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Tough decisions led to fisheries’ good health

Wednesday 12 October 2016

Shelton Harley, Manager Fisheries Science, Ministry for Primary Industries

Fish eyes the size of grapefruit are probably my most vivid recollection of the time before the QMS came in – my father was fishing East Cape on the Sunniva.

I recall watching them unload their catch including bass with heads like letterboxes. With this heritage it is not surprising that fisheries have played a big role in my family.

I embarked down the path of marine science while my two younger brothers each spent a decade within fisheries – one as a fisheries officer and the other as a commercial fisher. Fisheries science has taken me to the Gulf of Alaska, Atlantic Canada, and around more than a dozen Pacific Island countries, but my heart has always been for New Zealand fisheries and those people who rely upon them – whether it be for employment, enjoyment, food or cultural significance.

From this journey I am convinced that the current good health of the majority of New Zealand’s fisheries can be attributed to some very tough decisions (around the introduction of the QMS) and an investment in great fisheries science, scientists, and fisheries managers over the past 30 years.

Before the QMS was introduced New Zealand had too much fishing capacity and if we had moved to more traditional methods of capacity or effort limitations I believe we would now be experiencing many of the issues seen elsewhere in the world, such as fishing seasons measured in days or even hours!

Today more than 95 per cent of the stocks that we can assess have no sustainability concerns at the Quota Management Area level. We have good news stories about stocks that have recovered or are recovering since the introduction of the QMS – especially our rock lobster and snapper stocks.

Orange roughy now has several stocks rebuilding to levels that are globally recognised as sustainable. Our system can work, but it takes time and robust science. We are always looking to improve and a current focus within MPI is to develop innovative ways to better assess and manage some of the ‘next-level’ stocks which significantly contribute to our overall fisheries picture.

Public interest in the New Zealand marine area has grown dramatically – as a country we care deeply about making sure there are enough fish in the sea for the future. Globally people who consume New Zealand seafood are more interested in questions of sustainability.

One of the ways this is manifesting is increasing calls and expectations around an “ecosystem approach to fisheries management (EAFM)” and local community engagement in fisheries issues. I would argue that New Zealand’s fisheries management regime is not just a “single-species management system”, but incorporates the key elements of an ecosystem approach.

We have conservative catch limits for some forage species and specific management plans around the impacts of fishing on the seafloor, sharks, seabirds, and marine mammals. The current fisheries review MPI is undertaking provides the opportunity to ensure that New Zealand fish stocks and their broader marine ecosystem are globally recognised as sustainably managed.

New Zealanders are increasingly articulating expectations for what they expect from fisheries, e.g., why am I catching less fish in my favourite fishing spot. As a scientist a key role in the process is to transform these expectations into levels of abundance which reflect targets (i.e., abundance of fish we want in the water) and limits (i.e., lower abundance of fish we don’t want to get close to) that can be used to help manage these stocks.

I look forward to being involved in discussions such as those occurring with the Guardians of Fiordland, ‘Te Korowai’ Coastal Guardians of Kaikoura, and within the Hauraki Gulf. My top two science needs for the future are smart people, and more easily accessible information. I genuinely believe we need as many good minds working in fisheries science as we can get and we need to increasingly reach out to universities and other researchers.

Students need to be involved working on real problems with real data. We need to fully embrace electronic tools for collecting and verifying fisheries data. Considerable resources are spent entering, reviewing and correcting data – not only is this inefficient, but it also leads to delays in the availability of the information to inform fisheries management and the public.

Rolling out electronic reporting solutions for New Zealand’s fisheries as part of the Integrated Electronic Monitoring and Reporting (IEMRS) project will have real benefits for New Zealand fisheries.

I look forward to working with scientists and other stakeholders to continue to build upon the strong international reputation that New Zealand has for our fisheries.



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