Fishing industry in ethical dilemma

A commercial skipper with more than 20 years experience says the fishing industry should not be in charge of data that helps drive critical fisheries decisions because it presents an ethical dilemma.

Karl Warr, a fisherman from Napier, likens the current situation with data company FishServe to being able to write your own warrant of fitness for a car. “For me personally, I think it is too close”, says Mr Warr.  

Greenpeace has revealed FishServe has been given the job of monitoring overfishing, keeping data on catch rates and quota and registering both local and foreign vessels. The company is wholly owned by Seafood New Zealand - the country’s biggest lobby group for the commercial fishing sector.

The Ministry for Primary Industries pays FishServe to gather the information, but Mr Warr thinks MPI should be doing the job itself.

“Why should the taxpayer be paying for that regulatory service - when the taxpayer owns that resource (the fish). We own it, the public own it.” 

FishServe’s been in charge of data collection for almost 20 years, and the Minister for Primary Industries, Nathan Guy, says during that time “it’s been working well”.

But Mr Warr, who regularly fills out paper records of his catch to send to FishServe, says even though there’s no evidence of wrongdoing, the current system isn’t right.

“It’s great that there have been no problems – well done. However, the situation is a dangerous hazard to ethics. Why allow a known hazard to exist simply because it hasn’t wounded anyone yet.” 

He told Newshub “It’s not a position we should be in - regardless of whether it works well or not. It’s far too cosy. Just because we haven't had a problem for 20 years, what kind of empirical justification is that to have industry self-regulate?"

Mr Warr would like to see dedicated MPI-manned landing stations where catch can be checked in real time.

"I would much prefer the system was more closely managed by the regulator. I would prefer to land to at an MPI landing base, and have some sort of MPI recording system."

"I don't think it's wise for the industry to be left with the responsibility to manage that data. It's the key information that drives fisheries decisions”.

New Zealand fisherman Karl Warr
Karl Warr has been fishing off Napier's coast for the past 20 years. (Dan Henry)

Mr Warr says no fisherman wants to be in a position where they’re second guessed about the credibility of what they do each day. “Dedicated Government weigh stations would help remove some of the burden of responsibility”, Mr Warr says.   

MPI says there are checks and balances in place to ensure the data provided by FishServe is valid and accurate, and that the current arrangement actually saves the taxpayer money.

But Greenpeace, which has been investigating the issue, says “there’s a web of complex relationships” between MPI and the industry and it wants to the Auditor General to look into the issue.

The criticism of the FishServe ownership structure follows revelations of a cameras-on-boats trial being awarded to a company that was also owned by fishing companies, and a Newshub investigation last year which prompted a QC’s inquiry into illegal fish dumping.

Since the fish dumping scandal, which revealed MPI failed to prosecute illegal fishing, Nathan Guy has said his focus is to push ahead with getting cameras on all boats. He says that will improve transparency.

Mr Warr says while cameras may help stop illegal behaviour, they do not address problems with the current rules which mean the “real” catch is not always known.

Gurnard in a fishing cage in New Zealand
Gurnard in Karl Warr's cage, which helps filter out the small ones. (Dan Henry)

MPI has introduced rules which mean the number of small snapper caught in Snapper 1, the country’s most popular fishery, have to be recorded. Mr Warr says it’s a “bloody great” initiative, but in his fishing region no such system exists.

"There is no system to report juvenile catch - so how will those on land react to seeing video footage of juvenile catch being turfed over the side because you're not legally allowed to land it. There isn't even provision to record them”.

“They are the missing (fish). They never existed.”  

Mr Warr tows a specially designed cage behind his boat that allows small fish to swim free. His creation has led to him being nominated for an international innovation award.

Mr Warr says the country wants to trust the commercial sector and the regulatory body, but there must be clear lines drawn in the sand. 

“They’re missing an opportunity to demonstrate transparency and degrees and separation”. 

“The public wants the industry to provide fish for the nation, and for exports, but it wants it to be done in a more responsible way that fits with today’s outlook on ethics and best practice”.