The health of New Zealand's fisheries

New Zealand takes the health of its fisheries seriously. We have a careful approach, built on decades of peer-reviewed scientific assessment and compliance activity. The Ministry for Primary Industries is always interested in any information which will assist with the important task of ensuring there are enough fish in New Zealand’s waters for current and future generations.

It's about fish in the water

The measure of sustainability is abundance – that is the amount of fish in the water.

We focus our efforts on ensuring there are enough fish in the water for all of New Zealand's most important fish stocks. It's an approach that is working – our scientific assessments show that some 96.4% of fish of known status come from stocks where sustainability is not a concern. For the remaining 3.6% we have plans to bring the fishery back to sustainable levels.

To support this work, the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) invests more than $22 million a year in fisheries science research to support these scientific assessments. They involve New Zealand's fisheries scientists from universities, industry, non-government organisations, and MPI. Together, they have produced a significant amount of peer-reviewed scientific research which reveals increasing levels of fish abundance in New Zealand's waters.

Find out more

Catches are restricted if stocks are too low

MPI's approach, in summary, is that where we have evidence that fish stocks are too low, we rebuild the stock by restricting the catch.

There are plenty of examples where this has worked. One dramatic example is with several orange roughy fisheries, which have come back from a very poor state and are now being considered for certification by the Marine Stewardship Council.

Studies rank us best in the world

New Zealand's scientists are not the only ones that have concluded New Zealand's fisheries are in good shape. Three recent, independent and internationally peer-reviewed studies, in 2009, 2010 and 2011, have ranked New Zealand's fisheries management as the best in the world.

Study 1: Worm Hilborn – 2009

This internationally peer-reviewed study assessed the performance of fisheries around the world. It gave New Zealand the highest possible rating for ecologically sustainable management. The report's authors praised New Zealand for being one of the first countries in the world to take action to actively manage its fisheries to ensure long-term stability.

  • Boris Worm, Ray Hilborn et al. (2009): Rebuilding Global Fisheries. Science Vol. 325 (5940): 578-585.

Study 2: Alder Cullis-Suzuki – 2010

This international study ranked New Zealand first among the 53 major fishing nations for managing marine resources.

  • Alder, J., Cullis-Suzuki, S., et al (2010): Aggregate performance in managing marine ecosystems of 53 maritime countries. Marine Policy Vol. 34 Issue 3: 468-476.

Study 3: Pramod – 2011

This independent study looked at the monitoring, control and surveillance systems across 41 fishing nations and again, ranked the New Zealand system number one.

  • Pramod, G. (2011) Evaluations of Monitoring: Control and Surveillance in marine fisheries of 41 countries, MCS Case Studies Report, Fisheries Centre, University of British Columbia.

Auckland University's catch reconstruction report

A report from Auckland University – released in May 2016 – attempts to estimate the historical catch in New Zealand's fisheries, and draws some worrying conclusions about the sustainability of New Zealand's fisheries.

MPI's initial analysis reveals serious concerns with the report's methodology and conclusions. These concerns are summarised in a media release we issued on 16 May 2016 – How many fish in the sea is the proper measure of a healthy fishery.

Our concerns are shared by others

Many of the concerns mentioned in the media release are shared by fisheries scientists within New Zealand and around the world.

"Catch reconstruction", as advocated by the Auckland University report – and global report which it is a part of – is by no means universally accepted throughout the fisheries science community. There is significant global scientific opinion which questions this methodology:

New Zealand based scientists have also expressed their misgivings about the methodology of the report.

Analysis and review of the report

MPI will be carefully considering the report in detail, and against the Research and Science Information Standards for New Zealand fisheries, which requires that information be scientifically robust, peer-reviewed, relevant, objective and reliable.

Our initial analysis, reveals several issues with the methodology:

Invalid comparisons

  • The report compares its estimates of catch with "official statistics" as provided to the FAO. In fact, the FAO requires only that countries provide landed catch, not estimations of misreported catch, as analysed by the report.
  • Importantly, however, MPI builds in estimations of misreporting when setting its catch limits. This is done on a case-by-case basis, using a combination of information, including compliance intelligence and observer reporting.

Calculation method

  • The calculation methods in the report are not well documented, and the results cannot be replicated, which is a scientific requirement for findings to be valid.
  • There is a lack of detail and rigour around analysing the interview material that the report relies on. In particular there is a lack of information about how the interviews were conducted, and nothing in the documents to indicate that the interviews were structured in any meaningful way to achieve, for example, any stated objectives. 

Bias in interview sample set

  • The report references 308 interviews conducted, including 200 conducted related to foreign charter vessels. A key scientific principle when assessing interviews is that they must avoid bias.
  • The report itself points to the biased nature of this sample. For example, it states that "the vast majority of fisher interviewees expressed disquiet at how disengaged they were from official discussions and decisions that directly affect them" (page 46, paragraph 1).

MPI's Director-General initiates a review

Following the release of Auckland University's report, there was a lot of public comment in relation to the potential illegal discarding of fish by some South Island-based fishing vessels in 2012 and 2013.

The investigation was known as Operation Achilles. Copies of a preliminary investigation report in to the operation were made public.

On 19 May 2016, MPI's Director-General Martyn Dunne initiated an independent review into circumstances surrounding Operation Achilles, including the decision not to prosecute individuals associated with the potentially illegal discarding.

Terms of Reference

On 24 May 2016, MPI's Director-General Martyn Dunne released the Terms of Reference for the independent review.

Keeping an eye on the water

MPI knows that misreporting and dumping occurs in New Zealand's fisheries, as it does in every country. We continue to dedicate significant resources to understand the level of the problem and consider ways to stop it.

The number of government observers on board commercial fishing vessels has more than doubled in the past 10 years.

Each year we do more than 1,000 commercial vessel inspections, and the MPI observer programme plans more than 11,500 days at sea.

This information, alongside our other intelligence gathering, leads to hundreds of prosecutions each year, and thousands of infringements issued.

Since 2009, MPI investigations have led to 10 major prosecutions for offending relating to illegal discarding and misreporting. These cases were significant and involved multiple defendants.

These prosecutions resulted in fines totalling over $1.2 million (not including court costs) and the forfeiture of fishing vessels and gear valued at over $23.5 million.

Our plans for the future

Prosecutions are only one part of our efforts to address the issue of discarding and misreporting.

The way we gather information about the state of our fisheries has evolved significantly since the QMS was introduced in 1986, and will continue to evolve.

For the past 3 years MPI has put significant resources into understanding and addressing misreporting, including illegal dumping. We have started a programme of work which will be game-changing and will reinforce New Zealand's standing as having a world-leading fisheries management system.

Increased monitoring

The plans we have in place will use technology to greatly increase the quality and quantity of that information and ensure increased monitoring of commercial fishing activity leading to a significant increase in compliance.

The project, called Integrated Electronic Reporting and Monitoring (IEMRS) started in 2015, and will roll out over the coming years.

It will mean monitoring of all catch on all fishing vessels. The monitoring will provide detailed reports from vessels using a totally integrated reporting and monitoring system which combines on-board camera monitoring, vessel positioning data and real-time catch effort reporting.

Investment in technology

MPI is investing $24 million, matched dollar-for-dollar by industry, on new technology which will develop a new wildfish harvesting technology that will result in more precise catches. This will allow fish to be landed fresher, in better condition, and of higher value. The programme began in 2012.

Fisheries review

In 2015, the Minister for Primary Industries, Nathan Guy, initiated a review of the operation of the fisheries management system. While the evidence shows that our fisheries are in good shape, and many international fisheries scientists agree that our fisheries are world-leading, we want to ensure it continues to deliver for current and future generations.

This review will give us the chance to make the changes needed to future-proof our system.

An enhanced fisheries management system would:

  • maintain and enhance the fisheries sustainability while delivering benefits for recreational, commercial and customary fishers
  • build public confidence in our fisheries
  • be cost effective and fair.
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