The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) has more than halved the number of fisheries observers in the East Coast North Island snapper trawl fishery (SNA1). This reduction in observer days, combined with major failures in an unproven and controversial video monitoring system, means commercial trawlers in one of our most important fisheries are not being properly scrutinised and monitored.
Answering recent written parliamentary questions, Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy said 210 observer days were allocated to SNA1 in 2015/16 with trawlers fishing for snapper on more than 1,825 days. The number of observer days MPI funded in 2015/16 is well down on the 521 observer days in 2014/15 to monitor trawlers fishing for snapper on 1,953 days.
When MPI started video monitoring of snapper trawling in SNA1 this year it gave the contract to Trident Systems Ltd, a company owned by 14 fishing companies, so it is hardly independent. And the video cameras failed massively in the first three months of the 2015/16 fishing year. The cameras failed to capture footage on up to 80 per cent of the vessels. It is premature and irresponsible to slash observer days when video monitoring has yet to be proven as an effective substitute.
Observers are essential for accurate reporting of fish species landed, by-catch of protected wildlife such as dolphins and seabirds, fish dumping, and avoiding undersized fish and non-quota species being caught.
The East Coast snapper fishery is a highly valued recreational and commercial fishery. Snapper stocks have declined and effective monitoring and accurate reporting is an essential part of fisheries management.
MPI estimates the annual cost of observer coverage for inshore fisheries such as snapper at $9.5 million annually. The haste to dispense with observers may be partly due to Government and industry pressure to reduce cost.
This is despite MPI recognising the importance of observers in providing accurate information for fisheries management. In its “The Future of Our Fisheries” consultation document MPI says fisheries observers have been a crucial part” of the commercial fisheries sector for the last 30 years. They provide assurance “that what is being reported by fishers as being taken from the resource is accurate.”
Fisheries observers spend days at sea, working in cramped and often difficult conditions recording and reporting on what commercial vessels catch. They record the species, quantity, size, age, and condition of fish and other aquatic life brought on board. This includes protected species such as dolphins, seabirds and seals that are caught as a result of by-catch. They can observe and report on fish dumping as Operation Hippocamp and Achilles reports made clear.
The recent Heron Report showed that MPI had failed to follow up on fish dumping and other illegal activity reported by observers. Now MPI is cutting observers who provide the information essential to enforcing the law. Halving observer numbers in the snapper trawl fishery also means that the by-catch of protected wildlife such as dolphins and seabirds is less likely to be reported, and fish dumping can occur unobserved.
This is another example of the MPI failing to protect our fisheries to ensure they remain healthy and abundant long-term.
MPI is currently consulting on this as part of “The Future of Our Fisheries”. Consultation closes just before Christmas.
We should retain, and preferably increase, observer numbers and coverage until video monitoring is has been proven to be a workable and effective alternative to on-board observers. And we also need the monitoring to be done by an independent agency, not a company owned by the industry.
 Ministry for Primary Industries, (November 2016) “Te Huapae Mataora Mo Tangaroa The Future of Our Fisheries”, MPI Consultation Document Volume III at p 9-10