Commercial fishing vessel offences 10-times higher after Ministry for Primary Industries starts tracking location information

There's been a 10-fold increase in detected offences since commercial fishing vessels were required to give geospatial tracking information to the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI).

Data released to Newshub shows these offences include fishing in marine reserves, not having an observer, and submitting catch data too late. 

MPI's digital tracking system monitors the movements of commercial vessels across New Zealand.

"It's all about behavioural change and this is a game-changer for us. Our compliance activity is far more directed now," MPI compliance investigations manager Steve Ham says.

It's more directed because since December 31 last year, electronic position and catch reporting was made compulsory on 860 vessels. 

"As part of the electronic reporting, they also have to report if they have an interaction with a protected species. So we now get that information in real-time instead of six weeks behind," MPI's Dr Shelton Harley says.

Every 10 minutes, a vessel's location is beamed back to MPI's base.

"No longer is there this adage of being out of sight and out of mind," Ham says.

With greater visibility, there's greater awareness of illegal behaviour.

MPI can tell if fishing is happening in protected areas, such as a marine reserve.  

Sealord's Ocean Dawn was caught bottom trawling in a protected underwater area in the Chatham Rise, off Christchurch, Talley's was busted trawling in a marine reserve off Kaikoura, known as the Hikurangi Reserve, and just two days ago, a Nelson skipper on the Jay Belle was fined for trawling in the Kahurangi marine reserve.

"For any company to be breaching closed areas such as this that have been there for so long, it's never good enough," Ham says.

Greenpeace oceans campaigner Jessica Desmond says it is "absolutely appalling behaviour".

Data released to Newshub shows that in 2018 when only deepsea vessels had the geospatial gear, 42 offences were picked up. Now that almost all vessels have it, MPI's picked up 426 offences so far this year.

A decision is yet to be made on what action to take in 242 of those cases, but it's estimated around 20 will result in prosecution. 

In 137 cases, skippers were given warnings, fines were issued in 18 cases, and on 29 occasions, educational advice was offered.

Ham said it's "not in all instances" that where there's offending there's also prosecution.

Desmond says that isn't good enough.

"I think it really makes a mockery of the idea of oceans protection. If I got pulled over tomorrow for speeding, I don't get reminded of the law, I get a fine."

But MPI points out that around half of the 2020 offences were lower level, like submitting catch data incorrectly or not on time. 

"I don't want you to think in any instance it is all education, it is graduated. But often the best way to achieve behavioural change is always going to be that education phase upfront," Ham says.

Greenpeace believes cameras would pick up even more offending, but the rollout has been dogged with delays. The latest plan was to put them on 345 vessels - but not until 2024.

"I think it's embarrassing and I think it's ridiculous. We have gone back and forth on this for years and years," Desmond says.

"It's been implemented in Australia, in the US, and a whole suite of countries. There is no reason for this delay other than a lack of political will."

Fisheries Minister David Parker is hinting the camera programme could be accelerated.

He said he "supposes" that as minister, he could go to Cabinet and say he wants it to happen quicker, but "those decisions haven't been taken yet".

"I'm not ruling [asking things to be sped up] out."

Until the cameras are in place, MPI's relying on its current technology. 

It's a step towards improved fisheries science and compliance - and comes with a warning. 

"It is 2020, and I think people need to get on board with the environmental standard that we expect as all New Zealanders," Ham says.

The Green Party's spokesperson for Oceans and Fisheries, Eugenie Sage, told Newshub that cameras are a "critical compliance tool".

She's seeking to meet with Parker in the New Year to advocate for an accelerated camera programme and the creation of more marine reserves. These are policies she says meet the intentions of a cooperation agreement both parties have signed.