In popular imagination, New Zealand’s fisheries management system is a globally recognised story of sustainability, reflecting a “clean and green” environmental ethos.
Indeed, New Zealand’s fisheries have been ranked among the best managed in the world - an accolade based on the early and wholehearted adoption of a Quota Management System (QMS).
This perception is echoed in a recently published article, but we take issue with the methodology and its conclusions. Claims that New Zealand’s QMS is an unmitigated success simply do not match the facts.
How New Zealand’s QMS worksfrom www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND
The fundamental idea behind the QMS is that fishers own (or lease) the right to catch a certain proportion (quota) of the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) of a certain species of fish. These quotas can be freely traded. Market forces are assumed to achieve economically optimal outcomes.
The TAC is set via an assessment process incorporating biological data and fisheries information, where available. The TAC is supposed to ensure sustainability.
New Zealand is committed to the most comprehensive QMS, more so than any other fishing nation. The system is a seductively straightforward solution to control commercial fishing effort.
Currently, TACs are set for more than 640 fish stocks, and represent around 620,000 tonnes of fish. But not all stocks undergo an empirical stock assessment.
Because proposals for downward change usually meet resistance from the fishing industry, changing a TAC requires a persuasive case. Most have not changed in response to either over catching or under catching (a consequence of budgetary constraints and political lobbying by powerful quota owners).
From a TAC, allowances are made for customary catch by Māori, recreational fishing and other mortality caused by fishing, for example through poaching. The remainder is the total allowable commercial catch (TACC), which is divided among the quota owners in the form of Annual Catch Entitlements (ACE).from www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND
Trading quota vs catching fish
When fishers do not have enough ACE to cover their catch, they must either buy more or pay a penalty to the government. Both quota and ACE can be bought, sold and leased. One of the unfortunate consequences of the QMS is that more money is made through trading ACE than actually catching the fish. Unsurprisingly, this empowers quota owners at the expense of fishers.
In our rebuttal to the original article, we point out that fish stocks are nowhere near as healthy as suggested. There is a lack of scientific data to correctly run the QMS. Three quarters of fish stocks have no formal or detailed assessment, and very few have independent research surveys.
Most assessments rely on industry self-reported catch and effort data, rather than independent surveys. This is a dangerous strategy, as shown by the collapse of the Canadian Newfoundland Cod stocks in 1992. At that time, fisheries managers chose to believe industry data showing increasing catch per unit effort, rather than scientific surveys suggesting precipitous decline.
Wider ecosystems effects ignored
Funding for stock assessments has significantly decreased; it is about 45% of the levels in the early 1990s while the number of fish stocks in the QMS has increased 3.5-fold.
The broader environmental effects of commercial fishing on biodiversity, endangered species, seafloor habitats and the very ecosystem that supports the fish on which fisheries depend, are becoming increasingly obvious. Even so, little research targets these impacts. New Zealand’s QMS is a data hungry beast and it is starving.
As with all markets, not all behaviours that are incentivised are virtuous. There is money to be made or saved by dumping catches for which ACE is unavailable or too expensive, from poaching and falsifying catch returns. These behaviours have seriously distorted New Zealand’s catch data for decades. This includes massive dumping of unwanted catch and under-reported bycatch, including endangered dolphins and sealions.
Compounding this is the low level of onboard observer coverage (about 8.4% in offshore fisheries and less than 1% inshore) and the lack of effective enforcement. An independent review of New Zealand’s Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) handling of illegal fish and dolphin dumping revealed industry capture of the regulator, involving flawed processes and inappropriate conduct.
A senior MPI manager admitted that:
… discarding is a systemic failure of the current system and something we have not been able to get on top of from day 1 of the QMS.
Thus, the QMS is not just starved of data: what little data it gets is highly questionable. MPI itself, succinctly illustrates the situation in the below diagram.
Authors: Glenn Simmons, Research Fellow, University of Auckland