector has been in the order of 57 per cent of the fish caught for the period from 1950 to 2010 and 65 per cent in the last 20 years of that period.

By contrast, NIWA which routinely analyses unreported catch for the major deepwater fisheries, calculates that, for the same 20 year period, discarded catch formed less than seven percent of the fish caught in the major deepwater fisheries which together make up 80 per cent of the New Zealand’s reported catch.

Which to believe – the scientific or the pontificated? Simmons refers to using a critical reality approach to the estimates. Until Simmons releases his methodology and the material he used to inform the estimates, we can only assume it relates to another reality but certainly not the New Zealand reality. Or maybe there were recreational fishers in 1950 catching 123 tonnes of orange roughy?

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