Opinion: When the fishing industry and the Government unveiled their draft Industry Transformation Plan two months ago it was sharply criticised in some quarters for being anything-but-transformational, as we reported at the time

Evidence of just how adrift it is of global industry best practice is prompted now by the just-released Blue Economy Principles paper from the Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge. The paper itself is just a few pages laying out six principles: to be accountable, regenerative, inclusive, intergenerational, prosperous and to prioritise the sea’s health through Te Mana o te Moana.

But the core mechanism that powers them, Ecosystem-based Management, is a fundamental challenge to the way we fish now. We extract the maximum catch of each species we can without crashing their population. We pay scant attention to the complex natural ecosystems in which they thrive or perish, depending on the health of those ecosystems.

NZ’s ocean strategies all at sea
* NZ is on climate glide time
Next, sort fishing and the oceans

Instead, our fishing industry liberally uses the word ecosystem to describe its own structure, not the natural ecosystem on which it utterly relies. The draft Industry Transformation Plan has plenty of examples; and here’s a quote about itself from Moananui, a new, partially government-funded grouping of six fishing, science and local government entities based in Nelson, the industry’s centre.

“Moananui is a collaboration between organisations, with the shared goal of transforming Aotearoa New Zealand into a world-leading ecosystem for developing and commercialising blue economy products, services, technology, research and capability. Moananui’s focus is projects that increase value, connect people and improve ocean health.”

The problem with those priorities is ocean health comes last; not first, as it does in ecosystem-based management, which is one of four strands of its research the Sustainable Seas NSC is weaving together before its decade-long remit expires next June – the deadline shared by all 11 of the NSCs.

Though Sustainable Seas has done some good research on ecosystem-based management in the face of our fishing industry’s recalcitrance, you must look overseas for best-practice in its fast-developing disciplines. One example is the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, which was founded in 2018 and has 17 member nations.

But New Zealand is not a member even though we have the ninth largest exclusive economic zone, totalling 4.4 million sq km of seas, equal to 15 times our land area, and fishing is our 10th largest export sector.

We’re also lagging global action on oceans highlighted by the successful conclusion in March of the UN’s 20-year quest for a High Seas Treaty, which I covered in this column; and the UN’s biodiversity agreement last December which included goals of protecting 30 percent of seas and 30 percent of land by 2030. Once again last month our government failed in its efforts to establish the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary, a saga now in its eighth year.

Should our fishing industry and government (led by National or Labour) get serious about transformation by developing ecosystem management disciplines and targets to embody in strategies and legislation, they could catch up with the global leaders. Some 30 countries are on that journey, but comprehensive applications of Ecosystem-based Management are still rare.

One example is the Central Arctic Ocean Fisheries Agreement, signed in 2018 by five ‘Arctic’ states – Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Norway, Russia and the US – plus China, Iceland, Japan and South Korea. The pact came into effect two years ago, imposing a 16-year ban on commercial fishing in its designated territory.

“By taking a precautionary approach and making informed decisions, we can pave the way for responsible fishing exploration in the future and avoid mistakes that happened with overfishing in other seas around the world,” the World Wildlife Fund said. 

WWF, which established its Arctic programme in 1992, is one of the key Arctic researchers and thought leaders. Five years ago, for example, it produced a report on deploying sustainable blue economy principles to the region. The chart below captures its essence.

If you assume these are foreign issues, and that we Kiwis have so much sea and ocean we can’t have done much damage to them yet, then ask any friend whose sailing, swimming or diving in our waters dates back over four or five decades. They will all have grim stories of our losses, and exuberant stories of our recovering, but still too small and rare, marine protected areas.

Take Kennedy Warne, for example, a co-founder of NZ Geographic and later a prolific writer for the US’ National Geographic, particularly on oceans and seas around the world.

His latest book, Soundings – Diving for Stories in the Beckoning Sea, begins on his father’s boat in the Bay of Islands and ends with the Inuit in Arctic waters. Along the way, he reflects on his lifelong exploration of the seas, humanity’s exploitation of them and our still faltering efforts to help them recover.

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