Opinion: The fishing fiasco - the anatomy of MPI's public relations disaster


It all started with a 23-page report.

Titled Operation Achilles, the details within it were nothing short of scandalous. MPI's compliance investigators had cracking evidence of illegal behaviour and wanted to swoop. But senior management stopped that from happening.

It appears that some within MPI hoped the 2013 report would never see the light of day – officials knew Kiwis hated hearing about precious resources being wasted. Even more damaging was the fact they’d already made a decision to let the offending skippers off the hook.

Opinion: The fishing fiasco - the anatomy of MPI's public relations disaster

The Achilles report released publicly by Newshub

But the details did of course go public. Cue the attempts to downplay the report’s significance, and the monotonous reassurances from top officials who insisted that MPI takes illegal activity seriously.  

Even after it was established by a leading QC that MPI had for years failed to enforce the law, the response from leading politicians was lacklustre and pathetic.

What's really worrying is that the denials of a serious problem have only continued. Prime Minister John Key thinks Minister Nathan Guy has done a "good job", and Nathan Guy, while "disappointed" with MPI's failure to prosecute, thinks it’ll all be okay because we’re putting industry-owned cameras on boats.  

Let’s be clear about what’s happened here – MPI has been busted misleading the public for years about illegal fishing practices in the commercial sector.  

The behind-the-scenes deals:

Not only did Achilles document in meticulous fashion the “widespread” illegal dumping of fish on five vessels, it gave an insight into MPI’s approach to such behaviour. The Ministry’s own investigator, clearly worried about the agency’s response to such offending in the past, wrote the following:  

“As I understand it the Ministry has previously ignored dumping…because an assurance has been given to the vessels…that all such offending that was seen would be disregarded and no prosecution action taken”.

The report went on to talk about how damaging it could be if the public found out, because MPI had known about the issues with illegal dumping “for years and would appear to have done little to combat it”. It also warned that this “would be very difficult to explain and unpleasant at best.”

It sounded very much like a cover up, and as predicted, it has indeed been unpleasant.

Email trail reveals the truth:

Opinion: The fishing fiasco - the anatomy of MPI's public relations disaster

One of the emails released in the Heron report

When the first extracts of Achilles became public, MPI's senior officials were quick to discredit what had been said. There were strenuous public denials about the existence of any sort of assurance or deal that had been carved out with commercial skippers.

It was only a "preliminary" investigation and "there were some misunderstandings", MPI’s Deputy Director General, Scott Gallacher, insisted in May.  

It’s difficult to see how there could have been misunderstandings. Skippers on five vessels had illegally dumped large quantities of fish – in full view of MPI’s cameras. There was some kind of assurance given to skippers, and despite blunt messages from MPI's own compliance team to prosecute, no action was taken.

Opinion: The fishing fiasco - the anatomy of MPI's public relations disaster

Fish-dumping caught on camera

Michael Heron QC found out why. When he scoured through the internal emails of MPI’s senior managers, it was discovered there was fear that prosecuting fishermen when there had been talk of “implied immunity” would ruin MPI’s camera trial and upset skippers. MPI wanted to ensure it had "buy-in" from the industry in the future. Given the promises made to skippers, they also didn’t want to be embarrassed in court.

Then there were the incredibly candid comments from the Director of Fisheries Management, Dave Turner, in an email to colleagues in 2014. This email dispensed with the spin we'd been sold for years about the dumping problem and revealed what officials really knew.

According to Turner, dumping was a "systemic failure of the current system… Fisheries Management can't quantify the tonnages involved but we suspect they are significant to the point that they are impacting on stocks." He goes on to say that if they found a golden bullet to stop dumping "we would probably put half of the inshore fleet out of business overnight".

These comments were not flippant remarks. They were written in an email at ten o'clock in the morning by the guy who is in charge of fisheries management for New Zealand. Any subsequent attempts by the Minister to explain such comments away as an "exaggeration" are disingenuous at best in my view.

MPI’s public explanations were wrong:

Sadly, the truth only came out after MPI was forced into a corner.

As it transpired, even the initial explanations given for not taking a prosecution turned out to be completely wrong. There were contradictory statements ranging from "unfortunately, we didn’t have enough evidence" to "our legal advice was we couldn’t prosecute".

Yes, apparently MPI could not prosecute because incredibly they had legal advice that the footage investigators had of dolphins being netted and fish being dumped couldn’t be used in court.

Dave Turner stated in May: "We ended up with a legal opinion that we could not prosecute the fishermen for discarding the fish because the cameras had been placed on the vessels for the purposes of a monitoring trial in regard to protected species."

MPI now accepts "that information was wrong", but won't explain who passed on the wrong information or why it failed to correct it. Nor will they reveal what the legal advice actually said. How is it possible that MPI's top fisheries officials were supplied with incorrect information, which was then regurgitated publicly during multiple interviews with journalists?

I think I know why. They hoped that explanation would stick, and that would end the matter - the public spotlight would eventually fizzle away.  

Ignoring illegal activity not isolated to a single operation:

I understand that at least in the case of Operation Achilles in 2013, MPI management were trying to get skippers onside so they could trial their camera technology. The intention of the operation was to see if protected species like Hectors and Maui Dolphins were being caught in trawl nets.

Opinion: The fishing fiasco - the anatomy of MPI's public relations disaster

A dolphin caught in a net

But there's also evidence of dumping being ignored in 2009 during another major operation to study the same interactions.  

Emails show compliance officers had witnessed substantial dumping of fish on half of the 42 vessels they’d been monitoring. The compliance team was right to try and do their job – but they got blocked by senior managers. Specifically, it was the then National Manager of Fisheries Compliance, Andrew Coleman, who put an end to any prosecution. In an email, Coleman wrote, “I expect no action to be taken in relation to this report”. Yes, a direction was given from the top to ignore illegal activity. No wonder a rift has developed over the years between frontline compliance officers and their bosses.

How many other operations are there like those carried out in 2009 and in 2013? We can only assume there are more.

Commercial operators not solely to blame:

Not all commercial fishermen are wasteful operators. Many skippers and crews I’ve met take their jobs very seriously, they want fish in the water for their children, and they dread killing anything unnecessarily. I know this from spending time on trawl boats.  Others, I know, are cowboys who could not care less about waste.

Time and time again when I speak to commercial fishermen and ask them about dumping they say it’s the rules that encourage illegal behaviour. If you have to pay a penalty fee (deem value) for catching a fish you don’t have quota for, no wonder quality species are being biffed overboard. The skippers don’t want to incur hefty fines. Not that that excuses illegal activity, it doesn’t. The law is there for a reason but there’s no incentive for fishermen to follow it.  

One skipper interviewed as part of the Achilles investigation appeared to be fed up with acting illegally. He told an investigator he’s “sick of being a bloody criminal. Let’s tidy up the act, but I don’t believe it's just the fishermen’s problem.” That’s a fair call. The big companies that demand a particular size and quality of fish must also accept responsibility. And of course, it’s MPI's problem too - a problem by their own admission they’ve failed to manage.

Public credibility of utmost importance:

What we know is for many years illegal activity was being ignored because MPI's senior managers wanted to build up a positive relationship with commercial operators. Attempts to prosecute were blocked.

But the real problem for MPI is that they never attempted to be transparent about any of this. In fact, they did the reverse. For years MPI has insisted that dumping isn’t much of a problem.

Yet privately, managers clearly knew how bad it was. Even four months ago the Minister was still rolling out that classic line of New Zealand fisheries PR – that our quota management system is "world leading". It’s the humdinger of generic answers, but it’s a statement that has clearly never had any substance. MPI still insists it has a “robust” fisheries management system. But I think there needs to be real organisational change and accountability before anyone will believe that.

Stop the spin, MPI. You’ve been well and truly caught out.