Hāpuka/groper Photos: National Aquarium of New Zealand

The dizzying statistics of biodiversity loss offer a parable. 

Ninety percent of the world’s seabirds (including those in New Zealand) are threatened with extinction – creatures that have existed on our planet for 100 million years, in the most exquisitely evolved, finely balanced mastery between ocean, air and land. 

With the latest technologies and tracking devices, we are only just beginning to realise the genius and capacity of these birds, and the ways in which they contribute to the turning of our planet and our own existence, at the very point in which it’s also becoming clear we are destroying them. 

The latest science indicates fish, too, are more sophisticated than we could possibly imagine, but we’re ‘losing’ them in greater swathes than we can categorise. And cutting-edge technology (like sonar trackers) is being weaponised to hunt them down and kill them on an industrial scale that is barbarically gruesome, cruel and distressingly wasteful, as, simultaneously, we expand our horizon of understanding. 

It’s hard to register the repercussions of fish ‘harvested’ in measures of a tonne (a 100 million tonnes, globally, per year, a quarter of that ‘bycatch’ – seabirds, dolphins, unwanted fishes), when we know still so little about our complex ocean systems and the rich biodiversity they hold. 

This much though is certain: fish don’t exist as ‘stocks’ to be extracted, but integrally within an interdependent network of relationships and interactions, in an environment that is under siege from ocean acidification, plastic pollution, sea warming, land-based runoff, as well as overfishing. The decimation of one species portends the collapse of so much more. 

Including fish within our moral circle of care 

Eating tuna is like eating tigers, I’m told – apex predators that are critically endangered. 

But we don’t think of fishes as animals, as kin. Too often, we fail to even see them for what they are: individual, sentient beings, who have consciousness and feel pain, living their lives within their own Umwelten (differently experienced worlds), in untold diversity. As fish ethologist Jonathan Balcombe points out, the word ‘fish’ encompasses “60% of all species on Earth with a backbone”. 

In New Zealand, we have a Bird of the Year but no Fish of the Year, because we don’t eat endangered birds. 

Independent Ahuriri fisher Karl Warr posed the question “who speaks for the fish?” in a TV interview with John Campbell as he discussed his reasons for voluntarily equipping his fishing boat with a 24/7 livestreaming webcam (betterfish.co). He spoke of the need for accountability (consumers increasingly demand it) and the ethical, humane treatment of fish. 

And it’s a question I’ve spent weeks pivoting around. 


So we shouldn’t eat fish, then? 

We’ve been fishing since time immemorial, long before we farmed animals, so the idea that we should all stop eating fish is too simplistic. Seeing locals surfcasting off the shore at sunset, it seems such a natural impulse, a relationship with the ocean and ourselves; the so-called Kiwi way of life. 

Recreational fishers in Aotearoa catch some 11,000 tonnes of fish per year – sounds a lot, but that accounts for only 3% of what’s caught in NZ waters. And recreational fishers are some of our most vocal advocates for fish. 

But if you’re not going to catch (respectfully) a fish yourself, how can you ensure you’re not complicit in the worst of fishing’s excesses? 

The government’s quota management system was supposed to do that for us, but it’s outdated, flawed, and more infuriating even than our over-heated, inequitable property market in the way its original intentions have ultimately played out (read my 2019 article ‘Saving Our Fisheries’, baybuzz.co.nz for more on this, or watch the recent, excellent TV3 documentary The Price of Fish, also shared on YouTube). 

“One of the dilemmas of approaching extinction is that, as you become rarer, you become more precious, which in turn makes you more valuable as a commodity. Today one bluefin tuna can sell for over a million dollars [US]. Ounce for ounce, that’s twice the price of silver.” 


Our government certainly doesn’t speak for fish, the fishing industry as a whole even less. 

I download Forest & Bird’s Best Fish guide app, but its traffic light coding is a bit blunt, based on the MPI’s scale of fisheries (eg. the east coast of the North Island, from Waikanae to East Cape) that doesn’t account for regional variances. And while farmed salmon from the South Island, for instance, is seen as a sustainable choice, I’m conflicted about the ethics of, essentially, battery-farmed fish who are denied expression of their natural inclinations.

To really know what’s on your plate, you need the nuance of the local. And as with all best food choices, it comes down to provenance – knowing where your fish is from, who caught it and how, and at what cost. And in Hawke’s Bay, choosing locally caught inshore fish (preferably, directly from the fisher) is your best option (see side bar, page 52). 

The seven commercial fishers on the Hawke Bay inshore fishery are working together with LegaSea to manage the fisheries more sustainably, both through more innovative fishing methods and voluntary agreements, such as closing the ‘Springbox area’ near Cape Kidnappers to commercial fishing over summer. Wayne Bricknell (LegaSea) and Rick Burch (commercial) both say fishing has definitely improved as a result over the last five years, so the trajectory is in the right direction.

A mana whenua perspective

Along the Central Hawke’s Bay coast around Pōrangahau, Jim Hutcheson is infamous in his passion for the sea. The Ngāti Kere kaumatua and tangata kaitiaki is one of the last in the area to have grown up with the old ways, knowing “a time of abundance” before the first commercial fishing boats in the 1960s, when you could surfcast for snapper from the beach, collect fat pipi from Tautane (there’s none there now) or hand-pot sacksful of crayfish in a night. 

And he’s staunch in protecting what’s left.

He once threatened to sink any commercial fishing boat that came within “touching distance” of the clam reef in the Ngāti Kere taiāpure (locally managed customary sea area) and he’s been known to “chase them off” when a blunt phone call alone doesn’t do the trick. But it requires an unrelenting vigilance (“they’ll drift in with their nets”), AIS tracking, and fielding calls from locals who ring in with suspicious sightings. 

Back in the day, there was certainly trading – flounder and herring from the Pōrangahau river mouth were sold up at the pub, for example, Jim tells me, when I sit down to talk with him, and with appointed kaitiaki Diane Kernan (née Wakefield, Ngāti Kere) and her husband Justin, in the two-storey ranger’s house overlooking Te Angi Angi marine reserve. 

“But our people would only go fishing if the moon was right, if the season and the species of fish was right.” There was tikanga, karakia, the maramataka (Māori lunar calander). They observed what the environment was telling them (when the pōhutakawa flowers the kina are ripe, for instance), they respected fish nurseries and spawning areas, and they didn’t fish 365 days of the year.

“For us, it’s not about catching fish for fish, it’s a means of sustenance. It’s what we’ve lived on all our lives. It’s what’s fed our people for the 500 years they’ve lived here on this coast. It’s what identifies us.” 

Pōrangahau is renowned for its kaimoana and its hospitality. When visitors come to the marae, “they expect us to put on the table crayfish, or paua or kina,” says Jim, “that’s part of our tradition, our mana.” But it’s getting harder to do and there’s growing pressure from other regions too, where coastal cupboards are increasingly bare. “We get calls from hāpu on the west coast for our crayfish – it’s unbelievable.”

Everything changed with the introduction of the quota management system in the 1980s, Jim and Diane note, which is when commercial fishing (crayfish) in Pōrangahau took off in a big way. Some of the hāpu got quota because they could prove they’d been catching and selling enough fish to qualify, but subsistence fishers were locked out. Māori were effectively disenfranchised from their rohe moana, in violation of the Treaty.

Jim believes one of the biggest stumbling blocks for sustainable fishery management, has been the Crown’s subsequent ‘Maori solution’ in 1992 to grant coastal hāpu a customary right to fish for food – “which was our right in the first place!” – while allocating iwi the quota for commercial catch (20%) under a Pākehā system of law. 

“But our people would only go fishing if the moon was right, if the season and the species of fish was right.” There was tikanga, karakia, the maramataka (Māori moon calander). They observed what the environment was telling them (when the pohutakawa flowers the kina are ripe, for instance), they respected fish nurseries and spawning areas, and they didn’t fish 365 days of the year.


This separated trade from tikanga, commerce from custom, when both had always gone hand-in-hand before. And took away not only the ‘trading piece’ but a voice at the fisheries table from those who know the fishery most intimately: “We’d like to think that we have a say in this moana that we’re kaitiaki of. But we don’t get a say.” 

To this end, the Coastal Hāpu Collective (from Mahia down to Wairarapa; Jim is chair) was formed to negotiate with Ngāti Kahungunu (NKII) a more workable, collaborative, kaupapa Māori way forward. And in 2008 they came up together with the Ki uta, ki te tai (KUKT) agreement, a marine and freshwater strategy, which includes contracting hāpu (who have the relationship) to catch some of the iwi’s quota. Jim believes this would be “monumental”, if only it would actually be enacted. 

Of one thing Jim’s certain, “If we keep going as we are, under a Pākehā rule of money, there’ll be no more fish left to catch. And if there’s no more fish left, what will happen to us?”

Marine conservation

Marine reserves, or conservation areas, are seen by scientists as a key way to temper the abuse of our oceans and give marine wildlife and ecosystems a chance to recover. And we need them to, for our own survival as a species, in ways we still don’t yet fully understand. 

Currently 2-3% of the world’s oceans are under protection; the science says in order for our oceans to have a chance – and time is running out – that figure needs to jump to 30%. In New Zealand, which has one of the largest exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of any, we protect just 0.04%, while a third of our land, in contrast, is legally protected (to some degree or another) for conservation. 

David Parker, new minister for Oceans and Fisheries (the first time oceans have had a dedicated portfolio), has re-opened the process for finalising the proposed Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary, an area that encompasses 16% of our EEZ, and that stalled under the Key Government for want of genuine Māori consultation. 

The idea that people and the environment are somehow separate is antithetical to most indigenous cultures, including Māori, and any conservation plan in this space, particularly in customary areas, will need to ensure it’s not just an imposition of a Western solution but partners respectfully with indigenous wisdoms. 

As Dr Bob Richmond, a marine conservation scientist in Hawaii, points out, the Pacific is where the action is in terms of global marine reserves; it’s the Pacific Islands, with their indigenous view of intergenerational stewardship, that are showing both leadership and where the future lies in ocean care. 

In 1997, Ngāti Kere gave a 446-hectare area of their taiāpure over to DOC in good faith to establish the coastal Te Angi Angi Reserve, with the partnership agreement to be reviewed in 25 years’ time (2023), allowing the next generation to make a decision, says Jim Hutcheson. The static, hands-off, ‘no touch’ reserve is a Crown notion of conservation, however, and he’s not convinced it’s the way forward. He’s baffled there have been no DOC studies of the reserve since 2005, and monitoring records have been lost – so what’s happened in that time?

The Māori interpretation of conservation (rāhui), he explains, is a much more dynamic approach that requires actively identifying fish nurseries and spawning areas (not just on the coast but out at sea), for instance, placing 

a rāhui there for a period of time (say 5-10 years), and then extending or shifting it elsewhere in response to closely observed and monitored need.

It’s also what we do on land

Hawke’s Bay Regional Council can’t tell me much about fish in our sea; it’s only recently they’ve begun monitoring fish in the estuaries. 

Though a third of HBRC’s area of oversight is under water, as with NZ as a whole, “we know less about our coasts and oceans than any other environment.” (Our Marine Environment Report 2019). There are too many knowledge gaps (though HBRC scientists are working on it) and their legal responsibility is not the wildlife per se, but “the effects the things we are able to influence” have on the ecosystem. 

Things like the staggering flow of sediment from farms and forestry blocks into estuaries and the coastal marine area, and physical disturbances to the benthic floor by trawl fishing, dredging, etc, which are two key stressors for our kaimoana species.

HBRC is trialling an ecosystems-based management approach to these stressors (as part of a Sustainable Seas challenge), trying to work out through a comprehensive systems-mapping process, the “mix of ways that would be most efficient, have the most bang for buck, and have the least unintended consequences.” 

But ultimately, it’s also about understanding better the complex dynamic and function of our coastal ecosystems, and our role within them, so we can respond and adapt more readily to challenges like climate change, and the unforeseen, like new contaminants we don’t yet know about.

For their part, the fishers I speak with are worried about the effect of chemicals from the sewage outfall at Awatoto on our fisheries, about urban stormwater pollution in our estuaries and toxic land-runoff, and about the introduction of invasive pests, like the Japanese starfish, brought in through the Port on ship hulls and in ballast water.

There’s historical precedent for what seems to some a painstakingly thorough and glacial approach to deciding action on obvious issues. By straightening Hawke’s Bay’s rivers in neat, stop-banked channels to prevent flooding, we shifted more meandering waterways to short, ‘flashy’ rivers that flush sediment from the hills directly into the sea, for instance. And by draining 98% of our wetlands to create ‘useful’ land, we took out our landscape’s most effective filtering systems. 

We have a record of failing to see the repercussions of our solutions beyond the immediate fix.

I’ll be unpacking ecosystem-based management and our marine and coastal ecology in our March/April issue. In the meantime, you can read my exchange with HBRC marine scientist Anna Madaraz-Smith, ‘We need a socio-ecological shift in managing our marine environment’, on the BayBuzz website. 

A brief guide toHawke’s Bay fish

Gurnard/kumukumu – One of HB’s most plentiful, popular, inshore fish. They’re fast-growing, highly fecund, so a sustainable consumer choice. Live on muddy, sandy floor off small crustaceans (crabs, shrimp), worms and small fish like juvenile flounder. Have both ‘wings’ and six spiny ‘legs’, and unusually solid skulls. 

Hāpuka/groper – Long-lived, slow-growing (mature at 10-13 years), big fish (mature at 10-13 years, live to 65), highly sought after but threatened by over-fishing – we shouldn’t be eating them, but we do. Used to be found abundantly in shallow coastal waters but now only found in the deeps. Have never been studied, but it’s recognised locally that they’re in trouble on the East Coast and HB fishers have agreed to voluntarily drop their bag limits this summer.

Kahawai – also called ‘sea salmon’, good fishing, seem to be ok (probably because they’re not as commercially valuable). Found mainly in coastal seas, harbours, estuaries, but are also pelagic (feed in open seas); school together in large groups; thought to spawn offshore on the seabed.

Koura (crayfish), paua and kina – key species of importance for local Māori. Hāpu at Waimarama want a 2-year rahui (ban) on paua takes. Crayfish around the coast are becoming less plentiful and smaller in size. 

Kuku (mussel) beds – Mussels are filter-feeders and play a huge role in filtering water. Each mussel can filter up to 350 litres of sea water a day. So they’re not only a key food source, but ecologically important. In the Firth of Thames, for example, in the first half of the 20th century, the mussel beds there used to filter the entire bay within 24 hours. They’ve now been depleted so much that the remaining mussel beds take 2 years to filter the same volume of water. We had significant mussel beds too here in Hawke Bay, largely wrecked through trawl fishing and dredging, and adversely affected by sedimentation. 

Patiki/flounder (NZ sole or turbot) – fast-growing, short-lived, fecund flatfish, abundant in parts of HB and one of the most sustainable table options. 

Rig shark – also called lemon fish and spotted dogfish. Small sharks found in coastal waters and around estuaries, commonly used in fish n’ chips. Have high levels of mercury in them because they feed mainly on creatures like crabs, which are bottom feeders. Important commercial species but we don’t know much about them so difficult to ‘manage’ sustainably – we don’t even know where they breed and how, although scientists suspect in estuaries.

Snapper/tāmure – very popular but chronically overfished. These pretty coppery-pink and white fish with small blue dots on their sides release numerous batches of eggs through spring and summer. They’re versatile in their habitat range and can live for 60+ years. 

Tarakihi – silvery fish with a black band, take about 5 years to mature, live up to 30-40 years. The East Coast tarakihi population has been pillaged to a critically low level (less than 16%), according to MPI’s own stock assessments; but Ahuriri fishers who’ve been making collective efforts to fish more sustainably, say tarakihi numbers appear stable in HB. Tarakihi sold in chip shops here is locally caught (bottom trawling).

Yellow-eyed mullet/aua – the most common fish by far in our HB estuaries. Form large schools of fish. Often used as bait, but can be eaten too – though considering Napier’s stormwater and sewage overflow goes through the Ahuriri estuary, perhaps not! 

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  1. My thanks to Bridget for this article and it’s summaries.

    Depletion of our fisheries is stunning and immense. What I can remember is not what my father would remember, nor is it close to what my daughter would think is ‘normal’. I feel confident that we probably doom more fish by polluting their environment with sediment and/or bottom trawling than we do by catching them – obvious examples are Hawkes Bay, the East Coast and Marlborough Sounds.

    In truth I am short of ideas about how to promote this, other than I know it must be done with consultation and agreement of Maori. The fishery industry have the quota system but most wholeheartedly resist management changes, simply because it seems ‘Wild West’ in reality prevails and is preferred.

    My belief is that 50% of New Zealand’s coastline should go into ‘no take’ reserves, except for customary take (local Maori) – not for ever, but likely as long as a human generation, or such time as our fisheries recover. All of us need to sacrifice something to our allow fisheries to recover and over time they will – take a look at Poor Knights or Goat Island. Poking a stick at the problem will not make any measurable difference.

  2. Great story Bridget….. we need to keep building the momentum to have the voice of our precious coastal and marine environment heard.

    Neil Kirton

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