Member of group advising Government on improving health of Hauraki Gulf resigns after criticism, ideas shut down

A member of a government group offering advice on improving the health of the Hauraki Gulf has resigned, saying fisheries officials "shut down" criticism and ideas and had a one-way agenda. 

Tony Orton told Newshub a plan going to the Minister is underwhelming and that he is disappointed in the system.

Orton's spent much of his life in and around the Hauraki Gulf.

"It's absolutely stunning from the outside isn't it, but when you get under the water there's some fundamental issues," Orton said.

Issues he'd hoped could be resolved by being part of a group to advise the Government. But disillusioned and upset - he's quit. 

"Totally underwhelmed by the plan. I don't think it's bold enough to go forward into the future. It's certainly something I do not want my name to be part of, or my family's name to be part of," Orton said.

The Hauraki Gulf Fisheries Plan he'd worked on sets out action to manage fisheries in the Gulf. But Orton, a charter boat skipper, alleges fisheries officials at the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) had a set agenda.

"I believe that this whole process started with a preconceived outcome," he said.

"It worries me a lot because it's not democratic."

Tony Orton.
Tony Orton. Photo credit: Newshub.

Seven years ago, a plan to protect the Gulf called Sea Change was announced that proposed phasing out bottom trawling and dredging by 2025. Orton said he and others tried to get this into the latest plan. 

"When we suggested this, it was basically shut down," Orton said.

Instead what MPI has called trawl "corridors" have been put forward. 

"A corridor is a narrow strip. It's quite misleading. They're very large areas of high economic value," Orton said.

He revealed in some cases, the trawling zones would be right next to protected areas. 

"Making some areas completely locked up, high protection areas and then right beside it you've got almost a scorched earth policy where you can keep bottom trawling, keep purse seining," Orton said.

"MPI has been pressured by large fishing companies. One hundred percent."

MPI director for fisheries management Emma Taylor said they have accepted Orton's resignation.

"We're sorry to see him go. We've thanked him for his contribution to the really important work we're doing to improve the Hauraki Gulf," Taylor said.

Taylor said balancing all interests is complicated.

"We're working really closely to make sure we're taking into account the whole range of interests that there are in the Gulf," she said.

The Hauraki Gulf is a small area sitting in the much larger Fisheries Management Area 1.

Orton believed it should be managed separately so quota can be managed based on localised areas. 

Then there's the issue of small fish, like pilchards and jack mackerel. They're heavily targeted by commercial vessels, but the draft plan suggests more "research" on the impact of their removal. 

"I mean how much research do you need to do, I mean we've got to action this now. It's pretty obvious that whales eat pilchards, dolphins eat pilchards, kingfish and snapper eat pilchards, gannets eat pilchards," Orton said. 

"We just need to look after what we've already got."

Orton is not alone in his concerns. 

Newshub has seen briefings to Oceans and Fisheries Minister David Parker where three other members of the advisory group expressed concerns about allowing trawling and dredging to continue, and not assigning the Gulf its own management area.

And Orton’s angry there's a reluctance to be bold, fearing the thousands of public submissions on the plan won't change anything. 

"I'm disgusted with the process. Too much red tape, too much bureaucracy. We need to be able to address issues in real-time," Orton said.

However, MPI said the 10,000 public submissions will go to the Minister before any final decisions are made and the size and location of the trawl corridors are still being worked out. 

Newshub requested comments from Minister Parker and from commercial industry group Fisheries Inshore New Zealand but we are yet to receive a response.