Ocean conservation: How sustainable is New Zealand's fishing industry? Breakfast investigates

Source: Breakfast

In a series of seven interviews with conservationists and industry players as well as Fisheries Minister Stuart Nash, TVNZ 1's Breakfast examines where New Zealand stands compared to the rest of the world when it comes to ocean conservation and asks how sustainable is our country's fisheries management - and who defines what sustainable means.

Fishing boat.


Forest & Bird's CEO Kevin Hague believes the way New Zealand commercial fishers take fish from the sea is not in any way sustainable.

Speaking to Breakfast, he says: "The entire commercial fishing system is set up to extract as much as possible for as long as possible from the ocean at the expense of the ocean and it's completely unsustainable.

"It's the wrong thing for us in the long term''.

However, Fisheries Minister Stuart Nash disagrees.

On the programme, he argued the Government and industry are advised on what is sustainable by scientists.

"It's the experts who understand sustainability.

"Of course the fishery industry is going to argue one side, the environmental groups are going to argue another side, but when it comes down to making the really important decisions about our fishery, it's about the science."

According to Hague, ''fish stocks are being assessed for sustainability of the catch, meaning industry is managing the stock to ensure fish are replenishing themselves just enough to be caught, but not considering the impact of the ocean ecosystem.

"In many cases, 80 per cent of some types of fish have disappeared entirely.''

Hague points to the Hauraki Gulf as an example. 

"Take snapper and crayfish. Overfishing of those species has led to a point where kina have no predators. Then go on to decimate kelp forests and other plants and all of the ecosystem associated with them.

"We are managing stock for the industry's interests, we are not managing for the interests of the ocean's ecosystem.''

The Government's been waiting for the report of a Ministerial Advisory Committee who began working through the 181 recommendations of the Sea Change plan, released in 2016, to fix the serious problems in the Hauraki Gulf.

It was due by July, but that's been delayed.

Right now, Forest & Bird is locked in a High Court battle with the Minister of Fisheries, and industry representatives Fisheries Inshore New Zealand and Te Ohu Kaimoana over the Government's 2019 decision to allow East Coast tarakihi to be fished to what they claim is an unsustainable level for maintaining a healthy ecosystem.

Tarakihi has been fished down to 15 per cent of their natural population, and Government policy dictates fish that is depleted to this level must be allowed to rebuild within 10 years.

But, according to Forrest & Bird, the Government's decision to reduce the commercial catch by only 10 per cent means it will take at least 25 years for the stock to rebuild.

Seafood New Zealand CEO Jeremy Helson said the industry is doing well when it comes to sustainability of fish stocks.

He says the industry supports a reduction of catch limits of tarakihi but did not agree with the speed of the rebuild of the stock - "we simply wanted a slower rebuild to limit the economic impacts on the industry".


Fisheries Minister Stuart Nash also announced on Breakfast a large cash investment from the Government to roll out cameras on commercial inshore fishing boats after years of delays and setbacks.

According to the Minister, there will be about 345 cameras installed by the end of 2024 - about 84 per cent of the inshore fleet.

The industry has been mixed in its appetite for cameras on boats, ranging from strong opposition by heavy hitters such as Te Ohu Kaimoana, Sealord & Talleys to conditional support from Moana, Sanford and Sealord.

There's impatience from conservationists to get cameras on boats as quickly as possible given that Fisheries New Zealand's own annual report found that commercial fishers were nine times more likely to report by-catch, like undersized fish, albatross, penguins and sharks, if there was an observer on board.

Karl Warr is a small time commercial fisherman in Napier. He has been recognised as an innovator as he uses a cage system for fishing which he invented himself.

It's made of smooth stainless steel, which doesn’t pinch or damage the fish as they escape, and it filters fish on the basis of shape and size.

He's also installed cameras on his boat that live streams his catch.

"I want the public to see what I do," he said in an interview for the series.

He has a 94 per cent reduction in his undersized gurnard catch and says, "if you're only taking what you need - that's the way forward.''


Currently, just 0.4 per cent of New Zealand's ocean space is marine reserve.

Under our commitments to the United Nations we should have 10 per cent by the end of 2020.

High profile efforts to create ocean sanctuaries around the Kermadec Islands and waters around Campbell Island have been blocked.

According to ocean conservationist Bronwen Golder that's because ''Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage and Fisheries Minister Stuart Nash decide under pressure from fishing industry interests not to do what the legislation provided them with the opportunity to do". 

Golder has spent a decade fighting for more ocean protection in the Pacific and is now a Senior fellow at Standford University's Centre for Ocean Solutions.

She says defaulting to the fishing industry position is a narrative ''that's run in NZ for decades now and is one that has essentially stalled and has effectively vetoed any progress in protecting what is the fourth largest marine territory on the planet".

She adds: ''New Zealand signed the UN convention on the law of the sea. We committed, we are obliged to preserve and protect the marine territory that we took on responsibility for as a result of that UN negotiation. That's 4 million square kilometres of ocean that we are essentially kaitiaki for.

"We have a right to exploit its resources, but under that agreement we are also obliged to protect and preserve it.

"In 38 years we have protected zero.''

Former conservation minister Sandra Lee Vercoe took aim at Te Ohu Kaimoana saying it must ''stop using the Treaty of Waitangi as a dishonest stalking horse to stymie government attempts to put in place marine sanctuaries and marine reserves like the Kermadecs and Campbell Island”.

"It’s been too easy for governments to say the ’Treaty’ word has been spoken, and so therefore we’ll do nothing.''

Te Ohu Kaimoana is the Māori fishing entity that oversees allocation of quota to Māori, consulting with iwi and advising the Government on fisheries policy ensuring promises made in the 1992 Treaty fishing settlement are upheld.

CEO Dion Tuuta says Te Ohu Kaimoana protects iwi choice over how fisheries are managed in New Zealand, in the case of the Kermadecs sanctuary, he says every iwi in the country, who have fisheries interests in the area should be given an opportunity to exercise choice over protecting it. Not just Ngāti Kurī who holds an historical claim to area and strongly supports a sanctuary.

He says respect must be given to iwi regarding any decision making process and cited the lack of consultation with iwi, including Ngāti Kurī, over the Kermadecs sanctuary.


There is a difficult balancing act between supporting a $4 billion industry, that livelihoods depend on, and ensuring meaningful sustainability and honouring our commitments to global ocean conservation. So how do we get it right?

Bronwen Golder says: ''Those advocating for marine protection, which is protection of the health and the productivity of habitats and species, are not anti-fishing.

"No-one is suggesting that 100 per cent of New Zealand marine area should be protected areas." But she says the fishing industry has sold a line that "it's not threatened, we have the QMS, we are sustainably fishing, it's all OK."

Tuuta says despite the negative press, the quota management system is a good thing, saying: ''It was required to correct commercial overfishing of New Zealand's inshore fishing during the 50s, 60s and 70s, and it's been very good in terms of restoring New Zealand's fisheries and providing iwi with rangatiratanga over our natural resources.

''Just because something is commercial doesn't mean it's bad.''

But Golder says commercial fishers ''have the ability currently to fish 99.6 per cent of our marine territory - there is no balance here".

"There's no sense that we are showing responsibility to the international commitments that we've made to protect 10 per cent of New Zealand's marine environment by 2020.''

She says we should start the progress towards balance by overhauling outdated legislation.

''Our single piece of marine protection legislation is 50 years old next year, 50 years, and it was brought in to law before we had an EEZ,(before we were given the territory by the UN) isn't that extraordinary?

"It's irresponsible.''

* Breakfast's series of stories and interviews on this subject ran on the programme between August 31 and September 8, 2020.