Environmentalists are concerned a government investment in the draft fishing industry transformation plan breaches the United Nations and World Trade Organisation stance on fishing subsidies.

The heavily-critiqued transformation plan, formulated by fishing firms and the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), included a point under its ‘improving returns and investment across the value chain’ subheading that it wanted to confirm government support to assist the transition to new inshore fishing vessels.

The industry says the current inshore commercial fishing fleet is old, with many vessels not meeting regulatory standards and operating on grandfathered approvals.

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The majority of vessels are unregulated polluters with high carbon footprints, poor seakeeping capabilities, and crew live and work in uncomfortable environments.

Many vessels in the fleet are owned by single-ship operators with limited financial and business capacity to replace their vessels.

The fleet renewal business case leant on an NZIER report prepared for Northland’s economic development agency Northland Inc, which included a government investment of $46 million into a commercial fishing shipbuilding facility in the region.

It said more government money could be required in the start-up period if insufficient capital could be raised from private investors.

In this scenario, the government would also agree to purchase the first three ships and support a transition away from the existing fleet, likely involving a fleet retirement scheme.

“It’s pretty hard to read this as anything but a subsidy for the fishing industry.” – Ellie Hooper, Greenpeace

Fishing subsidies are a major driver of overfishing globally in allowing for businesses to continue fishing when fish stocks are so depleted the economics no longer stack up.

In theory, once fish stocks are depleted to a certain point revenue will no longer cover cost, sending a message that fish populations need to rebuild.

Subsidies disrupt this and allow the commercial fishing fleet to ignore nature’s signal.

Of the US$35b spent on fishing subsidies globally, (30 percent of the value of fish caught), US$22b was capacity enhancing.

In a statement to the United Nations Fish Stock Agreement late last year, New Zealand said it did not subsidise its fishing industry and reiterated its stance against subsidies.

“New Zealand is a long-standing advocate of global subsidies reform, including through negotiations on the WTO Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies, leading work on subsidies reform in APEC and the OECD (including on preventing subsidies to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing), and establishing binding subsidies reform commitments in our Free Trade Agreements (e.g. with the United Kingdom, European Union, and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership).”

“Paying people to fish would be a subsidy, which New Zealand doesn’t support. What is being proposed here is transitional support for an industry.” – Rachel Brooking, Minister for Oceans

Deep Sea Conservation Coalition campaigner Karli Thomas said it was a bad look for the New Zealand Government to be going to the United Nations with a claim it doesn’t subsidise its fisheries while at the same time consulting on a proposal to support vessel building and buying back old ships.

“It’s really out of line with what New Zealand has taken to those forums in the past, as recently as late last year they were submitting to the United Nations saying that we don’t subsidise our industrial fisheries, but this looks like it would be.

“Spending taxpayers’ money on new vessels that would include further bottom trawling and dredging vessels is pretty much the opposite of what we need on a biodiversity front, in a cost-of-living crisis and when we’re facing down climate change,” Thomas said.

Bottom trawling can destroy vital fish habitats including corals and sponges. Photo: Greenpeace

Thomas said technology on these new ships would allow for the location and targeting of smaller pockets of fish and further increase impact on remaining stock levels.

Minister for Oceans Rachel Brookings said this was not a subsidy, “What is being proposed – and the [industry transformation plan] you’re looking at is a draft document at this stage – is not a subsidy.

“Paying people to fish would be a subsidy, which New Zealand doesn’t support. What is being proposed here is transitional support for an industry.”

In an Official Information Act request published by the Ministry for Primary Industries in 2021, the ministry said it didn’t provide any direct subsidies to the commercial fishing sector.

It identified support for vessel construction as a harmful subsidy.

“These types of subsidies are frequently referred to as ‘harmful subsidies’, as they incentivise overcapacity (i.e. too many fishing vessels) and overfishing,” MPI marine policy director Chris Kerr said at the time.

“Indeed, New Zealand is an active participant in negotiations at the World Trade Organisation for an international agreement that would prohibit harmful fisheries subsidiaries.”

The fishing vessel investment plan says it isn’t designed to increase the fishing capacity, but rather to have fewer vessels that catch the same volume of fish.

The Government’s cash would be directed towards aspects of the project that do not have purely financial objectives such as helping the sector lower carbon emissions.

“They’ve failed to make sufficient profits to actually maintain the infrastructure required to keep fishing. That alone is a major red flag,” – Sam Woolford, LegaSea

These are, however, social licence issues the sector would probably have to address on its own at some point.

Seafood New Zealand directed Newsroom to MPI/Fisheries New Zealand for comment.

Fisheries New Zealand deputy director general Dan Bolger said the inshore fleet renewal project referenced in the draft transformation plan was one proposal for how inshore fleet renewal might be approached and additional work would be required following consultation, which ends June 11.

Bolger said the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Trade was consulted before the draft plan was published, and the plan itself was explicit that any actions would need to be consistent with international trade obligations.

Greenpeace Aotearoa oceans campaigner Ellie Hooper said spending millions of taxpayer dollars on building a new fishing fleet was “pretty hard to read as anything but a subsidy for the fishing industry”.

“This directly contradicts what New Zealand tells the world in international fora – that New Zealand is against subsiding commercial fishing, and is actively working against their use. 

Fishing subsidies are a major driver of over-fishing globally. Photo: LegaSea

“Despite its name, the industry transformation plan reads more like a status quo plus subsidies plan, for an industry that has caused ocean destruction on a huge scale, and would now like public funding to continue doing more of the same.”

More than 80 percent of Aucklanders surveyed wanted bottom trawling banned from the Hauraki Gulf and a similar percentage of New Zealanders wanted bottom trawling banned from nutrient-rich sea mounts.

Hooper said instead of listening to the public’s view on banning bottom trawling, the Government wanted to commit millions of dollars to build the commercial industry “a shiny new fleet of trawlers”, and in doing so, lock in trawling for decades to come.

“That’s despite the science, and public opinion, making it abundantly clear we should be transitioning away from this method with urgency.”

Incredibly alarming

LegaSea programme lead Sam Woolford said the grant met the definition of a subsidy.

“For us it’s incredibly alarming. Fisheries managers have always argued there is an environmental limit, when there’s not enough fish in the water then fishing behaviour has to change.

“What they’re doing now with this subsidy is lowering the economic limit to what makes fishing viable. With less capital cost upfront, they can continue to fish declining fish populations and still make money.”

He said under the quota management system, the fishing industry had enjoyed free access to a publicly-owned resource for over 30 years, “They’ve failed to make sufficient profits to actually maintain the infrastructure required to keep fishing. That alone is a major red flag.”

The ocean is a major carbon sink but disruption through bottom trawling can release carbon dioxide and increase acidification. Photo: Unsplash

He said it was “quite offensive” that after destroying the marine ecosystem with techniques the general public opposed, the industry is now asking the public to invest in upgrading its bottom trawling fleet, particularly during a cost-of-living crisis.

“This industry transformation plan is a clear signal. The commercial industry is saying we’re not going to transition away from bottom trawling, in fact, what we’re going to do is double down on it and ask for public investment into private infrastructure so that we can keep doing something that New Zealanders don’t want.”

Trawling emissions

While the investment is targeted at emission reductions, Woolford said this was a bit disingenuous, and there were much better ways to tackle industry emissions.

“Dredging and bottom trawling produce the most carbon emissions from all the fishing techniques because they disrupt the sequestered carbon deposits on the seafloor.”

He believes the best way to reduce carbon emissions would be a fleet of small-scale fishers using long-lining and similar techniques to service local communities, rather than further investing in the status quo.

Thomas said what the transformation plan was proposing on a climate and carbon emissions front was basically just getting industry to a place where it could measure it, focusing on fuel use and emissions.

Alongside the carbon impact of disturbing the seafloor, she said abundant fish populations were themselves a store of carbon.

“If we’re managing fisheries down at levels of 20 to 30 percent, instead of above 50 percent, we’ve got less carbon stored in ocean life itself.

“All of those things need to be factored in, not just fuel use and the type of fuel that the vessels are using.”

Andrew Bevin is an Auckland-based business reporter who covers major industries, markets, regulation, aged care and fisheries.

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