The ruling is being hailed as a win for sustainability that could set a precedent for how the government sets limits on commercial fishing

The High Court has found that the former minister of fisheries, Stuart Nash, incorrectly set the catch limit on tarakihi by taking into account industry proposals over official advice.

“When deciding how long a fish stock should take to recover, the minister should consider the biology of the fish, not a voluntary industry plan,” the court said.

The current limits were put in place by Nash in 2019, adding up to a 30 percent reduction in fishing for tarakihi on the east coast.

Tarakihi is one of New Zealand’s most popular eating fish and its stocks are managed by an official quota system meant to ensure a sustainable fishing population.

The court found that in setting the 2019 limits, Nash did not take into account official advice on the appropriate limits for rebuilding the fish’s threatened east coast population.

Instead, the court said the minister based his decision on a voluntary industry plan developed by commercial fishing bodies like Fisheries Inshore and Te Ohu Kaimoana.

Environmental group Forest & Bird, which brought the case, said the industry plan set tarakihi catch limits far above sustainable levels.

“The Industry Rebuild Plan shouldn’t have been allowed to replace an appropriate catch limit,” Forest & Bird chief executive Kevin Hague said. 

Nash’s plan adopted portions of the rebuild advice, while also setting a 10 percent reduction in the total commercial catch.

Combined with the reductions in 2018, this meant a total reduction in allowable catch of around 22.3 percent.

Along with other measures like electronic monitoring on fishing vessels, Nash said he hoped these limits would be enough to rebuild fish stocks.

Modelling presented during the hearing suggested that catch reductions of around 20 percent would have a 50 percent chance of reaching the target fish population within the 20-year time frame.

At the time, the minister said he would not hesitate to further increase catch limits should that not be enough.

“There has been an undue level of influence”
– Kevin Hague

The court found that the industry plan was the significant factor that influenced the Nash to set a longer time period for rebuilding stocks than he had indicated in 2018.

While the current limits will remain in force for now, the current Minister David Parker must set new ones based on official advice sometime this year.

Hague said the court’s decision called attention to the level of influence the fishing industry has on government decision-making.

“We’ve been very lucky to avoid the kind of US-style commercial influence in New Zealand, but not when it comes to fishing,” he said.

“There has been an undue level of influence and we hope that this decision might be the beginning of the end of that.”

The Ministry for Primary Industries said it was reviewing the court’s decision and would be providing advice to the minister in due course.

The two industry bodies involved in the case, Fisheries Inshore NZ and Te Ohu Kaimoana, also said they were reviewing the decision and engaging with their members.

Tarakihi stocks have been consistently falling since records began in the 1970s.

Current estimates suggest the fish population is less than 15 percent its original biomass, with the ministry aiming to return stocks to 40 percent for maximum catch.

To manage fish stocks, the government allocates shares of the total quota to different quota owners including large commercial operations and smaller fishing groups.

The quota shares give each owner an annual entitlement they can catch under their fishing permits.

There are currently around 160 quota owners with tarakihi shares in the east coast fish stocks, with 199 commercial fishing permit holders using those entitlements.

The court’s decision comes after questions were raised by Forest & Bird over the extent to which fishing vessels were complying with the current rules.

In a briefing to Nash in 2019, the Fisheries Inshore chair Laws Lawson admitted that tarakihi boats had not been staying out of the crucial juvenile tarakihi habitats they had promised not to fish.

The briefing also suggested that boats were failing to adhere to a voluntary rule where boats would move to a different fishing ground if too many undersized tarakihi were caught.

Ben Leonard writes on Treaty issues and the environment.

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