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Inaccuracies and conspircy theories abound at fisheries lectures

Friday 31 May 2019

If conspiracy theories could be personified, they would take the form of Dr Daniel Pauly.

Last week the eminent French-born fisheries scientists was on a lecture tour of this country, pontificating publicly in Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin.

Not content with predicting fishing will end in the world’s oceans in just 25 years, he believes New Zealand’s internationally lauded fisheries management system, which he once rated as the world’s best, is now on the rocks.

In a confused hour-long Wellington lecture filled with generalisations and strange metaphors - “we eat dragons when we eat tuna and groupers; the lions of the sea” - he claimed fisheries were corrupt, governed by big fishing companies playing golf with fisheries ministers.

He deplored subsidies that encouraged overfishing but failed to acknowledge the absence of such incentives in this country.

He seemed unaware the fishery was managed by government officials, not the industry, or that there are observers on vessels.

On it went. Quotas had been given to political friends, control of the fishery had been lost, orange roughy were never sustainable.

“Now Wall Street has exclusive access to the fishing resources of your country.”

So, Maori, who now own 40 percent of quota, have sold out too. That will be news to the tribes busy building their settlement portfolios and dispensing profits back to their people.

And to the hard-working inshore owner-operators meeting at the Federation of Commercial Fishermen conference in Paihia today.

When challenged about this ludicrous claim, Pauly went on the offensive, alleging slave labour in our fishery. The fact that all vessels in our waters are New Zealand-flagged and their crews subject to New Zealand employment laws, was ignored.

The claims would be laughable if they were not so potentially damaging.

The most surprising aspect of Pauly’s performance is how a prominent scientist can specialise in unsubstantiated claims, outright inaccuracies and sheer pig ignorance. Whatever happened to academic rigour?

University of British Columbia-based Pauly has found some fame as the architect of the Sea Around Us project that attempts to quantify the world's catches over 61 years from 1950 to 2011.

In this country, a coterie of Auckland University academics based its version on anecdotal, anonymous interviews with 100 or so disgruntled foreign crews and came up with a fanciful, unverified factor of a catch nearly three times that reported to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation.

The report, with its opaque data collection and methodology, was discredited by MPI, NIWA and international scientists.

When the Ombudsman intervened on Seafood NZ's behalf to seek the mysterious data, the university's response was that it had been lost due to computer failure.

On TV3’s The Project Pauly was at it again, with a mixture of wild exaggeration and straight out fiction.

“The QMS has failed... the catch has been declining for 15 years... you have got it wrong....there’s a deep crisis in the management system...it was privatised and the corporation that runs the fishing was supposed to do a good job of it but they didn’t...the consequences are that lots of people cannot fish...the industrial fishing is out of control...everything goes to the industrial fishers who don’t manage the stocks right.”

What the audience made of it, expecting the usual fare of light entertainment and froth as they munched their Friday night fish 'n' chips, is anybody’s guess.

The presenters were certainly lost for words, perhaps wondering what had got into the producer.

As for balance in the reporting, now that does raise a laugh.

Pauly has a right to his opinions, as biased and cockeyed as they are, but they need to be challenged.

He does not have a right to his own facts and needs to have more respect for them if he craves to be taken seriously.

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