[Documents menu]Economic and environmental history of Aotearoa - New Zealand
Date: Wed, 17 Sep 97 13:10:07 CDT
From: bghauk@berlin.infomatch.com (Brian Hauk)
Subject: NZ: Maori Activists And Fishermen Discuss How To Protect Fish Stocks

Maori Activists And Fishermen Discuss How To Protect Fish Stocks In New Zealand

By Felicity Coggan, in the Militant
Vol. 61, no. 32 (22 September 1997)

TINOPAI, New Zealand - Residents of this small settlement on the shore of the Kaipara Harbor in Northland voted at a meeting here August 17 to impose an immediate rahui (ban) on commercial fishing in parts of the harbor.

The meeting was sparked by long-standing concerns over the depletion of fish stocks. The fish that breed in the harbor, especially mullet, are a staple part of the diet for local Maori and other residents. Four local Maori communities had earlier declared their backing for the ban.

A number of commercial fishermen who work the Kaipara and are also concerned over the declining fish stocks attended the meeting and supported the ban. They expect to be able to continue fishing in other parts of the harbor.

Peter Yardley, a commercial fisherman in the area for 22 years, told the meeting, "I've never seen such a disaster as we've got on our hands now." He explained that five years ago, local fishermen drew up their own code of practice to help conserve the fishery and respect Maori fishing rights. They established a minimum fish size, increased the mesh size of their nets, and decided to avoid fishing in the areas around the Maori communities.

Another commercial fisherman pointed to the importance of the fishery resource in providing employment in the area. "We want the fishery for the kids - there's not much work elsewhere," he said. Northland has the highest unemployment rate for any region in the country - 9.8 percent compared to a national average of 6.7 percent. As in the rest of the country, the large Maori population here is especially hard hit. Nationally the unemployment rate for Maori is 16.6 percent compared to 4.7 percent for white New Zealanders.

Meeting organizer Mikaera Miru, a spokesperson for Tinopai Maori, described for the Militant the depression- like conditions facing working people in many parts of Northland. Substandard housing, without power or running water, is not uncommon, he said. High unemployment over recent years has resulted in a layer of Maori from the cities returning to family land in the country to support themselves, also reinforcing the need to protect access to the fishery and conserve the fish stocks. "The fish we catch here are very important in terms of supplementing our income," he said. "We've never sold our management rights or ancestral treasure - the sea has always been the richest place of sustenance for Maori people."

Quotas favor big fishing companies

Many at the meeting tended to blame the problem on fishermen from outside the area, legally entitled to fish in the harbor, who come to the Kaipara in an effort to fulfill their quotas. Like many of the local fishermen, they supply the big fishing companies, have contracts with or lease quotas from them. One speaker said these fishers use longer nets, while others said that it was hard to know how many were fishing and what they were catching because they tend to come at night. Some participants at the meeting also raised demands for the government to more precisely define quota areas to protect local groups of fishermen.

Underlying this situation is the devastation of the livelihoods of small fisherpeople, both Maori and white, in recent decades. A series of government moves in the 1980s transformed the catching and processing of fish into a major capitalist industry, with ownership of the fishing resource concentrated in a handful of major companies. Fish is now New Zealand's fourth largest export commodity. Thousands of independent fishermen and women were driven out of the industry, with the few thousand surviving placed in a precarious position.

The first major change began in 1978, when the government established a 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone, bringing all fishing in these waters under the control of the New Zealand government. Prior to this, 89 percent of the total fish catch was by overseas trawlers, with the rest caught by small fishermen working the inshore fishery primarily for domestic consumption. Backed by this state protection, New Zealand-based companies began to increase investment in the fishing industry, including expanding onshore fishing facilities. Today 55 percent of the total catch inside the 200-mile limit is taken by New Zealand-owned vessels.

In 1983, a new Fisheries Act was passed which made all those who caught less than $10,000 worth of fish the previous year, or who earned less than 80 percent of their income from fishing, ineligible to fish commercially. (NZ$1.00=US$0.63). Overnight about 5,500 small fishermen were pushed out of the industry, with many more leaving over subsequent years.

In 1986, a further blow was dealt to small fishermen with introduction of the Individual Transferable Quota (ITQ) system. This designates a maximum tonnage of different species of fish that each company or independent operator is permitted to catch. With the quotas being allocated according to previous catch records, the biggest companies got the largest quotas. The holder of the quota has exclusive property rights over the fish stock it covers, and can sell or lease the quota to others. Today, many small fishermen have quotas that are too small to live on. Most are forced to buy or lease quotas from the big companies, in return for selling their fish exclusively to that company.

One fisherman at the Tinopai meeting explained that he could earn only $100 a week from his quota, and said he had been lucky to be able to set up an oyster farm to supplement his income. Prices for fish have dropped steadily also. "I get less for my fish now than I got eight years ago," he said.

The quota system has been portrayed as necessary to conserve the fish resource. The effect has been the opposite, however. In an interview in the Sunday Star Times July 27, Mikaera Miru criticized the quota system, which he explained forces fishermen to dump fish species they catch for which they do not hold quota. He referred to Tinopai residents finding legally sized fish washed up on rocks. "That's the absurdity of quota management - perfectly good fish are being dumped and we have nothing. It's turning the fishermen against each other too."

Damage to fishing stocks

More lucrative but also more destructive techniques of fishing, such as the use of monofilament nets, have increased as fishermen compete. The entry of large-scale capitalist enterprises into the industry has opened new species up to harvesting, such as the deep sea orange roughy, and to their potential decimation.

The August 17 meeting formed a committee of local residents and commercial fishermen to investigate the establishment of a reserve to allow tribes to permanently protect fishing rights and control fishing in the area. This had been suggested by Labour member of parliament Dover Samuels, who attended the meeting.

But most participants in the meeting were still firmly of the opinion that some immediate action, such as the rahui, needed to be taken. The council for the local tribe has not endorsed the ban however. Chairman Tom Parore explained in the Sunday Star Times July 27 that they feel it inappropriate for restrictions to be suggested as tribes are currently negotiating for shares of the fisheries quota.

These negotiations relate to compensation awarded to Maori tribes by the government in 1992, in recognition of the loss of their fisheries, guaranteed under the Treaty of Waitangi. The Treaty was signed in 1840 by the British colonial authorities and leading Maori chiefs. The compensation settlement, today worth $700 million, includes fishing quota, major shares in fishing companies, and cash. Its allocation has since become a matter of considerable debate and is as yet unsettled.

The decline of fish stocks in the Kaipara is mirrored in other areas and for other species. Earlier this year, the government imposed a 40 percent cut in the snapper quota, needed, it claimed, to ensure survival of the fishery. Snapper is the largest commercial species in the upper North Island of the country. Scientists estimate numbers of legally sized snapper in the North Island regions of the Hauraki Gulf and the Bay of Plenty have fallen from around 100,000 tons in the 1950s to 36,000 tons today. On July 22, however, representatives of the fishing industry succeeded in overturning this decision in the Court of Appeal, claiming they stood to lose $300 million annually and citing the threat of job losses.

Mikaera Miru has called on the government to help enforce the rahui in the Kaipara harbor. He points to the rahui of shellfish gathering already in place at other locations, but thinks that the government "is scared of the flow-on effect and wants to protect the commercial fishing industry because it is worth so much more than shellfish."

Felicity Coggan is a member of the Engineers Union. To get an introductory 12-week subscription to the Militant in the U.S., send $10 US to: The Militant, 410 West Street, New York, NY 10014.

For subscription rates to other countries, send e-mail to themilitant@igc.apc.org or write to the above address.

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