Michael Morrah: MPI moves towards transparency, but more needed

OPINION: The partial public release of previously secret fishing reports by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) is a step in the right direction. It means we can begin to participate in honest, informed discussions about what's really been going on at sea.

But the path to greater transparency and recognition of illegal activity in the fishing industry has been a painfully slow, bruising encounter not only for MPI, but for the commercial fishing industry as well.

And to an extent, there's a long way to go.

In my opinion, MPI only released some historical compliance documents this week because it was tired of being embarrassed. MPI and the fishing industry were also aware I was about to do a story on Operation Trois - a 2012 compliance report which revealed under-reporting and dumping in the Southern Blue Whiting fishery. The pre-emptive release of Trois made it look like MPI and the industry were embarking on a new era of openness.

The 2012 compliance investigation into the Southern Blue Whiting Fishery was called "Operation Trois".
The 2012 compliance investigation into the Southern Blue Whiting Fishery was called "Operation Trois". Photo credit: Supplied

In a press statement on the same day, Seafood New Zealand, the commercial fishing lobby group, "welcomed" MPI's release of the reports saying the issues identified in them had been addressed. Yet when their brief press statement is read closely, it suggested there was still plenty they were not ready to acknowledge.

Seafood New Zealand lashed out accusing the leakers of "economic sabotage".

The statement went on to say the industry was being undermined by half-truths and "documents without context".

Incredibly, the press statement then finished with two paragraphs taken from one of the leaked reports which were completely out of context. Different sentences from different parts of the report had been cut out and cobbled together to make it appear everything was fine.

In any event, I suspect the leaking of these reports is less about trying to cripple the economics of fishing, and more about frustration with some skippers disregarding the rules, and the apparent unwillingness by MPI to do anything meaningful about it.

I've been reporting on fishing-related issues for much of the past decade and the response when asking officials about the fish dumping issue always used to be "it's not much of an issue".

What we now know is that it has been a huge issue. In my opinion, there has been a pattern of carelessness and blatant law breaking over many years.

Take for example the Southern Blue Whiting fishery. It's worth $26 million annually to New Zealand and has the coveted eco-friendly label of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). The MSC label signals sustainability.

But in 2004, fisheries officers received video of vast amounts of Southern Blue Whiting being illegally dumped overboard on a vessel called the Aorere. This investigation, which did end in prosecution, was codenamed "Operation Horse". So why on earth would a fishing skipper throw fish dead overboard? The answer according to investigators was that the boat had caught too much to process. They simply didn't have the capacity to manage all the fish they'd caught so tonnes got dumped.

Whole fish and fillets being thrown out with offal and not reported during Operation Trois.
Whole fish and fillets being thrown out with offal and not reported during Operation Trois. Photo credit: Supplied

Fast forward to 2012 and MPI found the very same problem in the same fishery. The 2012 investigation was called Operation Trois. This was a big one. They were targeting 13 trawlers. The report found that fish was getting damaged because vessels were fishing beyond their capacity.

But they also found a series of other really worrying issues. This included under-reporting carton weights, throwing out whole fish and fillets with offal, shoddy cutting of landed fish and not properly accounting for the weight of glaze or frozen water that's added to packaged fish.

The waste from the poor cutting of fish resulted in an estimate of close to 3000 tonnes of Southern Blue Whiting not being reported. That is massive.

Photos of miscut fish heads were taken during Operation Trois as evidence of under-reporting catch.
Photos of miscut fish heads were taken during Operation Trois as evidence of under-reporting catch. Photo credit: Supplied

The industry can argue all it wants about these reports being historic and irrelevant but 2012 wasn't last century and some of the illegal activity documented in Trois was totally inexcusable, especially considering our country's biggest fishing companies were among those being monitored.

No one was ever prosecuted over Achilles, Trois or Operation Bronto, another compliance investigation which established massive under-reporting in the Hoki fishery. MPI is now saying that prosecution doesn't always result in behavioural change. That in itself is a fairly worrying admission. Can you imagine if Police told the public they probably won't arrest shoplifters as it won't stop them nicking electronics?

The New Zealand Catch Reconstruction Report, released by Auckland University in May 2016, was where the headache for MPI began. The report estimated the actual amount of fish caught in New Zealand was 2.7 times more than what had been reported. Waste from fish discards and under-declaring catch weights accounted for the majority of the discrepancy.

The publishing of Operation Achilles by Newshub prompted a Government inquiry.
The publishing of Operation Achilles by Newshub prompted a Government inquiry. Photo credit: Supplied

Then Newshub published in full a copy of Operation Achilles, a 2012/2013 fisheries compliance report which found widespread illegal dumping of fish on five boats off Timaru. Dolphins were caught in fishing nets too. No-one was prosecuted, with MPI claiming they had legal advice which said they couldn't. I would later discover with the help of the Ombudsman that the so-called legal advice never existed. It was all just a smoke screen.

I have no doubt that most within MPI's fisheries department care deeply about this precious public resource. Most skippers do too. But what the public needs to know is that there will be zero tolerance towards poor practice on the water and that prosecutions will eventuate when blatant illegal activity is observed, no matter what the circumstances.

Michael Morrah is Newshub's Pacific Correspondent.

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