Stamping out the illegal discarding of unwanted fish is the key issue David Parker says he's fixing with his fisheries amendment bill.

But while that is in the bill going through parliament, he's also taken the opportunity to streamline the clunky process by which the government decides how much of each fish stock is allowed to be caught (the total allowable catch or “TAC”).

The bill sets up the rollout of cameras on boats and tidies up the rules on which fish has to be landed and counted against quota rights. It also introduces the use of “pre-set decision rules” that can be used to adjust the TAC more often than the current system.

Decision rules are something that’s been on the policy radar for many years with virtually every stakeholder agreeing the current process is broken, as it only manages to review 10 to 30 fish stocks each year out of the 642 in the quota management system.

Unresponsive

Randall Bess, a former fisheries official and spokesperson for recreational fishing group Fishing Mainland, told a select committee hearing that the United States typically reviews its fish stocks every other year, with a three-year interval considered unresponsive to the changes going in the fishery.

The local rock lobster industry wrote in its submission: “Prior to the wide use of decision rules in lobster fisheries, it was usual, because of the resource intensity of the process, to review only one or two stocks a year, with each stock having a full assessment and review approximately every five years.

“With decision rules, we have the potential to review most of the nine stocks on an annual basis.”

The rules sound like the sort of pragmatic solution that goes down well with a NZ audience and yet somehow instead of the debate mainly being about the cost of installing cameras on boats, everyone is up in arms about decision rules instead.

'Truck and trailer'

Speaking at a select committee hearing last week, Glen Carbines from recreational fishing group Good Fishing went as far as accusing the government of trying to sneak in these provisions like a “truck and trailer under the shadow of cameras on boats and progressing bycatch issues”.

The repeated refrain from the recreational and environmental fishing lobbies was to dump the decision rules and green light the parts dealing with illegal discards.

Even the fishing industry itself turned up its nose at the government’s approach to decision rules because the drafting didn’t reflect what was consulted on and because the drafting has stirred up so much opposition it could make it politically fraught to advance the policy idea altogether.

What the government proposed in its 2019 consultation document and even in the regulatory impact statement, is quite a different (ahem) kettle of fish from what made it into the bill.

'Your fisheries, your say'

The 2019 document (“Your fisheries, your say”) discusses a fisheries management tool called “harvest control rules” that are already being used in some fisheries such as those for rock lobster, paua and orange roughy.

These “rules” do not currently have the weight of law, which is why there is the need for an update to the law to apply them more widely and to ensure that, once they are agreed, the government will stick to them.

The “Your fisheries, your say” document discusses a mechanism that would:

  1. Last up to five years before they would have to be reviewed.
  2. Only be applied to commercially important fisheries because these are the ones that have the scientific data needed to apply them.
  3. Specify how the TAC would be adjusted according to the fisheries abundance indicators calculated from the scientific data.

The policy analysed by the bill’s accompanying regulatory impact statement has the same three key features.

Even the example of a decision rule set out in Parker’s cabinet paper follows this design – yet somehow the bill does not.

What the bill has landed on could not be fairly described as a decision rule at all, but instead allows for a pre-set range for the TAC, within which the minister has the absolute freedom to set whatever catch limit his ministry advisors tell him to.

The bill does not require the rules to have a formula or methodology by which fisheries indicators effectively instruct the minister what the TAC should be set to – which is how harvest control rules currently work.

The rules do not need an expiry date, although ministers can set one if they wish.

They also allow rules to be set for any fish stock, with no regard to the adequacy of the data available for managing it in such a fashion.

Up in arms

As a result, recreational fishers and conservation groups are up in arms about the relatively unbridled powers the bill would grant the government.

Major iwi player Ngāi Tahu also believes the rules are a sticking point and even the peak industry body, Seafood NZ, said it was concerned the original policy intent had not been translated into the bill.

It appears that part of the bill has zero support in its current form and it will take more than a few modest tweaks to tidy it up.

At a minimum, this will make it difficult to achieve the government’s aim for the bill to be passed in time for next year’s fishing season.

So Parker may be very tempted to listen to those calling for it to be split into two parts, with decision rules put on a go-slow, so as not to hold up the illegal discard reform agenda which many already consider to be long overdue.

Disclosure: Jem Traylen was a fisheries policy analyst at MPI from 2013-16.