NZ’s Fisheries – the QMS – 34 Years of Failure

by Mark Feldman

This article was published in the November 2020 issue of “NZ Fishing News”. It is published with the kind permission of “NZ Fishing News” and long time fisheries advocate Mark Feldman  

A couple of months ago an English friend sent me a copy of an article from the “Guardian”, a respected English newspaper.   The article’s message was that fisheries observers were being killed on foreign fishing vessels at the rate of about two per year. I found this quite alarming since it begged the question:-  What is going on at sea that is so bad that the captains of these vessels prefer the risk of being prosecuted for murder rather than the world knowing what they are doing? This made me wonder what’s being done to protect the NZ fisheries observers on foreign vessels in New Zealand waters?  Surely they, at least, all have camera systems installed?  What I discovered was even more alarming.  Very few foreign vessels have observers and there are no cameras to protect the observers either.  Based on results from the few boats with observers the rate of offences (killing sea birds and mammals, dumping of fish) on boats with observers was nine times that reported on vessels without observers.  This suggests that huge numbers of criminal acts must be occurring on those foreign vessels.
The Ministry just doesn’t care. 
What else doesn’t the Ministry care about?   In order to answer that question I’ll present a brief over-view of the Ministries’ failings in the thirty-four years since the Quota Management System (QMS) was introduced.  Through this over-view you’ll be able to get some insight into the dysfunctional culture that has severely damaged our fisheries resource.   Then we’ll follow up with why that dysfunctional culture has evolved and the forms of corruption behind it.  After that the solution will be obvious.  Please bear with me; the list of failings is abbreviated but still long.  A list like this is the only way to get the big picture, instead of focusing on one issue at a time.

Juvenile snapper dumped in Hawkes Bay

The structure of the Quota Management System (QMS) gave the rights to the fish, a public resource, to the commercial fishers with the idea they’d have a vested interest and protect the resource.  It was a reflection of the Thatcheresque philosophy of the time that “deregulation is always the answer to everything.”  It reflected exceedingly shallow thinking and was a profoundly stupid thing to do.  This has been confirmed over time.  The de facto proof is the present state of the fishery.  Here’s a few of those initial mistakes:

The QMS did not manage the method fishers could use.  After all, the Ministry was sure the commercial fishers were going to do what was best.  Well, they did do what WAS BEST FOR THEM IN THE SHORT TERM.  They continued destroying the ecology of the bottom by using scallop dredges and bottom trawls to break up and destroy entire ecosystems.  This is the equivalent of carpet bombing Auckland and then wondering why people don’t repopulate the place.  The dangers of bottom trawling have been well knownfor centuries. Trawling had been banned in England in 1376 because the trawl nets “ran over the sea floor destroying all life on the bottom, including all the plant life and spat thatwas required for all other manners of sea life to feed upon.”

Wisely, the freely given quotas were designed so no entity could hold more than 20% of the quota of a species.  Gradually the rules were changed to allow the quota to go where the money was.  Today 78% of the quota is owned by just 10 entities.  Where once there was a fleet of small fishers in our provincial ports there are now bottom trawlers wreaking havoc on the sea floor.  Just as in other cases of deregulation an underclass of serfs (the fishers) has been created.

Major species were left out of the QMS.  The most important of these were the kahawai.  The Ministry was warned this would mean the purse seiners would slaughter the fish without regard for the future.  The Ministry replied that it would be fine; no one wanted the kahawai anyway.  You know the rest of the story; the kahawai were fished nearly to oblivion before the Ministry acted in response to the personal lobbying of Minister Kidd, several TV shows and dozens of articles in various papers and magazine.  Even then the quotas were way too high and the kahawai have never recovered. 

Despite considerable criticism the safe biomass for all species was set at 20%.  That means the Ministry was saying it’s safe to fish down the virgin biomass of a species by 80% and that the species would still be able to reproduce fast enough to replenish itself. This was patently absurd and not based on any studies of NZ fish.  The challenges to this“knife edge management” were ignored and we were patronized at meetings.  Later on I’ll explore how the failure to do enough research compounded this arrogance.


Next article I’ll explore how the QMS has failed us over the past 34 years and what you can do to fix a corrupted system.

<c> Kahawai -slaughtered by purse seiners, but it’s a major recreational fish

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10 Responses to NZ’s Fisheries – the QMS – 34 Years of Failure

  1. Charles Henry says:

    The Guardian – a respected English newspaper – a bit of an oxymoron

  2. Josh Anderson says:

    The quota management system was designed under the neo-liberal ‘free market’ ethos. It will deliver benefits only to the corporate sector – that is what Rogernomics/Thatcherism is about. It was doomed to fail from the start. The health of the fishery and the public’s recreational fishery has been sacrificed. Excellent article Mark Feldman.

  3. Laurie Stevenson says:

    The sooner this corr0upt s01y011stem is abolished the better.This continued abuse shows the power of the dollar.

  4. John Leader says:

    An excellent summary. I understand that in New Zealand frequently the ‘observers’ were locked in their cabins during operations. An excellent example of the weakness of the QMS is the collapse, probably irreversible, of the Southern scallop fishery. In spite of extensive investigation every year, at considerable cost, there is still no hard data on populations or how to manage the take. Upper and lower catch limits are essentially arbitrary. It is an example of how difficult it is to determine population dynamics in an essentially infinite space in which animals are distributed more or less randomly and at generally low density. A serious weakness of the system negotiated by Shane Jones was that with the good intention of opening up career options for young maori, having gained the rights they promptly sublet them to overseas interest.

  5. Benjamin Hope says:

    Surely the dysfunctional state of affairs around the sea fishery, demands an immediate clean-up. It is a corrupted system. Hw much longer do MPs twiddle there thumbs and turn a blind eye while the ministry bureaucrats and corporates collude and the fisheries collapse ?

  6. Dave McNeur says:

    The Quota Management System is clearly not working effectively and needs overhauling by the Minister. The Minister needs to take back control of the fishery from the commercial fishing companies to protect the New Zealand fishery for the long term, and to seriously take into consideration the requirements of the recreational fishing interests in decisions that are made as well.

  7. neil wilson says:

    in years to come and not to many either the head sheds in govt are going to say did we not do something about this earlier, we should of listened to the people

  8. Chris Marshall says:

    Hopefully the new Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries will start to address this debacle ignored by both parties. However, i am not holding my breaath

  9. "Pelorus Jack" says:

    I heard new “Ocean and Fisheries” minister David Parker on TV 3’s AM show. He seemed alert to the skullduggery around the corporate companies and fisheries “mismanagement.” There is a glimmer of hope but as Chris Marshall says “I am not holding my breath.” Let’s wait and see anyhow.
    There’s been so many fisheries ministers who did nothing. Word has it the corporate bosses can roll up to the minister’s office for a cup of tea anytime whereas the public trying to get an appointment are fobbed off month after month. With marlborough Sounds blue cod debacle, Marlborough Recreational Fishers Assn had to wait several months to get to see National ministers first David Parker and then Nathan Guy.

  10. Markco5 says:

    Hopefully the new Minister shows some spine not like Nash and gets this mess sorted out. Not having Winston and Shane pulling the strings behind the scenes will be a huge benefit also.

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