How many fish in the sea is the proper measure of a healthy fishery

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An Auckland University report estimating historical catch in New Zealand fisheries misses the point when it comes to sustainability, says the Ministry for Primary Industries.

MPI’s Director Fisheries Management, Dave Turner, says its initial review of the report has raised concerns about methodology and conclusions.

“We’re interested in any information about historical catch in New Zealand, and we’re keen to receive the raw data from the report to conduct a thorough review. However, we are clear the report simply can’t draw adequate conclusions about sustainability, as its authors attempt to, because the measure of sustainability is abundance (that is, the amount of fish in the sea), not extraction as the report attempts to analyse.

“We have decades of peer-reviewed science that shows steadily increasing levels of abundance. The situation now is that New Zealand fisheries are healthy overall, and that’s because of careful, science-based management.”

Mr Turner said the overwhelming majority of fish caught by commercial fishers came from stocks where sustainability was not a concern. In the remainder of fisheries, we have rebuilding plans in place. 

"Science is the bedrock of our approach to fisheries management and New Zealand invests $22.5 million each year to ensure our fisheries science is up-to-date and accurate. 

"Our bottom line - and the factor that is most important to all the people using our fisheries - is making sure there are enough fish in the water. It's a proven approach, which has delivered real results for New Zealand's fisheries. That's something the report, with its singular focus on catch rather than abundance, cannot address.

"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 with advances in science and technology.

Mr Turner acknowledged that, as in every country, misreporting does occur in New Zealand's fisheries, but says MPI's initial analysis is that the report significantly overstates the issue.

"One serious problem with the report is the way it collects information. Many of the conclusions it draws rely on the recollections of interview subjects. A key scientific principle, when gathering this type of data, is to try to eliminate bias in your sample of interviews.

"In addition, it's unclear how this qualitative information has been turned into quantitative findings. The report appears to extrapolate negative points of view and assume they apply in all circumstances."

The report’s assertion that New Zealand has been under reporting its catch to the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organisation, showed a fundamental misunderstanding of the way the FAO operated.

“Like all other countries, New Zealand can only report what is required by the FAO.  The FAO requirements do not allow us to include estimations of misreported catch,” Mr Turner said.

Mr Turner said MPI put significant resources into the understanding of catch, and into the prevention of misreporting. 

“Over the last 10 years we have more than doubled the number of observers on commercial fishing vessels. Last year MPI officials conducted more than 1,000 commercial vessel inspections, and MPI observers collectively recorded more than 11,500 days at sea.”

MPI takes any suggestion of illegal fishing activity, including dumping seriously.  Where evidence is available MPI will investigate and prosecute.

Since 2009 MPI investigations have led to ten successful 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.

Mr Turner said MPI was committed to maintaining sustainable fisheries for the future, for commercial, recreational and customary fishers.

“Our fisheries management system is ranked amongst the best in the world.  Careful, science-based fisheries management has achieved that.  We will review any pertinent information to add to the body of knowledge we have on our fisheries and, noting our concerns around methodology, we will look to see what can be learnt from this report.”

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