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Let's talk about mental health

Friday 7 August 2020

They’re taking mental health seriously in the Australian fishing industry and in New Zealand there is political will, and money, to address the same urgent issues.

The Australian government has funded Seafood Industry Australia (SIA) $600,000 to run a pilot programme to identify and respond to mental health issues.

The issues facing Australian fishers are the same as in New Zealand; uncertainty over access to fishing grounds, the relentless negativity and public opprobrium of the industry by its critics, the financial pressures and psychological stressors of a constantly changing political and regulatory environment.

Our people need help, and mostly won’t ask for it.

SIA Interim CEO, Veronica Papacosta says research shows their commercial fishers experience twice the base-rate of psychological stress of any other sector and a full one third of all commercial fishers are under this type of stress and had not reached out for support.

In July last year, on the back of the ER/GPR rollout and the consultation on the Hector’s and Maui Dolphin Threat Management Plan, the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) engaged Darren Guard of Guard Safety to provide free and independent support to fishers feeling the pain of looming livelihood losses. Guard is uniquely qualified to do so and, with strong fishing credentials, was an ideal choice to provide immediate support.

Looking to the longer term, work began on a plan to develop a similar organisation to the Rural Support Trust, an organisation that reaches out to farmers who are desperate for help through life changing events. This would be a permanent organisation of trained volunteers who can act as a conduit to bank managers, mental health experts and counselling services – or just be there for a cup of tea and a listening ear. Fishermen talking to fishermen.

Funding for a support network was announced in this year’s budget – part of a $20 million investment in support for rural and fishing communities, and we understand several million is earmarked specifically to enable the establishment of a fisher support network.

When Rural Communities Minister Damien O’Connor made the announcement, he said that while the funding is designed to provide access to support, advice and mental wellbeing services to help them recover from the impacts of COVID-19 and other sector issues, it will also enable fishing businesses to receive financial and continuity planning advice to support their recovery.

While it’s great that funding for this support network has now been made available, there has been industry frustration at a perceived lack of progress since last year as ever-increasing regulatory demands add to the stress and sometimes despair of small fishers all around New Zealand’s ports and harbours.

To be fair to MPI, while the disruption of a pandemic initially slowed progress, they now appear to be working in earnest to implement a wellbeing strategy for the fishing and aquaculture sectors.

The strategy includes the establishment of the fisher support network which will ultimately be owned by the industry – the fishers and aquaculture farmers themselves – and not MPI. They have told us they intend to work closely with industry organisations as well as fishers, their families and their communities to design a network that can genuinely meet their needs at a regional level and be something the fishing community is proud of.

Exactly how they will achieve that is not yet clear, but we’ve had some initial discussions with MPI, and we expect to see progress on that in the coming weeks.

While, primarily, this is an inshore issue, the deepsea fleet is not immune. Our major companies are also doing good work on the challenges of being at sea for long periods, and the acceleration of those challenges during COVID-19.

There are no people more qualified to mentor our people, than our people. That MPI will fund and facilitate the means to have a support network available is laudable.

What we can’t allow, is for the wheels of government to grind too slowly. Good faith cannot trump good progress.

The industry has recognised for a long time that it must evolve. And it has – and continues to do so.

Our environmental footprint lessens, our fishing methods improve, and we put substantial time and money into working to manage a shared resource. However, sometimes, the decisions made for us – that impact us – remain baffling.

Of the utmost importance, as governments come and go, is that we recognise that it is a symbiotic relationship. Our prosperity depends on maintaining a good relationship.

But, equally, the importance of the seafood industry to New Zealand – the provision of world class food, the employment, and the contribution to export-led growth post a global pandemic should not be taken for granted.

And, mostly, we should be pleased that central government recognises that their decisions have consequences. Very real, human consequences.

We look forward to seeing the speedy establishment of a fisher support network.

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