Government to ban commercial skippers from discarding fish overboard

The Government is making the biggest changes to fisheries management in decades, banning commercial fishing skippers from discarding fish overboard, Newshub can reveal.

What's led to the change is a report made public by Newshub in 2016, called Operation Achilles, which revealed commercial skippers in the South Island were dumping vast amounts of fish illegally. 

That caused big concerns, but fishing crews have also been able to dump fish without breaking the law.

Discard rules mean commercial skippers can return quota species that are below legal size to the sea, but the problem is most fish returned to the sea don't survive.

Oceans and Fisheries Minister David Parker has confirmed to Newshub that's now going to change - and a review of the law will be required, including amending Schedule 6 of the Fisheries Act.

Skippers will essentially have to bring everything they catch back to port and cameras will be put on 300 vessels to ensure the new rules are followed. This will take four years and cost $68 million.

A ban on discards means all quota fish pulled up - regardless of size - will have to be brought back to the wharf and tallied up against the big fishing firms' total allowable catch. 

"Obviously if fish are put back dead in the sea, it's not good for the fishery, so we're changing the rules to say, 'if you catch a fish then you've got to land it,'" Parker told Newshub.

Fisheries socio-economic scientist Glenn Simmons said the change is groundbreaking.

"What it does is it makes it very black-and-white what the industry can and can't discard.

"[It's] probably the biggest change to fisheries management reporting rules since the original Fisheries Act in 1908, so it's very significant," Dr Simmons said.

The only exception would be some species like spiny dogfish, which leech ammonia - they can still be thrown back. 

New Zealand's biggest fishing company Sanford supports the idea of improving stocks. 

"If the fish comes up dead, then I am all for bringing everything back rather than leaving it out there," chief operating officer Clement Chia said.

Half of Sanford's inshore vessels use what's called Precision Seafood Harvesting (PSH) - a plastic tube that helps increase survivability. 

And Chia questions whether it makes sense to bring it all back if some can be returned to the sea alive. 

"If it's not being used then it's wasted either as fishmeal or goes into landfill at worst case," she said. "So I prefer the fish to be alive and return to the ocean."

In 2016, Newshub published Operation Achilles and Operation Hippocamp - ministry compliance reports that revealed widespread illegal dumping on multiple vessels. 

Parker said those revelations prompted the move. 

"Yes, the Achilles and Hippocamp reports, I think were a shock to people in Government."

And cameras on the inshore fleet have now been confirmed. They'll be put on up to 300 vessels by 2024. In fact, anything going over the side caught on camera will raise concern. 

"We've calculated that 85 percent of the fish caught in the inshore area will be covered by cameras on boats," Parker said.

Sanford says it's fully supportive of that move. 

"For us the more transparency out there, the better," Chia said. "At the moment, it's a bit opaque. People can't see it so they don't trust us."

Other big changes could also be imminent. Cabinet papers leaked to the ACT Party show the Government wants to increase areas in the Hauraki Gulf under protection from 6.6 percent percent to 17.6 percent by establishing 18 protected areas.

Parker also wants to start an inquiry into the use and allocation of migrant labour across the fishing industry.