Overfishing monitored by commercial company, raising concerns

There are calls for a change to the way overfishing is monitored in New Zealand.

The company that keeps an eye on such data, along with information on catch rates, is owned by an industry lobby group.

MPI says it's not an issue as it gets to see all the data, but environmentalists are not convinced.

Just how many fish are in our waters is of critical importance. Without it, species risk extinction from overfishing.

The company responsible for collecting catch data on the commercial sector is called FishServe and it's based in a building in Wellington. Its owner is the group that represents commercial fishers, Seafood New Zealand, and is located in the same building.

"To have that information owned, controlled and held by a commercial company that is owned by the fishing industry I think is entirely inappropriate," Greenpeace's Tim McKinnel says.

"It's akin to Dairy New Zealand monitoring water quality."

FishServe collects data on 1173 vessels, and it has handed out 39 warnings for overfishing breaches in the past year.

A 2013 order transferred to Fishserve some of MPI's "functions, duties and powers", such as "to monitor overfishing thresholds".

"MPI appears to us, to Greenpeace, to be a captured regulator," Mr McKinnel says.

A director of FishServe says while Seafood New Zealand's boss is on the board, the company is completely autonomous, and she's satisfied there's no influence from the commercial sector.

Nathan Guy, Minister for Primary Industries, says MPI still owns all the data.

"MPI has access to all the data. It's just like a letterbox; the information arrives, MPI has access to all of it," he says.

But researcher Professor Liz Slooten says such a vital job shouldn't involve the fishing industry at all.

"I don't mind if it's MPI or Statistics NZ, but it needs to be a Government or independent organisation," she says.

She also wants the data to be freely available. The FishServe system requires the public to pay.

But Mr Guy is comfortable with the current arrangements.

"The process has been working well for about 20 years," he says.

Exactly how well is debatable - FishServe collects information from reports written by skippers, a "cumbersome" process according to one MPI report, which notes "errors occur on 17 percent of the paper forms... common errors include the wrong year, vessel name... and invalid fish stocks".