The price of fishing

By Jolene Williams

By-catch, bottom trawling, over-fishing. They’re the dirty words people don’t often think about when weighing up dinner options at their local fish and chip shop. That could change if every New Zealander reads Forest & Bird’s 150-plus-page ecological assessment on the sustainability of 78 New Zealand commercial fisheries.

If they did, they’d learn that an estimated 1060 New Zealand fur seals are caught and killed as by-catch every year. They’d discover hoki is one of the least sustainable commercially fished species we’ve got, despite being a poster-fish for the “success” of government-set fishing

They’d realise, in short, that many of our fish stocks are fished well below a sustainable level.

Ordinary Kiwis may care for the health of their oceans and marine life, but actively doing something about it is a harder nut to crack. So this month, Forest & Bird has launched our
new Best Fish Guide. Inside this magazine you’ll find the wallet-sized guide to choosing seafood that’s ecologically sustainable, so you and other consumers will know the difference between good and bad seafood choices.

It’s the fifth time we’ve launched a Best Fish Guide and this time we’ve also got a mobile application version that’s free to download from our website.

It’s important to regularly update the guide according to the latest government and independent research. In just the past two years, some species have slipped from good to bad, and others have moved into our “green” good choice zone. 

By informing consumers we’re hoping to put pressure on New Zealand’s fishing industry to end ecologically destructive practices and work towards building a fully sustainable industry.

Forest & Bird is not against large-scale fishing for food, Forest & Bird Marine Conservation Advocate Katrina Subedar says.

Instead, the Best Fish Guide aims to stimulate positive change in the industry through informing and empowering the public. “We don’t want to say no to fish. Fish has health benefits, and it tastes nice. We want to give consumers the right to ecologically sustainable fish,” she says.

“Consumers have the power to make change. They can put pressure on the big supermarkets to stock more ecologically sustainable seafood. Fisheries will then have to supply more sustainable seafood. That means they’ll have more sustainable methods and it’ll also reduce the pressure on the heavily fished species of concern.”

So just how concerned should we be?

The latest research found 42 per cent of the 78 assessed fisheries had over-fished or contributed to a substantial decline in stocks. On top of that, 71 per cent of the fisheries caught too many other animals as by-catch.

Katrina wasn’t surprised when she read the assessments, but the average Kiwi might react differently. “New Zealand is sold as clean and green,” she says. “And yet that’s so far
from the truth for our fisheries.

“This is a serious problem. For most fisheries, the level that we’re fishing at is not at all sustainable. We’re going to have a disaster if we continue to fish this way and at this rate. Stocks will collapse and we’ll see a significant reduction of by-catch populations, such as endangered New Zealand sea lions.”

Close to half a million tonnes of fish are taken from our waters every single year. Hoki make up the largest haul, despite reaching such low population levels in 2007 that the Total Allowable Commercial Catch (TACC) was less than 40 per cent of the 2000 limit. The hoki population has since increased slightly, and the TACC consequently raised.

And now hoki is lauded as proof that quotas can successfully manage sustainability.

But Katrina says sustainability is not just a numbers game. In the case of hoki, the stock levels may be up, but hoki fisheries continue to bottom-trawl for their catch, which destroys the marine environment in the process.

Additionally, the rate of seabirds and fur seals landed as by-catch has not declined.

That’s why Forest & Bird’s ecological assessment considers the whole picture, such as fishing methods, bycatch and the impact on other marine species.

Worryingly, activities of 69 per cent of those assessed caused habitat damage. Fishing methods such as bottom trawling and dredging are largely to blame. On average, every year about 85,000 square kilometres of our seas are trawled at middle and deep water fisheries – typically targeting ecologically unsustainable species hoki, snapper, squid, orange roughy and scampi.

Bottom trawling is one of the most destructive fishing methods. It scrapes the ocean floor clean, taking all marine life and destroying all habitats in its path. “We have many vulnerable habitats on the sea floor, like corals,” Katrina says. “They grow very slowly. They can take up to 500 years just to get off the ground, and they can be destroyed in just a few seconds of being trawled.”

Set nets, where a net is lowered to the ocean floor and left unattended to catch everything that swims inside, are also problematic. Set nets, like trawling, are unselective in what they take.

The catch is sorted on the boat deck, and unwanted fish, birds and marine mammals are thrown overboard. By then, most are dead.

Twenty years ago, New Zealand’s commercial fisheries led the world in sustainable fishing. But our standards have slipped. The industry’s weak environmental standards are highlighted by the fact that in 2010, less than a fifth of our fish stocks undertook a quantitative stock assessment.

Essentially, they didn’t know how many fish they took, or how many were left. Sustainable stock levels? Prove it.

Forest & Bird advocates for more science-based research so we can ensure TACC levels are accurate and effective.

We want to see fisheries swap destructive fishing methods for more sustainable options where possible.

We want the government to set and enforce robust regulations so we, as consumers, know the fish on our dinner plates didn’t come with a side of by-catch.

Industry giants argue we’re not too bad compared to other nations. They’re backed up by big-name United States scientists who claim fishery management systems like New Zealand’s are good at producing sustainable fisheries.

American fisheries scientist Ray Hilborn looks only at the relative scale of our industry when he says we probably have the lowest fishing pressure in the world. “All other things being equal, you’d have to say New Zealand probably has the most intact overall ecosystems because they’re subject to less pressure than most other places,”
he told the Dominion Post last year.

“All other things being equal,” he says. But New Zealand has more than 80 per cent of its biodiversity in its oceans, with more species still being discovered. And New Zealand is home to numerous threatened marine species, some of which are found nowhere else in the world.

Are all other things equal?

Besides, the 200 or so dolphins killed on average each year from by-catch probably don’t care for international comparisons that say they’ve got it pretty good. The same goes for the estimated 131 sea lions, 370 albatrosses and 2200 petrels that likewise die in fishing nets each year.

Dr Hilborn, who has been involved in assessing our fish stocks since the 1990s, singles out New Zealand as one of the areas that has “never been systemically over-fished”.

His sentiments are echoed by the Seafood Industry Council, which says simply if it’s caught in New Zealand, it’s sustainable. The council’s website states: “If any fish stock was threatened or at unsustainable levels, the New Zealand government would reduce the TACC to zero.”

True, in 2000 the government slashed the TACC for orange roughy to virtually nothing when stocks collapsed.

Orange roughy stocks increased, but consider the fact that stocks now number between 3 and 20 per cent of the unfished virgin population. The government certainly hasn’t stepped in with such assertions for the many other stocks in decline. Take a look at your Best Fish Guide.

There are many more in the red section than the green.

Over-fishing also upsets the natural balance of the food chain and can cause a decline in biodiversity. Most sharks for example, are landed solely for their fins and the rest is discarded overboard. That practice should be unacceptable, Katrina says.

Not only is it wasteful, it’s risky given we don’t have reliable population estimates and,
worse, because the removal of a predator species like sharks will see a sharp rise in prey populations directly underneath them in the food chain.

This, in turn, will devastate the next prey species down the chain.

Forest & Bird General Manager Mike Britton says moving towards sustainable fishing is essential to safeguarding the future of the industry, fishing communities and an intrinsic part of Kiwi life.

“The ability for New Zealanders to go and catch fish and enjoy eating seafood is an important part of our way of life. Protecting that and the livelihood of communities engaged in the fishing industry needs us to use our resources in a sustainable manner,” he says.

In economic terms, Mike says building more sustainable fishing will only strengthen the $1.4 billion industry. “World markets are more and more requiring the fish they import
to be certified as sustainable. By moving to sustainable fishing methods and catch rates, the industry will position itself well for the future.”

It’s a win-win-win situation. All we need now is for people to act. So next time you’re at your fish and chip shop, ask what fish they’re using and take a look at your Best Fish Guide. If it’s a more sustainable choice, tuck in and enjoy. If it’s on our red list, have a think. Ask yourself, what’s the real cost of that meal?