Increasing number of snapper caught in Hauraki Gulf suffering from starvation

Official information has revealed alarming information about the plight of our favourite fish, the snapper - some are suffering from starvation. 

Fishers said an increasing number of snapper caught in the Hauraki Gulf are in poor condition and have flaky, white fillets. They are distinctively different to the firm and almost translucent fillets most are used to.

"Simply, they're starving. The fish in the Hauraki Gulf right now are starving," said Sam Woolford from Legasea NZ.

Staff at a Kai Ika filleting station in Auckland said it's an increasing problem not just with snapper, but trevally too.

"We know that about 20 percent of the fish that are now being cut all have this milky flesh issue with them," Woolford said.

Official information shows Biosecuity New Zealand "did not find any evidence to indicate a biosecurity concern regarding exotic diseases or infectious agents". 

Rather, its report said: "It is suspected that the Milky-White Flesh Syndrome seen in snapper is related to chronic malnutrition."

In essence, the fish it studied were skinny and wasted.

The report found evidence of liver and muscle atrophy and degenerative changes associated with "tissue breakdown following a period of prolonged starvation".

Woolford wants bottom trawling gone and said it's wrecking species like mussels, cockles and other small crustaceans, that snapper rely on. 

"This is a government report and they've done nothing about it. This is an opportunity for us to be prudent, to be proactive," Woolford said.

Multiple reports on the state of the Hauraki Gulf have found serious issues. Raewyn Peart from the Environment Defence Society said sediment runoff is choking the seabed and agrees trawling in the Gulf should be banned.

"It means that food that the snapper need from the seabed isn't necessarily there and it's trawling in the outer gulf, which is essentially ploughing up those seabed habitats," Peart said.

She's frustrated at the lack of action, especially the slow pace of implementing marine protected areas.

"The progress on this has been glacially slow," Peart said.

The Government is paying NIWA to investigate why more snapper in the Gulf are starving, and there could be multiple explanations. 

"You know, we've had quite a bit of rainfall. So potential for increase in sedimentation or other things that are coming from the land could be contributing to it," said NIWA fisheries scientist Dr Darren Parsons.

Dr Parsons said La Niña conditions and the predominant northeasterly winds could also play a part. 

"You're getting surface waters flowing into the Gulf which stops the deeper nutrient-rich, offshore waters from upwelling."

NIWA will provide advice to the Government by November. The concern remains, however, that it's yet another report into Auckland's big blue backyard, which we already know is in trouble.

Fisheries New Zealand director of fisheries management Emma Taylor told Newshub NIWA will examine both commercial and recreational catch. 

"We're seeing increasing reports of the syndrome and we'll continue to gather data to support future analysis. We wouldn't want to draw any assumptions too early - it's important that we get this right."

She said marine ecosystems are "complex and interconnected".

"It is likely there are a range of potential causes and we need to work through these so we can identify what action might be needed," Taylor said. 

"For example, we know that snapper lose condition after they have spawned, and this could contribute to the syndrome. We also know that environmental factors play a part such as marine heatwaves, increased rainfall over the region, and extreme weather events."

In June 2021, the Government released a strategy to improve the health of the Hauraki Gulf, called Revitalising the Gulf: Government action on the Sea Change Plan. 

Final advice on this plan is yet to be provided to the Minister.