Recreational fisher Wayne Bicknell (on right) and commercial fisher Rick Burch (left) have been mates for 40 years. Their shared grandchildren (Wayne’s daughter married Rick’s son) are what motivate them to push for change: “We’ve both had a lifetime of enjoying the ocean – we want that for our grandkids too.”

NZ may have led the world with the quota management system (QMS) to control harvest levels – a bold move back in the 1980s when NZ was one of the first countries to implement one, effectively reducing overall fishing effort and rationalising its industry – but we lag behind internationally when it comes to managing the marine environment upon which these very fish depend. 

It’s a blunt tool and by many accounts it needs not just sharpening, but an entire redesign.

World-leading … in NZ

When you look at NZ’s industry reporting, it’s all in glowing terms, manifestly out of step with the alarm raised about significant declines of fish (some scientists claim the oceans will be devoid of seafood by 2050). And there’s no room for a hint of critique here … I have been warned in no uncertain terms.

But as Raewyn Peart notes in her excellent review commissioned by the Department of Conservation, Voices from the Sea: Managing New Zealand’s Fisheries (2018): “Frequent reiterations of the proposition that New Zealand has a world-leading system when issues arise is arguably unhelpful … It can trivialise what are serious issues, imply that no change is needed, and impede open, honest public discussion about the nature of the problems faced in fisheries and the best way to resolve them.”

In fact, there’s often little overlap between what happens on paper and the reality at sea – what the regulatory body understands, what the industry wants, and what fishers themselves observe don’t always align.

To run an effective QMS is expensive and research intensive, but by international standards we run ours at a relatively low cost in comparison to value of landed fish. The QMS initially applied to 26 species but has now expanded to 98 (divided into 642 individual ‘stocks’). The amount spent on empirical stock assessments, however, has dropped by half, with most of the $21 million research fund focused on high-value export fish and very little on the ‘people’s fish’ – those on the inshore fishery. Most of the fishery stocks haven’t had empirical assessments for 20, even 30-plus years. 

In Hawke’s Bay, the last trawl survey was undertaken by MPI/NIWA in 1993 on snapper, but deemed ‘incomplete’. There’s been no on-water research to gauge the state of our fish stocks since. 

Instead, MPI is reliant on self-reporting from fishers for its baseline data, setting harvest limits, some would say, on sketchy assumptions. Fish discards at sea are not accounted for, and that’s a big problem – how many juvenile fish are we losing and what’s in the bycatch? We don’t know – though footage I’ve seen suggests a distressing level of waste. 

Currently rules are inconsistent, open to interpretation and hard to comply with. Often they’re completely baffling for those who must adhere to them – why do undersize gurnard need to be landed, for instance, while snapper and travelly are ‘returned’ to sea (and by instruction not recorded)? There are an estimated 7,000 compliance rules and proscriptions to abide by, depending on where, what and how you’re fishing. Yet they don’t appear to be protecting our fisheries adequately.

It’s tricky to detect illegal harvesting without onboard ‘observers’, but currently for inshore fisheries that coverage is less than 1% of vessels annually (deepsea is at 8%). That’s been the chief argument for cameras on board, but then how to analyse such mass amounts of data? AI will be key, say Fisheries NZ, but we’re not there yet.

Moreover, it’s questionable whether such a singular approach, measured solely on the productive yield of individual stocks, is even sustainable from a management perspective. 

One of the original intentions underpinning the QMS, was that by having a stake in the fishery, fishers would be motivated to guard against overfishing and the collapse of their income source. But through the aggregation of tradeable quota, NZ’s fisheries are now largely in the hands of a few conglomerates. In NZ over 80% of quota is owned by five corporations; 60% of its offshore catch is taken by foreign charter vessels. Those out on the boats hauling the fish have increasingly no stake (or security) in the game at all, working as tenant fishers for ocean tycoons. It’s relevant to question whether this is the kind of system that’s best in terms of both social and ‘stock’ sustainability. 

Hard to change

LegaSea (representing recreational and sports fishing associations) and environmental groups say a fully independent statutory inquiry into NZ’s fisheries management system is required – indeed Labour’s 2017 election policy commit to an independent review into the performance of MPI and the QMS. 

So far, no review except from MPI itself which has been appraising its fisheries management system since 2015. The only detailed proposals so far encompass electronic reporting and vessel-monitoring regulations. They recently consulted on proposed changes to the QMS: primarily around changes to discards, offences and penalties, the process of adjusting catch limits and technical tweaks, and an emphasis on encouraging innovation. Cameras are now on hold til later this year.

Wayne Bicknell of LegaSea HB, is incredulous. “This is it?” he asks, pointing to the submissions brochure. “This is their answer to reviewing the QMS – it’s a fiddle. Every 3-4 years they bring in another one of these, and you’ve got to consult on it, but nothing changes. Apart from the odd tweak, there’s been no meaningful move on the QMS in 30 years. If you’d had a business going for 30 years, you’d have to change things, wouldn’t you? That’s why we asked for a total review.

“Electronic reporting – that doesn’t save any fish, it’s just a formality of running a commercial fishery. They’re really hanging their hat on this, as being the biggest thing they’ve done in years – which it is. But it’s just a progression in time, like every other industry has done in adapting to the digital sphere.”

He was interviewed for a BayBuzz article in 2012 (Fishy Business, on BayBuzz website); what he was saying then still stands, word for word. “Nothing’s changed,” reiterates Wayne.


Rick Burch has been a commercial fisher in Ahuriri for almost 40 years, for the last 25 he’s been developing his own light-weight trawl gear, addressing carbon footprint, benthic impact and release of juvenile fish (with a 78% success rate). He shows me footage of a conventional diamond-mesh net – there are whitebait and other small fish caught in the mesh, they look not just dead but damaged; it’s clear nothing escapes. 

Rick’s worked with world-class netmakers and technicians, received international attention for his innovations and an award for sustainable business, but he says MPI have never shown interest until now. Support for innovation and improving practice has not been forthcoming for small fishers like himself. “I get paid $2.40 for a kilo of snapper that cost $40 in the supermarket. That does not allow me to buy the best electronic equipment.”

He’s critical of what he sees is a lack of hands-on, informed knowledge and spurious science – such as CPUE (catch per unit effort) reporting, where stocks are measured against past catch efforts without factoring in the idiosyncracies within a mixed fishery. Your tarakihi CPUE might have fallen, he says, not because there were less to catch but because you may be targeting other in-season species.

Rick believes our fisheries have been mismanaged. To be blunt: “We’ve fucked it up.” He sold his own quota some years back when he was no longer able to catch his allocated tonnage. He shows me a photo from 1994. “With flounder, I wouldn’t catch in a year what I used to catch then in a three-hour trawl shot; hoki, once everywhere, is now the rarest fish I catch… but the ministry didn’t even notice.” 

Local fisher John Wheatley, selling the day’s catch down at the wharf.

Hawke’s Bay’s blue bit

It was Wayne and Rick’s agitation that spurred the regional council to commission a report on what we do, don’t, and should know about our marine environment.

This led to the multi-stakeholder Hawke’s Bay Marine and Coastal Group, and a research roadmap last year. In regards to fisheries, it identified a paucity of information on our most commonly fished species and little understanding about the effects of demersal trawling to the benthic seafloor. But this is part of a bigger picture of unknowns.

“When we brief our land managers,” says HBRC marine scientist Anna Madarasz-Smith, “we tell them where our rivers are, we tell them where the trees are, the cliffs. For our marine resource managers we go, well, there’s your blue bit – it’s just blue, we can’t even characterise it.”

HBRC councillor Neil Kirton points out that a third of the regional council’s operating environment is under water, but “we’ve never spent a dime on it”. Through HBRC’s ‘hotspot’ project, “We’re just starting to do so. We allocated a trifling $200,000 in the marine and coastal budget for it, which essentially buys us a few ups and downs with a submarine camera to look in the first instance at the Wairoa Hard snapper beds, and very little else … My view is that we need collaboration with central government and to quickly get up to over a $1m a year invested in research.” 

He’s disturbed by the inshore influences of wastewater discharge (from municipal outfalls, marina, cruiseliners) and the impacts of sedimentation: “What you’ve got is a very dynamic, complex ecosystem, obviously affected by immediate stressors but then impacted probably to a calamitous level by climate change … The issues are huge and the investment is minuscule.” 

Ngahiwi Tomoana, who has just closed Ngāti Kahungunu’s wholesale purchase of local fishing giant, Hawkes Bay Seafoods (see page 30), believes more needs to be done from a whole picture view. “People are blaming the commercial fishermen for the resource disappearing, but a lot of it comes from land practices, farming.” The siltation of waterways, for example, leaching out into the marine area and covering the spawning grounds for new fish. Hence NKII’s Kahutia afforestation programme with riparian planting efforts around upstream water sources. 

“We’re not just relying on our efforts on the sea, we’re relying on our efforts on the land, and that’s where regional council and iwi and environmentalists, corporates, farmers can all work together in order to achieve a shared vision around our water, which leads to our marine environment, which leads to a much healthier fisheries environment.”

Sustainable management

NZ has the fourth largest Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the world, but our marine space lacks a consistent management approach. The Fisheries Act is largely focused on single ‘stock’ management based on the theoretical construct of maximum sustainable yields (MSY), an approach that doesn’t recognise ecological complexity, ecosystem connectedness or the impact of cumulative stressors (such as trawling, sedimentation or climate change). Nor does it include statutory public participation, unlike other environmental legislation. 

The Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge ( is about to complete Phase 1 of its 10-year research project into developing a holistic, inclusive ecosystem-based marine management (EBM) approach for Aotearoa, which would have as its objectives, both “healthy, functioning ecosystems and a thriving blue economy” – not business as usual, but an economy that builds economic value into genuinely sustainable practices, resonates with kaitiakitanga-based approaches and recognises “the need to define values beyond traditional one-dimensional measures of monetary return”.

Anna Madarasz-Smith says the regional council is looking to get on aboard the Sustainable Seas Challenge to explore how EBM could work here in Hawke’s Bay. “It’s quite a young concept for NZ, though it’s not internationally,” she explains, “it would be a first.” 

She believes in Hawke’s Bay we’re in a unique position to try something new: “We do require some impetus to move in that direction. Whether that’s just maturity as organisations – and that’s that paradigm shift – or whether it’s an overarching legislative policy, I don’t know. It just seems sensible that you manage it as a whole.”

Local area management

Hawke’s Bay’s inshore fishery comes under Fishing Management Area 2, which stretches 1373km from East Cape down to Wellington and up to Kapiti Island – an area many argue is too big, doesn’t align with localised stocks and undermines efforts to manage our fisheries effectively through collective initiatives, such as the Springbox, a 235km2 zone out past Cape Kidnappers where the springs bubble out, attracting scores of fish. 

The Springbox is closed (voluntarily) to commercial fishing from December through February each year, an agreement monitored by locals and recreational fishers and respected by the dozen or so commercial fishers in HB. But what happens when a boat from Wellington comes up (which happened) and takes out 12 tonne of gurnard, as they legally may? 

Rick believes local area management is the way to go: “Let’s work together and run our own coast”. He says there are examples of this already, such as the Springbox, but also earlier local body decisions to close the inshore area from Cape Kidnappers to Waipatiki to large fishing boats and to protect the Wairoa Hard between Nuhaka up to Mahia Peninsula (no boats allowed), and there is talk of imposing horse-power limits in certain areas of the Bay. 

Ngahiwi Tomoana says NKII would “support that to the hilt” and is keen to see the Government use HB’s fisheries management area (FMA2) for “recalibrating” how we do fishing. Now that iwi are “in the wheelhouse”, they want to do better than the law, using their cultural base to influence both regulations and commercial behaviour. “Use us as an example,” he insists.

When the idea was put to Minister Stuart Nash at a public forum in Napier, he gave an impassioned response: “Go for it! I’m all for local area management, it’s the ideal, in my view.” 

But Steve Halley, MPI’s Inshore Fisheries manager, cautions, “You ensure sustainability by managing the stock across their whole biological range … stock moves, it doesn’t recognise any boundaries.”

However, he concedes there’s a need for much greater integration. “In the future we are likely to be investing a lot of time, effort and resource into this; it’s a level of thinking far more complex than just looking at individual stocks. We want to start working with communities, councils to look at more holistic plans.” 

He acknowledges that government partnerships have tended to be at the large corporate level (such as the $52m project on precision seafood harvesting). He says while there’s a “strong intention” to consider more EBM approaches (and where to trial them) and to look at how to support smaller scale fishers and inshore fisheries, he’s reluctant to raise expectation. “It’s a case more of watch this space rather than anything concrete.”

Where to from here?

The future must point towards an integrated, holistic management of resources. In the long-run it’s more pragmatic and less-expensive, and with issues like climate change facing us, we can’t think in silos. It appears Fisheries NZ under Minister Nash is open to this direction in the marine space, if only in principle as yet.

This shift requires investing substantially (both at the local and national level) in overcoming our ignorance about a world that’s been largely invisible to us. We need to know, not guess, what’s happening in our coastal and marine environments. With modern technology, this should be possible. 

And then take action.

This entails a willingness to take more inclusive, collaborative approaches and a bit of boldness in seizing opportunities. The political grunt required can’t just rest on a minister’s shoulders – we’re all going to have to do some lifting and demand the necessary changes.

Consumer power 

By virtue of New Zealand’s quota management system, all NZ fishing, whether bulk-harvested, trawl-caught with conventional nets or the latest tech, or hooked on a long-line, can claim to be ‘sustainably caught’. You’ll find that statement on every company website. 

But if you’re happy to accept the word ‘sustainable’ at face value on the packaging, then “Welcome to a world without fish”, for that’s where business as usual will take us. 

So how to eat fish in Hawke’s Bay without a guilty conscience? What are the more sustainable options, if you’re not in a position to go out and hook a fish yourself?

Get the Best Fish Guide mobile app or download from Forest & Bird have ranked the ecological sustainability of 85+ commercial species on a traffic light basis: “great to eat”, “ok”, “worst choice”. 

Make provenance and best practice a selling point. Before you buy fish, ask where it’s from and how it was caught. Request sustainable fish choices on menus in the eateries you patron. 

Buy local, buy seasonal, same as you would for any other premium produce. Ask your local fishers what’s in season – yes, fish have seasons too, and these differ with species.

Head down to the Ahuriri wharf and buy direct off the boat from small, independent fishers, such as John from Tinopai Sea Harvesting ( It’s cheaper for you, he gets paid more, and he’s doing his bit to fish as sustainably as possible. 

Enjoy fish at following restaurants: Craggy Range, Pacifica, Bistronomy, Hygge Café in Clifton. They purchase genuine fresh, local, sustainably caught, in-season fish from Napier’s independent outfit, Better Fishing.

As consumers, we need to demand more transparency, more sufficient proof and provenance. We must question beyond this particular fish species is endangered, but also has it been caught under fair labour conditions, how was the ecosystem impacted, was the animal itself respected?

These issues are barely, if at all, addressed by our present regulatory system. And until the public demands change, our fisheries will suffer. 

Takitimu Seafoods

Ngāti Kahungunu (NKII) has realised a long-held dream through its recent purchase of Hawkes Bay Seafoods, the region’s largest fishing entity, answerable for 70% of the catch landed at Ahuriri and 80% staffed by iwi members. 

“Two hundred years ago we were absolute fishermen,” explains Ngahiwi Tomoana, who as chairman of NKII since its inception 24 years ago actively pursued the acquisition. “ If you go back 30, 40 years, we had no contact with Tangaroa, except customary fishing, because we’d been decommercialized out of the game.” QMS quotas were given to fishers according to their reported fish takes, but subsistence fishers earning below a certain threshold (ie, most Māori) had already been locked out of the market. When this was challenged under the Treaty of Waitangi in the early ‘90s, Māori were ceded 10% of the fisheries, which they’ve steadily built up over the ensuing decades, now owning half the quota. 

The QMS has been a pathway for Māori to “repatriate our relationship to the sea”, but until recently NKII had been “leasers of fish” under a contractual arrangement for employment and training. Now it’s the first iwi in the country to own the whole process ‘from bait to plate’, and it has huge ambitions. 

Ngahiwi sees the Kahungunu coastline as “the fruitbowl of the ocean – there’s no other fishery in New Zealand that matches the variety and diversity of fish that we can fish off our coast … We want to preserve that as the best fishery we have in the country, and we can only do that if we, and this is our aim: take less fish and make more money.” By “turning hunter-gathers into food specialists”, ensuring each fish caught is the very best and that it’s marketed with its provenance and story.

Ngahiwi was mightily impressed by the abundance and beauty of the paua he saw in the Chatham Islands recently, a result of the coastline being “locked up” for the last 10 years. “Now we can do that here too, so we’re looking at rāhui, at prohibitions up and down our coast that will restore weightable kaimoana for our families… we’ve got a 660km coastline and if we lock parts of it up every year for a 20-year period, we’re going to have a healthy rock fishery.”

He implies the same could happen with catching methods for commercial fisheries. NKII have been trialling nets so more juvenile fish escape, and Ngahiwi says the inshore fleet will shift towards more long-line fishing. Ngahiwi says the iwi has worked against commercial trend in the past on crayfish quotas, the eels, paua, and will do so again on a whole range of species (gurnard, tarakihi, snapper) if necessary. In a pre-emptive move, NKII are looking to partner with Animated Research Ltd to “experiment with putting their cameras on some of our boats, so we get real-time intel on what’s happening in the ocean, collecting our own data… we want to know what’s happening.”

The iwi’s experience of eeling – where they haven’t touched their commercial quota for 15 years in order to rebuild stock, says Ngahiwi, only to see it plundered (legally) by fishers from outside the area – has seen them keen to exercise political influence and close some of the regulatory loopholes, including the “open book” permitting of species like tuna and mackerel, which are not on the QMS.

NKII already has a 2,600-hectare licence to farm fish off the coast, and while it’s their ambition to put in a mussel farm, the iwi wants to turn part of it into a recreational fisheries park too, putting in a sunken wreck as a fish aggregating device, that’s also good for diving, tourism, recreational fishing. 

“We are bringing a wide-angle lens to the fisheries because we want our fisheries to be here for another thousand years.”

Ngahiwi is frank, the $70 million investment is “a huge risk for us as an iwi.

I’m scared shitless about what could go wrong. But we’ve got all these great ambitions, and not to do it, not to take this commercial step is to inhibit, or retard our ambitions in the whole environmental sector.”

“We’re under microscopic scrutiny from the conservationists, from the recreationists, from the Ministry, and from ourselves as well – everyone is watching…. I’m scared shitless about what could go wrong. But we’ve got all these great ambitions, and not to do it, not to take this commercial step is to inhibit, or retard our ambitions in the whole environmental sector.” 

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