Small-scale fishermen snagged in Government’s tightening quota regulations

This time last year Troy Smith was in the Cook Strait, manning dahn lines from his 15-metre boat, and single-handedly landing and filleting hundreds of hāpuku for some of the best restaurants across Marlborough.

This year is different. On the day Smith spoke to the Herald in late December he is rattling around his empty retail store and workshop north of Blenheim.

The fridge and cabinet are bare and scrubbed clean and the stainless steel countertops gleam. There isn’t a fish in sight.

Smith is dressed in trademark fisherman’s white gumboots but his big hands are idle; from time to time he extends them, palms up, in a gesture of hopelessness.

“I got a mortgage to pay on quota that’s been cut by 70 per cent and I’m facing a lifetime of financial ruin,” Smith says. “But I’m just one small guy trying to reason with the New Zealand Government.”

Smith reckons he’s spent half a million dollars accumulating hāpuku quota
in the last 15 years, on top of investments in his boat and the store and workshop (hāpuku is another name for grouper, and the quota includes bass).

Until recently Smith’s quota entitled him to catch 10 tonnes of fish, but government changes in 2020 have already pushed the annual catch limits attached to Smith’s quotadown to some 6.5 tonnes, and he expects further planned cuts to commercial catch limits in the first half of 2022 to diminish that further.

“This is shut now,” he gestures at the echoing two-room space around him. “Shut and down the drain.” Without sufficient catch, he says, there’s no economic basis for the rest of the business.

Smith owns fishing quota to catch hāpuku in what the Ministry for Primary Industries calls Areas 2, 7 and 8. The fishing grounds take in the coastal waters of the lower North Island, including Cook Strait, and sweep south along the South Island’s west coast.

Smith’s is one of the last boats fishing commercially out of Picton, a little port to the north that, several decades ago, was home to dozens of commercial vessels.

On October 1, 2021, the ministry slashed commercial catch limits by 70 per cent in Area 2, where Smith holds roughly half of his quota. It’s considering similar cuts elsewhere, including in areas 7 and 8.

The ministry says it’s concerned that hāpuku stocks are in trouble and the bellwether it points to is data that show commercial fishermen have been catching well under their limits for over a decade. Smith says he catches his full entitlement; but if the broad group is catching fewer fish, the ministry reasons, then stocks are likely in decline. In addition, of those who made submissions on the ministry’s proposed cuts canvassed in 2020, all favoured reductions (Smith says he didn’t submit, and he didn’t have time to reach the consultation meeting held in Napier).

“We prepared proposals for HPB 2 [hāpuku/bass 2] based on the best available information including commercial catch history, recreational harvest estimates, Amateur Charter Vessel catch data, and customary catch information,” says Tiffany Bock, acting Director Fisheries Management at Fisheries New Zealand.

“Because this is a low knowledge stock, and due to uncertainties about the stock structure, life-history traits, and habitat use, our proposals took a precautionary view to managing the stock to ensure sustainability.” On officials’ advice, the decision was taken by the Minister for Oceans and Fisheries, David Parker.

Smith and other specialised fishermen say the ministry is likely led astray by broad catch data, as it’s dominated by larger and larger operators who aren’t specialising in catching hāpuku.

There’s no research that assesses the fishery itself. And the falling catch numbers, they say, are down to the near-extinction of independent fishermen like themselves, who target the species with specialised methods.

Across the Strait in Island Bay, a little coastal suburb of Wellington, Grant Robinson tells a similar story to Smith’s, pausing from time to time to master his emotions.

Several years ago Robinson bought a boat for butterfish and hāpuku fishing. Unlike Smith, Robinson leases annual catch rights for hāpuku from a quota owner in Area 2; his plan was to keep the two crew members from his cray boat employed in that fishery’s off-season, and to bring his son, aged 23, into the business fulltime.

The butterfish plan was killed off recently when the Government extended a ban on set-netting into Cook Strait to protect dolphin species. And now, Robinson says, he’ll have to try to keep the boat in use however he can. “Servicing the muscle farms, maybe,” he says.

Robinson too, believes that hāpuku stocks are in good shape. What’s changed, he says, are the number of old-style fishermen, with knowledge of the fishery, who know the pinnacles on the rocky seabed where the fish gather, and who target the areas with the short dahn lines, or droppers, about 25 metres long, and sometimes double or triple that length, depending on the place and the weather and the tide.

“There used to be 50 boats out of Island Bay here, small operators, fishermen from the Shetland Islands and from Italy, and their sons, using the old techniques. They’re dying, they’re retiring, and the next generation isn’t carrying on. That’s what we’re losing, it’s not fish stocks.

“The bigger operators go out with one, two, three kilometres of line, they’ve got a hook every two or three metres and sure they get some grouper, but they also get ling and shark. They don’t target grouper.”

Back in Marlborough many of Smith’s customers are sorely disappointed by the loss of the local supply of fish.

“Troy’s fish was just amazingly fresh and beautifully handled in the way he kills it quickly and keeps it in a slurry [a mixture of ice and seawater] until he comes ashore. It’s got a provenance we were excited to tell our customers about,” says Bradley Hornby, chef and co-owner of Arbour in Blenheim.

“If I was bringing you a piece of Troy’s fish, I’d tell you, ‘this is probably the best piece of fish you’ve ever eaten and that has very little to do with me.'”

Hornby says he can’t explain it because he doesn’t know enough about the New Zealand quota management system (QMS) governing the fishery, but he’s observed a strange gap in the market for the independent supply of fresh finfish. He knows of just two local fishermen able to sell direct to his table. “One of them was Troy,” Hornby says.

Barry Torkington, however, has some ideas about why such a gap exists. Torkington is an adviser to the recreational fishing lobby group, LegaSea, and has worked in the fisheries sector for over 40 years, including as a commercial fisherman.

He’s less sure than Smith and Robinson that the hāpuku stocks are in good shape, but he does think that New Zealand’s quota management system (QMS) – in place since the mid-1980s and intended to protect New Zealand fish stocks – has failed small-scale fishermen.

MPI wouldn’t disclose quickly who owns New Zealand’s hāpuku quota (it suggested the information could be obtained through an Official Information Act request). But Torkington says, across the fishery, some 80 per cent of all quota is held by just 10 large entities.

Quota owners often lease their catch limits on an annual basis to smaller fishermen who, in a situation Torkington says is analogous to medieval systems of landed nobles and landless peasants, cannot afford to own quota themselves. The catch is typically required by contract to be sold back to the quota owner at a fixed price.

“The QMS isn’t designed for value-adding small businesses like Troy’s, and there are a few in a similar position around the coast. The QMS is about control by the few (those with large quota holdings) while the work is done by poorly paid labour effectively indentured to the property owner.”

Drops to catch limits tend to make the quota holdings of the smallest players uneconomic. And they push small fishermen into the situation of leasing catch entitlement from the big players, Torkington says.

Despite that, MPI concluded that the economic effect of its cuts to HPB commercial catch limits are “likely minimal”. It’s a conclusion that makes Smith extend those big open palms again: “I been fishing since I left school at 15, following all their rules. Now they tell me that I don’t exist.”

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