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The price of fish

Fish and chips is an iconic Kiwi dish, and we're a country of seafood lovers, but just how much can our oceans take? Dave Hansford finds out if it's possible to make an environmentally sustainable fish choice.

The humble hoki is one of New Zealand’s most-eaten fish—and a huge export earner. But our best catch was almost lost when the certified-sustainable fishery collapsed in 2007. Now, overseas supermarkets and restaurants are refusing to stock the fish, and hoki populations are still down by half. How did it all go wrong—and how is the industry getting back on track? Dave Hansford investigates

Above: School of trevally.

NB: An edited version of this story appears in the print issue of Good #11, Mar/Feb 20010.

Every July, millions of hoki leave their feeding grounds around New Zealand and make unerringly for the fathomless dark of the Hokitika Canyon. In the freezing midwaters, they swarm in carnal fervour. By the month’s end, each female will release more than a million eggs. Billions more are produced at another hoki spawning ground in the Cook Strait.

Such plenitude, you might think, must be an unquenchable expression of life—but these annual throngs have not gone unnoticed.

Our fishing fleet knows where to wait for them. Early in the month, up to 60 New Zealand and foreign trawlers arrive at the spawning grounds, gathering the long, rat-tailed fish in nets with a gape the size of a rugby field. Lengthwise, they would comfortably hold a 14-storey building. By spawning’s end, they will have dragged some 110,000 tonnes of hoki to the surface.

Prior to the 1970s, it’s likely hoki would have been thrown over the side, but today it’s New Zealand’s most valuable fish. Virtually all of it will end up in processed fish products—crumbed fish cutlets, fish fingers, fish burgers—and around a third will be exported. In the US, McDonald’s alone takes around 6,800 tonnes annually for its Filet-O-Fish burgers.

A decade ago, the Total Allowable Commercial Catch (TACC) of hoki was close to 250,000 tonnes a year; total catches per season averaged between 100,000 and 140,000 tonnes throughout the 90s. But even hoki couldn’t sustain that rate of loss. By 2007, the annual catch had plummeted to 29,000 tonnes.

What followed is either a triumph of sustainable management, or a damning indictment of it, depending on whom you talk to. The fishing industry claims kudos for cooperating with the Ministry of Fisheries on a series of TACC reductions that it maintains led to the recovery of the hoki stock. Environment groups cite the fishery as another example of heedless overfishing, and regard the quota slashes as a desperate attempt to claw the hoki fishery back from total collapse.

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Perceptions matter when a fish is worth $150 million in exports to an increasingly sensitive market. Hoki products attract a premium because the fishery was awarded certification in 2001 by the British-based Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), after an eco-audit pronounced the fishery to be sustainably managed.

That green tick is worth millions every year, and the industry defends it ruthlessly. When the New York Times wrote in September 2009 that New Zealand’s hoki fishery showed “ominous signs of overfishing”, the New Zealand Seafood Industry Council hired US public relations company CounterPoint Strategies to go after the writer, William Broad, with a ruthless strategy intended to hold the journalist personally responsible for alleged errors. CounterPoint bought advertising on Google for combinations of keywords and Broad’s name. Links took viewers to the Council’s hoki web page, which ran a comprehensive rebuttal of Broad’s story.

As the net wallows in the trawler’s wake, seals dash inside before it can be drawn closed. Once the net is drawn shut, there’s no escape, and many drown or are crushed in the retrieve.

Nevertheless, criticism of the fishery and its MSC seal of approval persists. Environment organisations appealed the endorsement in 2001 and 2006, but the fishery was re-certified in 2007. “The MSC standard is probably the best game in town,” says Forest and Bird marine conservation advocate Kirstie Knowles, “but we continue to have a problem with the process by which that standard is applied. Loopholes in the process allow the industry to say, ‘Well, we haven’t met the standard, but we’re working towards it’.”

One of those loopholes tolerates the deaths of dozens of New Zealand fur seals in hoki nets every season. Fur seals can pick off only the shallowest stragglers of the swarming hoki; it’s much easier to steal a meal from the fishers, who’ll tell you that seals can distinguish between the sound of a winch setting an empty net, and the groan of one hauling a full net to the surface. As the net wallows in the trawler’s wake, seals dash inside before it can be drawn closed. Once the net is drawn shut, there’s no escape, and many drown or are crushed in the retrieve. Fishers have spent big money trialling devices that allow the seals to exit the net unharmed, and broadcasting deterrent ultrasound, but to date results have been mixed.

Then there are the seabirds—albatrosses, shearwaters and petrels—that die when they fly into the thick steel cables that pull the net, or are otherwise drowned in the melee for scraps.

Still more criticism stems from the industry’s legal wrangling. The industry has successfully taken a number of sustainability decisions—including attempts to reduce TACCs and sea lion by-catch limits—to court. It’s also lodged a judicial review of measures to protect threatened Maui’s and Hector’s dolphins.

Blacklisted for bottom trawling

New Zealand is something of a pariah for its practice of targeting spawning fish, says Knowles. “Fisheries scientists overseas are astounded we still do that. In most other places around the world, it’s accepted practice to leave those aggregations alone; they’re no-go areas.”

“We’ve probably done more damage in the deep water than anybody else, because we’re the ones who did it first, and that expertise has now been exported globally. We’ve got a lot of karmic debt to repay.”

But Knowles’ biggest problem with the hoki haul is that as much as half of it is caught by bottom trawling. Trawl nets are fabulously expensive, and no skipper will risk damaging or losing one, so bottom trawling employs huge steel rollers that trundle along the seabed ahead of the net, crushing anything that might damage it.

“Bottom trawling is one of the most destructive methods of fishing,” says Karli Thomas, oceans campaigner at Greenpeace. These nets destroy everything in their path—not just hoki stocks, but the habitat they rely upon. “By having such a dubious fishery as our first MSC certification, we’ve done ourselves no favours, and it really is a black mark on MSC’s ledger book as well.”

Bottom trawling is one reason hoki has come under intense international scrutiny lately, and overseas retailers are responding to the opprobrium it’s attracting. In the US, hoki has been dropped from the menu at seafood restaurant chain Long John Silver’s, which no longer accepts that the fish is caught sustainably. UK supermarket chain Waitrose—the first to stock organics back in 1983—adopted a seafood policy 12 years ago that rejects threatened species and bottom-trawled fish. Despite the hoki fishery’s MSC certification, Waitrose recently confirmed it would not be stocking hoki at its 214 supermarkets.

According to Greenpeace’s Thomas, the reaction exposed the fact that we can’t rely on an eco-tick that ignores the fishing method and how destructive it is. In the other corner is George Clement, chief executive of the DeepWater Group, a fishing industry body that represents some 96 percent of all quota-owning fishers, including hoki. Clement says the claims of rejection by Waitrose are “mischief by Greenpeace”. Waitrose’s decision has nothing to do with bottom trawling, he says. “They wouldn’t stock it even if it were line caught, because hoki is a process product, family-restaurant sort of fish, and people who shop at Waitrose are upper-middle class; they’re quality conscious. They don’t buy that sort of fish.”

The concern about bottom trawling is understandable, says Ministry of Fisheries chief executive Wayne McNee. Although the Ministry’s work on developing a seabed impact policy stalled some time ago, he says a recent increase in resources should see progress “in the next 18 to 24 months”.

McNee’s expecting a lot of debate about what’s acceptable and what’s not. “Most of the NGOs I’ve talked to would say that no bottom trawling is acceptable. But it’s the only way you can catch some species—orange roughy and, to an extent, hoki. About eight percent of the EEZ [Exclusive Economic Zone] has had some sort of contact fishing, so we’ll be asking ‘is it acceptable to have bottom trawling where it’s been done before? Do we continue to allow it? Or is it totally unacceptable?’”

Clement says it’s a moot question. “There is a lot talked about bottom trawling,” he says, “and most of it is hoo-ha. Any form of food production, even organic farming, alters the landscape.”

At the other extreme of the debate is Barry Weeber, co-leader of Environment and Conservation Organisations of New Zealand (ECO), who says New Zealand is to blame for damage to the seabed all over the world, because our fishers pioneered deep-water trawling techniques. “We’ve probably done more damage in the deep water than anybody else, because we’re the ones who did it first, and that expertise has now been exported globally. We’ve got a lot of karmic debt to repay.”

How much is enough?

In the same month the New York Times denounced our hoki fishery, the catch quota for hoki was increased by 20,000 tonnes. A stock assessment had found that more young hoki had been recruited into the population—though numbers were still less than half their 1990 abundance. Environment groups were incensed. Hoki had had a good season, but whether stocks were sufficiently recovered to raise the quota was another matter.

“Rather than being cautious as he’s required to be, the Minister has bumped the quota back up to the same level it was when the stock was at its all-time low,” says Forest and Bird’s Knowles.

Fisheries minister Phil Heatley defends the quota hike, saying the stock assessment justifies an even larger increase, and that he erred on the side of caution. We could be taking one hoki out of every four or five, he says. “At the moment, we’re taking about one in six, because we’re allowing the stocks to rebuild to a higher level.”

For Weeber, the whole business sounds an unnerving echo from the past. He sees parallels with our devastated orange roughy fisheries. “One roughy stock has been assessed at three percent of its original biomass. We’ve now closed three of our roughy stocks because of poor management and overfishing.”

Despite the differing views and the criticism, there’s a general acceptance that New Zealand’s Quota Management System (QMS), under which fishers are granted a form of property right to take specified amounts of certain species of fish, at least provides the basis for a better way to manage fish stocks. Quotas can be bought, sold, traded or leased in perpetuity, turning the fish into a bankable asset. The theory was that once the fish’s potential monetary worth became clear, fishers would regard them as a resource to be managed, rather than a gold seam to be mined.

It’s fair to say the QMS has changed the way we treat our fisheries—it’s just that not everyone’s convinced it yet provides the world-leading sustainability the industry claims.

“Handing out property rights does nothing unless you are setting a baseline for the fishery at a sustainable level,” says Weeber. “If you don’t do that, then all you have is a regime for collectively overfishing the stock. And that’s basically what happened with a number of New Zealand’s fisheries. Because quota is a bankable asset, fishers have wanted to keep catch limits higher than were sustainable.”

“The QMS is very good in theory,” says Forest and Bird’s Knowles. “The problem is that it requires good information on the status of stocks. Of the 628 fish stocks that we have in New Zealand, we currently have enough information to determine the status of 117.”

“Buyers are wanting proof of the sustainability of our catch, and it’s having an effect. I’ve seen a changing attitude.”

McNee acknowledges that’s a problem. “There are definitely some gaps in our knowledge. A lot of those species we simply don’t have very much information about. The allowable catches are set on historic catch levels, and have been that way for a while.” But he sees an upside to the bad publicity around hoki. It has given the industry a wake-up call, he says. “Buyers are wanting proof of the sustainability of our catch, and it’s having an effect. I’ve seen a changing attitude.”

And despite their seemingly intractable disagreements, it seems all parties do agree on one thing: more money is needed. Fisheries research spending has halved since the 1990s, says Knowles. “Research on the aquatic environment, protected species, and fisheries impacts is very minimal.”

McNee says there should be more money from science funders MoRST (Ministry of Research, Science and Technology) and FoRST (Foundation for Research Science and Technology). “It’s not an area where they put in very much investment.”

Industry spokesman Clement agrees. “We’ve gone to the government and said, ‘We need to lock down a ten-year research plan which is consistent, comprehensive, robust, and … will provide the best database of any fishery in the world.” He wants to see a “fisheries technician” on every boat to collect information and send it digitally to a database so the industry can manage the fishery in real time.

“We have to adopt international best practice. In fact, we should be leading best practice. We know there’s work to be done, and we’re undergoing a step-change to manage fisheries significantly better than we have been.

“But I say—particularly to Greenpeace, but also to Forest and Bird and WWF—‘Don’t stand on the sidelines throwing rocks. Come and help us be the best in the world. You can be part of this.’”

All three groups say they’re already on board. Forest and Bird wants people to be proud of our fisheries, and to support them, says Knowles. “We’re asking people to buy from New Zealand fisheries, but also to demand good fishing practices from them.”

“At the moment, we still rely on methods that have been rejected by supermarkets in other parts of the world,” says Thomas. “It’s an easy shift to make. There’s nothing ‘best practice’ about bottom trawling.”

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Photo by Dave Hansford

A fisher’s life

The Steve Mayree, skippered by Grant Robinson, heaves to in a lazy, lapping swell just metres from the boundary of Taputeranga Marine Reserve, off Wellington’s south coast. Robinson knows the tide here will rip west for another nine hours or so, holding his nets well away from the closed area. He sets two: one in 18 metres of water and another further out, around 24 metres deep, along a ribbon of clear bottom between patches of kelp.

The water is limpid, the Strait uncharacteristically languid, and it’s a neap tide on the moon’s last quarter—the sort of conditions, Robinson reckons, when blue warehou move out of the trawl lanes of Cook Strait and come close enough to shore for him to nab a few. When you’ve been fishing for 22 years, you learn a thing or two.

Tomorrow, when he comes back to retrieve his nets, he’ll know whether his hunch was right. If he isn’t, he won’t be coming back any time soon because the cost of even putting out to sea these days makes fishing a more considered business.

“In the old days, we used to go fishing whenever the weather let us,” he says, “but these days, if you’re not fishing smart, you’re not surviving. We can’t afford so much as a break-even day.”

Years ago, he gave up on line-fishing for bluenose, school shark, ling and bass in the deeper waters of the Strait. “The money wasn’t in it.”

He took a punt instead on where the markets and the money might be moving; he bought what quota he could and leases the rest for blue cod and paddle crabs, which are carted live to Auckland to be snapped up by Asian buyers. “There’s no money in bulk fishing,” he says. “I’d get $4 a kilo back to the boat for blue cod, which is not enough.” The live market is “good for 300 kilos a week” and he gets $15 a kilo.

At 60 feet, the Steve Mayree is big for an inshore boat, but she gives Robinson and his crew the security of being able to head up either coast when he wants to give the local grounds a rest. But the vessel’s size, he says, can be a liability. “People see the boat and assume we catch loads of fish. People used to wave at us—now they give us a hard stare.”

He also feels the glare from environment groups, which have called for a total ban on gill nets, like the ones he’s just set for warehou. He’s looking at switching to more selective fish traps, “just in case they get their ban”.

Fishing, he remembers, used to be “a really fun thing”. He’ll keep running the Steve Mayree as long as he can afford the diesel, because he wants to give his son the option of taking her over if and when he wants to. But the inshore fishing fleet has shrunk by around half since he started out. “All those guys took their knowledge with them. How do young guys get started? The industry is on the edge. We’re getting hit from all sides these days. It wouldn’t take much to tip us over.”