The findings from a re-analysis of marine fisheries catches from New Zealand waters between 1950 and 2010 suggests the actual catch was 38.1 million tonnes, which is 2.7 times higher than the reported catch statistics for this 61 year period.
The incomplete statistics are largely accounted for by the omission of unreported industrial catch and discarded fish, the report authors note. The unavoidable problem of bycatch – where unwanted fish are caught along with the target species is common. Undesirable fish are routinely dumped at sea because they are under-size, or have no perceived economic value. This is rarely reported.
Despite efforts to improve reporting by introducing a Quota Management System (QMS) in 1986, the total catch since then is estimated to be 2.1 times higher than reported.
The report describes how the QMS in New Zealand is not living up to its international reputation. Despite its good intentions, the QMS is thought to be encouraging misreporting:
“A striking finding was the extent of misreporting to avoid deemed value penalties – at sea and on land. This highlights a weakness of the QMS, which relies on full and accurate reporting, yet, in practice, incentivises misreporting, which undermines the sustainability of fisheries.”
Lead researcher Dr Glenn Simmons, from the New Zealand Asia Institute says:
“Unreported catches and dumping not only undermine the sustainability of fisheries, but result in suboptimal use of fishery resources and economic waste of valuable protein.”
Fisheries Scientist at NIWA, Owen Anderson says that independent Government observers on board commercial vessels have collected thorough, scientific analyses of catch and discard data of New Zealand offshore fish species for many years.
“An important difference between the studies is that the NIWA analyses are based on empirical data and, unlike the Simmons study, do not attempt to estimate the prevalence of discarding activity that may have been intentionally hidden from observers or make any assumptions about the influence of observer presence on discarding behaviour. We note that regulations allow for legal discarding of any QMS species when an observer is present.”
Professor Matthew Dunn, Chair in Fisheries Science from Victoria University Wellington comments on the information gathering techniques of the study and stresses that data generated from interviews with fishers are uncertain and often biased:
“I would expect there to be great uncertainty, and potential for bias, around the estimate of ‘2.7 times’.”
Prof Dunn also comments on the shortfalls of the QMS, but emphasises that this privatised fishery system is still considered one of the best ways of managing fisheries resources.
“The focus should be on making sure our fisheries are sustainable now and into the future. As long as our industry is strong, and the resources are sustainable for them and for future generations, then we are doing a good job. In my opinion, we want our fisheries management and industry to be looking forward, not worrying about what happened 50 years ago. But if this kind of research helps to focus people on what needs to change, then that is a good thing.”
The research was published as a working paper as part of the Sea Around Us project by the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, University of British Columbia.
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