MPI considers pink maomao rule change amid claims hundreds are being caught and sold on black market

There's fury in the Coromandel town of Tairua where locals say hundreds of sought-after reef fish are being plundered for sale on the black market. 

The fish being targeted is pink maomao, a species that doesn't have any daily catch limit. Fish bins are laden with them, but it's all legal - and that's precisely the problem. 

"It's another mokopuna of tangaroa that's being abused - and as tangata whenua, we need to do something about it," says Jo Davis, Ngāti Hei ki Wharekaho spokesperson.

"This is just rape and pillage, and we're devastated that it's happening in our patch, let alone anyone else's," says Warren Maher, Tainui Pauanui Sports Fishing Club President.

Of even more concern is footage in which one group admits they're selling the fish. 

"We have to pay. We have to pay for the boat, for the engine," a man can be heard saying. "You want to buy... Give me cash."

"The admission that the gentleman had to pay for his motor when I hounded him about where he was selling his fish is a pretty clear admission that these fish are being sold on the black market in Auckland," documentary maker Mike Bhana said. 

On another boat, another loaded bin. Bhana captured footage of it and describes it as an organised raid on the species by multiple vessels over multiple days.

"Some of the boats that were coming out of here yesterday would have been taking over 1000 fish," he said.

"If they are selling it, which is what was indicated in that video, that's also poaching and that's completely illegal," Legasea spokesperson Sam Woolford said.

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) is investigating.

"If you are catching recreational fish and you are selling that, we will identify you and we will hold you to account for that," says MPI Fisheries Compliance Director Gary Orr.

MPI has catch limits for around 25 species, meaning dozens of other fish don't. 

The pink maomao is a good eating fish but one of those not regulated by MPI. So technically if you wanted to take a tonne of the fish today, you can do so without fear of being busted for anything at the wharf. 

Ngāti Hei's Davis says a rahui on taking pink maomao is now in place.

"It's the first step towards some way of bringing to the attention the abuse that's going on out there in our waters," she explained.

Woolford says the Sports Fishing Council asked MPI for a three-fish limit on the pink maomao in 2019. 

"They put a good quality policy on the table and it's been largely ignored," he said.

MPI is considering changing the rules. 

"It's more than just thinking about it, we're actually looking at it very carefully and obviously there will be some papers that will go up to the decision-makers within MPI and then across to the Minister in due course," says Orr.

Until that happens, iwi and local fishermen are united and their message is clear to those wanting to take advantage of the rules.

"Don't come into our neck of the woods," Maher says.