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Working To Ensure The Paua Fishery Survives

Thursday 7 August 2014

Jeremy Cooper looks over the Marlborough Sounds from the steps of the Waikawa Boating Club and talks of paddocks instead of sea.

Some blocks of a farm do better than others and so do some underwater habitats, says the chief executive of the Paua Industry Council (PIC), who wants fishery rules to reflect that.

He talks of a headland at the top of Marlborough’s D’Urville Island with two divergent sites separated by just half a kilometre.

On one side paua grow above the blanket New Zealand legal size of 125mm and at the other side they die of old age without ever reaching it.

“Imagine how stupid it would be with humans if we said ‘right you can’t get your licence until you’re 150cm and you can’t get married until you’re 160cm’. But that’s how we manage fish,” Jeremy said.

“I’m a dairy farmer and all I’m teaching these guys to do is manage on a paddock scale.”

The murmur of a commercial paua meeting drifts out a door behind him, as shelving quota, adjusting size limits, translocating paua and investing in reseeding are debated at the AGM of PauaMAC7, the commercial paua industry management area council for the top of the South Island.

This is a notoriously hard region to get a mandate from. Some quota holders are unconvinced by sustainability measures and others not concerned that recreational and customary fisheries can reap the rewards from commercial’s investment.

But by the end of the meeting, PauaMAC7 chairman Barry Chandler is smiling, with unanimous agreement that the 20 percent shelving of the past two years will continue and go up to 30 percent next year.

They have also voted for a voluntary increase in take size from 125mm to 126mm from October 1 this year and to 127mm the following year.

“That’s about leaving more fish in the water to spawn for another season,” said Barry. “It may take a year or two or five, but the biomass is going to rebuild, because every commercial stakeholder is taking less fish by weight.”

The focus has been to get everyone as close to being on the same page as possible, he said. “We want unity to ensure the fishery is buoyant for the next generation.”

An executive meeting a few weeks later yields more results with agreement on “spread of catch” where each parcel of quota will be split into thirds and caught over specific months, so the market demand of Chinese New Year doesn’t see every diver go “hammer and tongs” on October 1.

The PauaMAC7 executive and PIC have worked for years to get these measures across the line in order to save a fishery impacted by a raft of environmental issues, from increased run-off and sedimentation to ocean acidification and decreasing seaweed beds, says Jeremy.

The advent of the Quota Management System in 1986 saw the PauaMAC7 TACC (total allowable commercial catch) set at 267 tonnes, then cut back to 187 tonnes.

PauaMAC7 has spent around a million dollars in the past decade on reseeding juvenile paua and also has a translocation programme which takes 80mm “stunted” fish from poor habitats to sites in faster growing areas.

“We’ve had a science-based and science-approved project with some amazing results,” said Barry of the translocation. “Now we’re trying to work with MPI (the Ministry of Primary Industries) to upscale it.”

To speed up the rate of rebuild, quota holders have opted for voluntary shelving of another 20 percent over the past two years.

Barry said the commercial industry is often portrayed as the bad guys who “go out and rape and pillage the sea”, but PauaMACs around the country are increasingly taking responsibility for their own destiny.

Stewart Island Success

Jeremy said Stewart Island is a shining example, with PauaMAC5 (the bottom of the south paua fishery) using voluntary measures to rejuvenate paua stocks there.

Fish were so quick to grow at Stewart Island that when they reached the legal minimum size of 125mm they were only just reaching maturity, he said.

The industry increased the minimum take size to 135mm which allowed the fish to have at least two reproductive years before becoming available.

The result has been remarkable, with divers now seeing far more juveniles and a fishery that is now ready for an increase in its TACC, Jeremy said.

However, despite such good news stories, it can be difficult to convince the majority to get on board with voluntary measures when a minority can ignore the decision and “make an absolute killing”, he said.

The PIC therefore wants PauaMAC decisions to be given teeth, with government regulatory support for voluntary measures that are sensitive to variances in season and habitat.

“There’s a real groundswell happening where industry is saying ‘we’ve had a Quota Management System for 30 years and how can we improve it?’ This is one of the very things we have to improve.

“We are saying MPI should devolve some of the responsibility to us, because we are the ones at the coalface and the ones who can make the timely, subtle changes to better balance catches with Mother Nature’s recruitment and productivity pulses.”

“We want unity to ensure the fishery is buoyant for the next generation.”

Paua like a religion

Mike Radon knows well the tragedy of a collapsed fishery, calling the slice of California he once dived on the “sad coast”.

Look underwater and there is nothing there, he says. “It’s a pretty sad feeling, really, in your heart.”

These days Mike and his wife Antonia own a farm at the edge of Marlborough’s Arapawa Island and farm baby paua to be reseeded in the wild.

“Paua is sort of like a religion to us,” says Mike, “We just believe in what we’re doing so strongly.”
The couple are paua quota holders and while there’s not a lot of money in the juveniles, they see the reseeding as an investment in the future value of their asset.

“We need to be doing something to make sure this fishery survives.”

The results have been “amazing”, Mike says, after a reseeding day in May, during which he and other divers saw the growth in paua put out two years earlier, when 99,000 were reseeded.

One they measured, had grown from 9mm to 84mm over that  time, thanks to the head start given them on the farm and the choice habitat they were moved to.

This year 84,000 juveniles were put in the same location in the Tory Channel, with an additional 5000 put in Cook Strait.

However, Jeremy Cooper says the commercial fishery baulks at paying millions of dollars for reseeding, knowing that at 125mm the paua become open game to recreational and customary fishers.

As an alternative he looks to Japan’s 600 tonne paua fishery, “which is maintained by reseeding that’s paid for by the Government out of everyone’s taxes. That’s a model that’s working”.

The Radons would love to see more of the community involved in reseeding, with recreational divers helping support paua stocks.

“It’s kind of like giving back to the sea where you knew there used to be paua. They could reseed around their wharves or their favourite spots. We are trying to think outside the square to get people involved in what we do.”

The Recreational Challenge

The commercial industry has  the management and technology in such things as reseeding, translocation and data loggers to rebuild fisheries, Jeremy said.

“Effectively you could just about get them back to what they were like in their virgin biomass if you can control what is coming out of them. But what is not controlled is recreational take.”

He calls Kaikoura an “incredible fishery”, but an increased and uncontrolled recreational take means it is “going downhill on a really, really slow slide”.

Certainly Kaikoura is kaimoana heaven for many, with a highway along the coastline and the opportunity to park your car and jump in the water.

It’s also a valuable spot for those in PauaMAC3, who have 91.615 tonnes of paua quota to catch and heavy competition for the resource.

Chairman Jason Ruawai says that  in the past 15 years the pressure on the fishery has grown as New Zealand’s population has expanded, people have become more mobile and Kaikoura more popular.

“Recreational fishing is growing and no-one knows by how much, but there are only so many fish in the sea.”

Meanwhile, the industry group has utilised various management tools to sustain the fishery, including “subdivisions” put in place at the turn of the millennium, requiring fishers to spread their catch over a wider area.

They also trialled seasonal closures, so the easiest grounds were out of bounds at certain times of year, forcing fishers to head south for their catch.

“It’s taken a few years but it’s changed the way commercial divers head away. They accept it and build it into their fishing plan for the rest of the year.

Quota holders have also spent more than $200,000 on reseeding in the past four to five years, with approximately 407,000 baby paua placed in prime habitats, in an initiative that aims to improve biomass and gain community involvement.

“We are recreational fishers as well as commercial fishers, and we don’t want to see it get scarce. We’re not; in it for the short term,” Jason said.

PauaMAC3 is also part of Te Korowai, the Kaikoura Coastal Marine Guardians, in a collaboration of community and industry stakeholders.

It includes representatives from commercial and recreational fishing, environmental groups, tourism and local government, who have worked together to design a coastal management strategy specific to their area.

The resulting Kaikoura (Te Tai o Marokura) Marine Management Act was passed into law on July 31, Parliament's last sitting day.  The legislation has set up a 10.416 ha marine reserve, a 5500 sqkm whale sanctuary, a fur seal sanctuary and three mataitai reserves (where commercial fishing is excluded) and two taiapure reserves.

The Act also sets new recreational catch and minimum size limits. The paua daily bag limit goes from 10 to six. PauaMAC5 chairman Storm Stanley says recreational fishing has become so big that it has to be managed.

“You can’t just beat up the commercial fishing industry and say ‘it’s your  fault’. Our catches are completely restrained, completely reported. We pay the Crown for all the costs of running commercial fishing industries but recreational fishing is completely unconstrained,” he said.

“Anyone can rock up and catch  all the fish they want, within their daily bag limit, as often as they like, within accumulation limits, whenever they like, within the few seasonal closures you might get.”

The paua areas with the best rates of recovery – Stewart Island, the Chatham Islands and Fiordland - are all areas where there’s virtually no recreational fishing, he says.

Meanwhile areas like the Otago coastline, the Marlborough Sounds and Kaikoura are becoming“ragged around the edges”.

A compromise to “sort out the differences between recreational fishers’ expectations and commercial fishers’ clear rights” could be a market-based solution, with a “rebalancing” of the QMS, he says.

If a recreational fishery is going to increase by 100 tonnes, or a reserve is going to absorb potential catch, the Crown would buy commercial quota and retire it to recreational.

He said commercial fishers “won’t keep retreating” before increased recreational catch and reserves.

“Fisheries will fall over because you are catching more fish than the fishery can sustain.”

Paua To The People

Recreational fishers are ready to battle for paua too, as evidenced last year with the mobilisation of Paua to the People.

The group was established to fight a proposal to open up areas in Southland and Otago currently off limits to
the commercial paua industry.

In December the Minister for Primary Industries, Nathan Guy, rejected the proposal on the basis of the areas being greatly valued by recreational and customary fishers.

Paua to the People member Dave Hodson says opening the closed  areas would have had “a massive negative impact” on recreational and customary stakeholders in the fishery.

With that threat behind them, he says the main issues facing paua grounds are overfishing, poaching and the localised depletion of paua stocks.

He would like to see increased resources put into policing through MPI Fisheries Officers, careful setting of catch limits and well informed estimates of non-commercial catch.

The precautionary principle, “as enshrined in the Fisheries Act”, must be applied to guarantee the continued existence of healthy paua stocks, he says.

While “heartened” by some of the approaches being mooted and put in place by industry, such as the use of data loggers and increasing the minimum commercial take size in some areas, he says they are weakened by their voluntary nature.

He is also concerned by talk of lowering the legal size limit in some areas, saying that allowing undersize fish to enter the commercial market would make policing the fishery more difficult, and it would only take one “bad apple” to harvest undersize paua illegally then claim they were from an area where that size was legal.

However, Jeremy Cooper says the satellite trackers on data loggers render that concern baseless.

Dave and others in Paua to the People would like to see sector participants - including customary recreational and commercial - working together “with trust and respect” towards the shared goal of a healthy and sustainable fishery.

That’s something Jeremy Cooper hopes for too.

Sitting at the edge of the Marlborough Sounds, on a big blue skied day, he said New Zealand’s abalone stocks have dropped less than all other commercial paua fisheries in the world, “so we are doing something right, but it could work a lot better”.

Industry has developed a “suite of tools” over the past decade, based on localised solutions for localised problems.

“The key to moving forward is working with MPI and other stakeholders to ensure all sectors actively manage the paua resource.”

"You can’t just beat up the commercial fishing industry and say ‘it’s your fault'"

data logging

Recent “world leading” work in data logging is helping the paua industry look at its resource with a far more focussed lens and improve the way the fishery is run.

Previous data was gleaned from divers filling in a form about how many hours they were in the water and how much they had caught, says Jeremy Cooper.

“Now they have data loggers on their back recording every single breath they take, how long they are down for and how many metres they have covered.”

He says that means far better information about paua stocks, “which in turn provides increased certainty of management responses”.

The next step is using the inbuilt satellite modem in the data loggers as a compliance tool, so MPI can see exactly where commercial  paua boats are and have been.

  • Picture 1:  Paua reseeding in the Tory Channel in May
  • Picture 2:  Sarah Radon with baby paua grown on a farm at Whekenui Bay.
  • Picture 3:  Juvenile paua ready for placement
  • Picture 4:  Barry Chandler
  • Picture 5:  Storm Stanley
  • Picture 6:  Jeremy Cooper



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