David Guccione discusses the possible advantages (and disadvantages) offered by commercial boats keeping all that they catch…
One of my fisheries-management-class lectures is called, ‘So you want to be a fisheries manager – or, how to please nobody all of the time.’
This is a perfect intro into the ridiculously complex world of discards in fisheries. As so often happens in fisheries, different values come into conflict and different people will have different perspectives about which value is more important. Currently, with most of the fishing methods we use, it’s impossible to target only one species of fish. If you trawl or long-line for snapper, you will most likely also catch the occasional shark, gurnard, john dory, possibly tarakihi, and probably undersize fish of all these species. Similarly, when you drop down a baited bottom rig, you never know what might come up, so recreational fishers catch unexpected and undersized fish as well.
So what values should we have around these undersized fish? Ideally, we would avoid catching them in the first place, but that’s not always possible. I don’t think anyone would disagree that they should be returned alive if practicable, which is why we try to handle them as gently as possible using wet hands, towels etc. (If the precision-harvesting trawl nets help in keeping the little ones alive and letting them escape, that’s good too.)
I learned from my grandmother, who came through the depression, not to waste anything. Growing up as a keen hunter and fisher my dad taught me that if you kill an animal, it should be for a purpose; if you kill it, you should eat it - values shared by Maori and many indigenous populations. There’s no such thing as a trash fish, everything has mauri [life force]. It’s a matter of respect for the animal that you love to spend time hunting.
As recreational fishers we get really upset about dumping because it’s wasteful. It gets to you because it’s disrespectful and wrong to kill fish for no purpose.
Commercial fishers are often viewed as uncaring about this waste, but that’s certainly not true for any of the hundreds I’ve personally met. These guys generally hold the same value of respect for the fish, so why in the world would they dump or discard illegally?
Unlike recreational fishers, commercial fishers have to balance out the value of a livelihood, and this is where the two come into conflict. So, when undesirable species come up, or are too small, they must make a choice: do they land the fish and pay the deemed value, or discard it back into the sea (dumping)? Do they discard the sizes that aren’t worth as much and keep the sizes that will earn more money (high-grading)? If catching a mix of little and big fish, do they move away from that area to avoid killing the undersized ones? And if they don’t, how many dead little ones are acceptable?
When the values of sustainability and abundance are in direct conflict with the value of one’s livelihood, people often choose their livelihood in the real world, even if it’s against the rules or even their principles. While we can empathise with the fishers who must make that choice, the law says that a sustainable fishery is more important than any one fisher’s bank balance and dumping is illegal.
So now we’ve got cameras coming out on vessels to try to make it harder for fishers to choose the more wasteful option. Unfortunately, the ministry’s own scientists have said that they won’t be able to tell when fishers are dumping snapper under 35cm, the most likely size to be dumped. It will be the same story for other species too, so we can safely say that the cameras aren’t going to stop waste, no matter how much the minister points to them as a magic bullet.
Here’s a challenge for you. Every time you hear someone talking about fisheries over the next year, notice how often the minister or his representative says that cameras are the solution to whatever problem they’re talking about. That will be untrue. They will help, but not solve the problem of waste.
A big part of the problem is that we don’t even know exactly how much is being wasted. The amount of undersized fish thrown back is supposed to be estimated on every commercial fishing trip, but we don’t really have much confidence in their accuracy.
Nor do we know if fishers move away from areas where they are catching small fish, because it’s not a requirement; rather, it’s a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ that they do.
However, I believe we can increase the amount of fish swimming around by learning from other parts of the world that have some of the same problems.
In some fisheries in the North Sea, the boats have to bring in 100% of the catch brought on board, even if it’s undersized, part crushed, a species that doesn’t return a high price, or even if the boats don’t have quota for it. The discard bans have been in place in Norway for quite a long time and are considered a huge success.
Why? Mostly because they encourage innovation. When discard bans are fully implemented, fishing operations change to more selective fishing. In other words, they get better at targeting just the fish they want to catch. The deemed-value system hasn’t really worked in NZ, because it encourages people to keep fishing the same way and to dump the fish if they don’t have any quota. Nor has it been effective in making sure that the boats have the right quota allocations to cover their catch.
The Norwegian experience shows that if all the catch is brought in, fishers must switch to better targeting of the catch targeted to avoid the ones that will be costly to bring in. It’s not business as usual, but smarter fishing. The Norwegians have also become more profitable by developing processing and markets for some fish that used to be low value that they can’t avoid. You might be surprised to know that North Sea commercial fishers used to dump their gurnard because no one wanted it! Indeed, the current worldwide market for fish is insatiable, and it may be possible to utilise and make money from traditionally undesirable species, such as pufferfish, that we’re killing anyway.
There are some problems with discard bans. For instance, we don’t want to encourage development for markets of small fish, where we kill many more individuals for the total weight caught. That aspect could be dealt with through the deemed-value system, provided cameras are on board to make sure nothing is dumped.
Also, anything able to be returned with a good chance of survival, shouldn’t be required to be kept. For example, most longline- caught fish can be de-hooked and allowed to swim away. So really this is about trawling and Danish seining, which damage the bottom and re-suspend sediment. Ultimately, these destructive methods, as well as dredging, should be moved offshore or to a much more limited area of operations than they currently enjoy. Outside the 12nm inshore waters would be a good start.
I’m a big supporter of the call by LegaSea for a royal commission of enquiry into the Quota Management System and how it could be improved. The public is waking up to the huge wastage and potential loss of a much-valued part of the Kiwi way of life, and sees less fish in the water.
We can have profitable fisheries and greater abundance. I hope that we can take some of the wisdom from my dad and grandma; for me that means if we kill something, we show it enough respect that we use it.
David Guccione is a marine scientist and lecturer at Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology. His background and research has been focused on avoidance of bycatch in trawl, longline and hook and line commercial fishing.
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