Navigating a sustainable future for our oceans and fisheries

Speech to fisheries, research and environmental stakeholders, Auckland University 8 June 2022, by Ocean and Fisheries Minister David Parker.

Thank you Professor James Metson, Professor Simon Thrush and Auckland University for the opportunity to speak today. It’s a pleasure, given the interest and expertise that Auckland University has in areas like coastal and ocean ecosystems and fisheries and aquaculture.

I want to acknowledge the work of Dr Andrew Jeffs and Dr Maren Wellenreuther, for their part on the expert panel guiding the report on The Future of Commercial Fishing in Aotearoa New Zealand, undertaken by the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor. I know the hard work and insights of another dozen researchers from this university also contributed greatly to that report.

Course today marks World Oceans Day, which causes us to come together to celebrate, protect and restore our blue planet. The underlying sentiment connects everyone in this room.

 In New Zealand, oceans define our way of life – they determine our climate and shape this country culturally, recreationally, and economically.

Many of us have grown up near or live by the sea, and our oceans and fisheries help put food on the table and create jobs in our communities. We want to protect our diverse ocean ecosystems so that can continue.

Increased pressures and demands have, and will continue to threaten the biodiversity and ecological integrity of many marine ecosystems, including some fisheries. Many of you have experienced these or seen their impact first-hand.

These challenges do not end at our maritime boundaries. Actions in New Zealand have effects on the global ocean ecosystem. The health of New Zealand’s marine environment contributes to the health of the rest of the world.   

We've got some things we can be pretty proud of. Our management system has been more successful than most at addressing simple, sector-specific issues but has difficulty managing the complexity of interacting pressures and conflicting uses.

This Government recognises the importance of oceans and the range of pressures our oceans and fisheries face. We established the Oceans and Fisheries portfolio to help manage our oceans in a more integrated way.

The Government’s vision for the portfolio is that we, “ensure the long-term health and resilience of ocean and coastal ecosystems, including the role of fisheries”. It is focused on ocean ecosystem health because that is the wider context within which we need to operate. We need to have resilient and healthy ocean and coastal ecosystems to provide for us now and for future generations.

Three key objectives support this vision.
The first is to promote an ecosystem-based approach to research, monitoring, and management.

The second is to establish a spatial planning framework that optimises protection and use of marine spaces and resources.

And the third is to support the development of a high-value marine economy that provides equitable wellbeing benefits.

This Government‘s increased focus on oceans and fisheries is reflected work being progressed in support of these objectives.

I want to share some of this with you today and to hear from you about your priorities.

Revitalising the Hauraki Gulf

One of the country’s most valued and intensively used coastal spaces is the Hauraki Gulf. Its waters and islands support a range of species from seabirds to seabed dwelling corals.

To ensure the Gulf can be enjoyed by future generations, this Government has delivered its strategy for action, Revitalising the Gulf, in response to the call for action made by the 2017 Sea Change – Hauraki Gulf Marine Spatial Plan. It addresses many pressures on this environment. I want to acknowledge those from this university who helped shape this important strategy, including Professor John Montgomery, for his role as a member of the Sea Change Ministerial Advisory Committee. I also want to thank those who supported the development of the original Sea Change plan, and the Hauraki Gulf Forum for their work in raising awareness about the Gulf’s degradation.

Revitalising the Gulf sets out a long-term plan to improve the health of this important area and drive integrated actions, including establishing new marine protection areas and the development of the country’s first area-specific fisheries plan.

The fisheries plan will restrict trawl fishing to carefully selected corridors.

Complementary work is underway via the National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management. The serious effects of land sourced activities on sediment loads in the Firth of Thames must be better addressed.
An advisory group has been established to support revitalising the Gulf is made up of stakeholders in local fisheries management decisions. Work to finalise the fisheries plan is to be completed later this year.

Scallops

Soon after taking responsibility for the Oceans and Fisheries portfolio I became concerned about the parlous state of New Zealand’s scallop fisheries.
Scallops from the top of the South Island were once the largest scallop fishery in the country. However, it has been closed since 2016 due to decimating stock levels, Reseeding efforts have been unsuccessful in recent years.
Northland and Coromandel scallops even before this year have had very significant reductions to catch limits in recent years, but even reduced levels of catches were at near historical lows. There were individual events that worried people, the spike up and then rapid decline in catches in Opito Bay worried me, and I took active steps to get more information.

Image removed.In September 2021, I approved a request made by the Ngāti Hei Trust to close the east Coromandel scallop fishery for a period of 2 years. This followed a customary rāhui placed by Ngāti Hei on the Opito Bay area in December 2020, to take pressure off the scallop fishery.

Updated scientific surveys received soon after for key scallop fishing areas confirmed my and community concenrs that scallop beds are in very bad shape.

It was clear that immediate action was required. My decision to close the Northland Scallop fishery and close most of the Coromandel scallop fishery took effect from 1 April.

I acknowledge these decisions will impact fishers’ livelihoods and that there will be fewer scallops available for consumers, at a higher price. But the drastic closures was necessary to protect the little stuff that is left.

The closures were necessary to protect and rebuild these important fisheries. Consideration is also being given to how they can be better managed. I have commissioned further survey work to provide a robust baseline to track how the few areas which remain open in the Colville Channel will respond to the closures and catch reductions. I am anticipating this work will be completed prior to the start of the commercial scallop season in July.

I believe the causes of the decline include scallop fishing methods, fishing pressure generally, the discovery and exploitation of previously unknown beds which may have been a spawning source, the use of GPS technology to exploit beds once discovered, population pressure and last but not least sediment from.

Currently, all commercial harvesting is done using dredges are –dragged through the scallop beds to pick up shellfish.

Currently there is no other legal method for commercial scallop fishing in New Zealand. However, over time, we expect other approaches and innovative technologies to become available.

Fisheries New Zealand recently completed consultation on a package of technical regulatory changes, including removing the prohibition on the use of underwater breathing apparatus by commercial scallop fishers. This could allow commercial an alternative to dredging in areas where scallop harvest is permitted.

In addition, the Government, through the Ministry for Business Innovation and Employment’s Endeavour Fund has supported NIWA to develop alternative methods for surveying scallops without impacting the seabed. Research like this could see significant changes in how scallop fisheries are managed and harvested.

The sad story of the loss of our scallops should worry everyone in the room. If I had one ask of you, it would be to get active in planning processes in councils in respect of sedimentation effects in coastal areas. 

Fisheries Amendment Bill

I want to turn to the Fisheries Amendment Bill. The current fisheries was world leading in many ways when introduced.. However, it is a product of its time reflecting the science, technology and management approaches of the 1980s and 1990s.

We need to take advantage of technological changes and advances in science to improve our fisheries management system.

The ability to legitimately return a range of fish to the sea without incurring a cost has discouraged better fishing practices and innovation in new catch technology.

This was made clear in the 2016 Heron Report into Operations Achilles, Hippocamp and Overdue, which showed that discarding and high-grading was a long-standing problem that has not been effectively managed.

The scale of it remains contested, with catch reconstructions models suggested the problem was largely than the Government acknowledged them. I don’t know where the truth lies between those two views, but there’s enough knowledge of the problem allied with alternative new technologies to address the problem to know that we should so something about it.

The Fisheries Amendment Bill does this by tightening commercial fishing rules for which fish must be landed, and which fish are allowed to be discarded at sea.

These changes will incentivise fishers to catch the fish they value, and increase the minimum operating standards – driving increased environmental performance while also introducing opportunities for new value to be realised. 

I am aware the part of the Bill is controversial to some. There are concerns that an instrument making it easier to create pre-set rules could undermine the sustainability provisions in the Act and so weaken our move towards a broader ecosystem-based management approach. It’s an issue I’m aware and interested in, and we look forward to exploring those concerns through select committee which is now underway.

On-board cameras

The Bill also furthers the use of on-board cameras.

This is a key component of the Governments fisheries reform. It follows the 2019 roll out of cameras on vessels operating in core Māui dolphin habitats. It builds on the work in 2017 by the then-Minister, Nathan Guy under National when the Mike Heron report came out. That Government was clear that cameras were necessary but sadly the work which was expensive wasn’t funded until last year by this Government.

We confirmed last week that some 300 inshore fishing vessels will be fitted with cameras by the end of 2024, providing more accurate information about fishing activity and better evidence for decision-making. We’re using cutting-edge artificial intelligence software that will improve the technology, including by helping manage costs, New Zealand will be at the forefront of on-board camera technology.

The software uses machine learning to recognise relevant activity for recording. When the software detects activities such as setting a net or hauling, the cameras move into high-definition capture and the relevant footage is stored and marked for upload. This reduces footage storage and review costs, and better protects the privacy of fishers.

The independent information cameras provide will further support the professional reputation of our fishing industry, and inform confident fisheries management decisions – helping ensure sustainability whilst avoiding overly conservative actions. It’s a big step towards a more data-driven, integrated, and responsive fisheries management system. 
 

Seabirds

An important component of the Oceans and Fisheries work is the protection of at-risk species. Seabirds are among the most threatened groups of birds globally. New Zealand is guardian  of many species including albatross and petrels.

The current population decline is particularly concerning for a long-lived and slow-breeding species like the Antipodean albatross.

The current decline means that over the next three generations, the Antipodean albatross will be on the verge of extinction if we don’t take action both here and internationally.

In 2020, the government delivered a National Plan of Action to reduce fishing-related capture of seabirds. This focuses on developing new bycatch mitigation practices and improving the practices already in use. 

In December last year, New Zealand proposed and signed a joint Memorandum of Understanding on Seabird Conservation with Spain, a key fishing nation. This has been well received, and is an important step towards improving international cooperation on seabird conservation, especially for Antipodean Albatross. 

We have since drafted an implementation plan for cooperating with Spain to improve seabird protection. This involves shared scientific and policy initiatives to research, strengthen, and advocate for seabird conservation globally.

Another key to improving the international practices around seabird bycatch mitigation lies in strengthening the rules of Regional Fisheries Management Organisations. New Zealand continues to lead advocacy in the Pacific region, including on improved seabird measures and compliance with these.

We have prioritised the monitoring of seabird measures in our surveillance operations in the Pacific. We have also successfully advocated for seabird conservation in bilateral negotiations. In our official oceans and fisheries dialogues, we have secured agreement with China and the European Union to collaboratively work on seabird conservation as a higher priority.

During this time, New Zealand has also been actively conducting research on the Southern Hemisphere Risk Assessment, to comprehensively analyse the risks posed to endangered species by fishing vessels. We have collected important data and conducted successful trials, which will continue to be a priority.
 

Bottom trawling

I want to also discuss the topic of bottom trawling. I acknowledge that bottom trawling contributes to New Zealand’s commercial fisheries, but that it impacts the marine environment – notably the seafloor and its associated communities.

When it comes to the waters of New Zealand’s Exclusive Economic Zone, we are collaboratively reviewing whether the current management settings relating to bottom trawling on seamounts and seamount-like features need to be amended.

Fisheries New Zealand and the Department of Conservation have established a multi-stakeholder forum, tasked with developing better ways to address the effects of trawling on the benthic environment in the EEZ. 

      The forum discussions will be supported by a new spatial tool, developed with input from a science working group. The tool brings together the best available information on the distribution of benthic species, fishing activities, seamounts and seamount-like features.

For inshore waters within the Territorial Sea, the focus is on establishing trawl corridors in the Hauraki Gulf, which I have already touched on, and progressing the South East Otago Marine Protection proposals.

Introducing a combined bag limit for recreational fishers

Turning for a moment to recreational fishing.  Fisheries New Zealand’s most recent survey of recreational fishers estimated there were nearly 2 million recreational fishing trips in 2017/18. And of course that creates pressures, and not all of them good.

In June 2021, I learned of large quantities of pink maomao, and other finfish species, being taken by recreational fishers in the Tairua area, Coromandel, as they were not subject to a daily bag limit.

At the time only 43 species were subject to a daily recreational fishing limit. There are over 1,000 finfish species found in New Zealand waters, meaning the rest were open to overfishing.

The quantity of fish taken in Tairua outnumbered what I and most  members of the public felt was reasonable. It was clear that the daily bag limit was not working and urgent change was required.

Cabinet agreed and changed the rules so from 5 May, all recreationally caught finfish are to be included in a combined daily bag limit, unless specifically excluded.

This is a big change and puts an end to the risk of excessive legal take which could affect the sustainability of a species. Separate daily limits for the likes of kingfish were retained but are now included as part of the daily bag limit, so the system is also simpler to understand.

Aquaculture

As I have said, the Oceans and Fisheries portfolio supports the development of a high-value marine economy that provides economic benefits.
Internationally, more fish are farmed than are caught wild.
Aquaculture presents a significant opportunity for sustainable economic development while using a relatively small part of our environment. I know it’s an area of research that’s important to this University, particularly on issues like spat which underpins the farming of Greenshell mussels.

The potential of marine aquaculture is recognised in the Government’s Aquaculture Strategy, which aims to realise growth to $3 billion in annual aquaculture revenue.

Key to this is unlocking the regulatory settings that have lurched from one set of rules for space allocation to another. None has worked well. Recent experiences in the Marlborough Sounds, where warmer sea temperatures have contributed to massively increased salmon mortalities, highlight the need for better management and a more agile response to environmental change.

I am committed to addressing these barriers through reform of the Resource Management System, so that the sector can achieve its potential while protecting the environment.

 Changes are needed to enable better management of existing aquaculture, and the development of open ocean aquaculture.

The Ministry for Primary Industries has released a roadmap which identifies the investments required from the industry, Māori and research organisations and the Government to realise the Aquaculture Strategy’s $3 billion goal. Officials are working with these partners to identify key priorities and how they can be progressed.

Significant work is already underway. For example, the Government is supporting several aquaculture projects to farm high-value algal products, and explore land-based farming of finfish.
The potential economic benefits can be significant locally.

The Government has made significant investments to support the development of a Māori-led aquaculture industry in Te Moana-a-Toi Bay of Plenty.

This includes investment in Ōpoptiki Harbour, onshore mussel processing, and Te Huata Mussel Spat Hatchery at Te Kaha totalling over $100 million, and broader work to help iwi assess opportunities and develop business cases.
This has helped turn around communities, with job opportunities underpinning wider investments in housing, lifting local communities.

These investments and other investigations will support Iwi to develop significant marine farms as part of two historic Te Tiriti o Waitangi settlements, and the collective aquaculture settlement.
Biosecurity and environmental risks will need to be properly managed,
but initial businesses cases have shown at scale development could contribute up to $1.5 billion in revenue and the creation of more than 2000 jobs.

There are of course wider issues in the fisheries sector. There are real labour shortages, partly because people can get other jobs they would prefer to do. That’s true of both the deep sea fishing fleet, lesser extent in the inshore fishery, and also in fish processing. We need to deal with these labour market challenges both at sea and onshore.

We want to continue to push towards automation for a lot of these functions and we also want to increasingly position our fisheries in world markets with the highest environmental reputation.

The amount of wild caught fish in New Zealand is unlikely to significantly increase. So, we need to focus on increasing the value of the catch. The highest value domestic and international consumers are increasingly demanding sustainable seafood products. There are emerging innovations in fishing methods, traceability, and data analytics which create new opportunities for commercial fishing.

But also we need in Government and organisational form around which to address issues like this, in various sectors in our economy, and so do industries. We’re doing that through Industry Transformation Plans and we’ve kicked one off for the fishing sector.

My officials will be engaging with our Treaty Partners, and with representatives from business, unions, and other stakeholders, over the next few months with a view to producing a draft Industry Transformation Plan that can be implemented from mid-2023.

Conclusion

We must strive to meet the challenges before us using sound science, careful use of natural capital and a deep commitment to make tangible progress towards our vision for healthy resilient oceans.
Many valuable contributions are being made, for example by from the Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge and by the Environmental Defence Society. Just tomorrow Minister Kiritapu Allan is launching an EDS report called The Breaking Wave: Oceans reform in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Healthy oceans benefit current and future generations. We all have a part to play in sustaining the future of our ocean ecosystems and biodiversity, for the intrinsic values as well as for contribution to out lifestyles, our livelihoods, and our economy.