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Some bright spots in gloomy environmental report

Friday 26 April 2019

An environmental stocktake shows most markers around the state and impact of New Zealand’s seafood industry are improving.

The Environment Aotearoa 2019 report, compiled three-yearly by the Ministry for the Environment and Statistics New Zealand, draws on interim reports in five fields – air,  freshwater, marine, atmosphere and climate and land.

The outlook is bleak in a number of areas and challenges abound.

Almost 4000 of our native species are deemed to be currently threatened with, or at risk of, extinction, including 90 percent of seabirds.

However, there are some significant improvements in the fishing sector, which unsurprisingly have been dismissed or ignored by media and the doomsters.

Fishing pressure has eased, the report says.

The total marine catch peaked at nearly 650,000 tonnes in 1997 and 1998 but has since stabilised to less than 450,000 tonnes since 2009.

“Between 2009 and 2017 more than 80 percent of New Zealand’s assessed fish stocks were considered to be managed sustainably, and almost all of the annual catch was from these stocks.”

It notes the introduction of the Quota Management System in 1986 reduced the pressure on inshore fish.

The extent of trawling has markedly declined, although still seen as significant.

The report notes the number of seabed-contacting tows has “nearly halved from nearly 60,000 in 1998 to 26,000 in 2016”.

(The maths are wonky there – the reduction is actually nearly 60 percent.)

It seems unaware, or chooses to ignore, that 30 percent of New Zealand’s vast Exclusive Economic Zone out to the 200 nautical mile limit, the world’s fourth largest, is protected from trawling and dredging.

And in another positive development, bycatch of protected species has reduced, although still rated a threat.

The number of seabirds reported caught has almost halved from 9185 in 2003 to around 5000 every year since 2008.

The industry contribution to that is the introduction of threat management plans for every vessel and new technology trials to keep birds away from longlines in particular.

Past activities are seen as still having an impact, including huge albatross mortalities caused by Japanese longliners in the Southern Ocean in the mid 1980s – said to be some 44,000 birds annually.

The incidental catch of sea lions and seals has also decreased since the turn of this century.

However, some of the reporting concerning the fishing industry is disappointingly sloppy.

“Recreational and commercial fishing sustains 16,000 jobs and generates about $4.2 billion in total economic activity,” the report says.

In fact, that revenue figure relates to commercial fishing alone, provided by economic forecasters BERL. Aquaculture’s contribution is on top of that.

The report then further confuses the issue by attributing $1.7 billion of the total to recreational fishing economic activity, which is in turn, a spurious figure that lumped in tourism.

The authors also struggle with the classification of the overall catch.

“The QMS gives quota holders a right to harvest a fish stock up to a maximum level – the total allowable catch (TAC).”

In fact the TAC includes recreational and customary take, although the former is at best an educated guess.

The report also conflates Hector and Maui dolphin deaths, claiming eight were caught in fishing gear between 2011-15.

This is wrong.

In that time - and up to the present - no Maui dolphins have been confirmed as commercial fishing-related mortalities.

Extensive observer coverage backs that up.

The report does recognise the marine environment faces increasing pressures from activities outside fishing.

“Our coastal environments receive excess sediment and nutrients from rivers,” it says.

“Our waterways are polluted in farming areas.

Plastic pollution is a global issue that affects every ocean and many species of seabird, turtle and marine mammal.

Seabirds have also been affected by introduced predators on the mainland and offshore islands, loss of nesting habitat and disturbance.

Climate change is projected to have major impacts on the marine environment from ocean acidification and warming.”

On the plus side, the report notes conservation status has improved for 26 species in the past 10 years.

And those longer in the tooth will remember when tui song was absent from our city suburbs and raw sewage and meatworks’ offal was routinely discharged into our estuaries and harbours.

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