Department of Conservation criticised for 'inconsistent' enforcement of fishing rules

DoC is in charge of managing recreational trout fishing in the Taupō fishing district.
DoC is in charge of managing recreational trout fishing in the Taupō fishing district. Photo credit: Getty

A Tūrangi fisherman says the enforcement of fishing laws by the Department of Conservation (DoC) is a "shambles" and lacks consistency. 

Documents released under the Official Information Act (OIA) showing charges under the Taupō Fishery Regulations for the last 10 years demonstrates varying penalties for the same offence. 

While fishing licences throughout New Zealand are generally administered by Fish & Game, DoC is in charge of administering and managing recreational trout fishing within the Taupō fishing district.

According to the figures, there were offences by 331 people between January 2010 and March 2020.

Of these offences, 225 related to people fishing without a licence.

However, rather than all those offences receiving the same punishment, penalties differed. In some cases, a letter of warning was issued, while in other cases the offenders were taken to court and convicted.

The figures show in around 40 cases warning letters were issued, while in more than 100 cases diversion was offered in conjunction with offenders paying for "costs incurred along with a charitable donation".

In around 50 cases offenders were convicted and fined anywhere between $130 and more than $1000, depending on what other offences they had also committed. 

In the remaining cases no action was taken, the offender was underage or they could not be tracked down.

Fisherman Phillip Connor was caught fishing without a licence in May this year. He says his failure to have one was an oversight, believing his previous licence was still current.  

"Given the fact it was a first-time offence, I'm surprised that others who have poached fish traps received warnings whereas I was summoned to court." 

Connor says he accepts he didn't have a licence at the right time and acknowledges the repercussions are a consequence, however, is frustrated that others have been given warnings for the same offence and far greater offences. 

He was able to use diversion on the condition he pay $150 in prosecution costs as well as a donation of $300 to the Taupō Fishery Regulations.

Connor told Newshub he had no issue with the rules, but "the main thing is the inconsistency of the way the law's being applied".

"An essential part of democracy is everyone lives under the same law so it should really be applied evenly, or if discretion is used it should be used very selectively," he said.

"Really it should be everyone gets a warning or everyone goes to court."

The Department of Conservation has defended its enforcement, saying it "aims for fairness and consistency of treatment as far as possible, while recognising that circumstances of each offence and of each offender are unique".

Dave Conley, DoC's Taupō Fisheries operations manager, told Newshub the department takes into account various factors when deciding what action to take with offenders.

"Actions can range from prosecution in serious cases, diversion in minor cases, and a letter of warning for the most minor cases," he said. 

"Specific penalties vary according to seriousness, even for what appears to be the same offence under the law. Each case is considered individually, in terms of evidence, seriousness, the explanation provided by the offender, and their previous history, if any."

Conley said the relatively common offence of fishing without a licence could be viewed differently when the offender is an experienced professional fishing guide versus a person who could not afford to purchase a licence. He also pointed out that in the event of prosecution the courts controlled the penalty, not DoC.

"In less serious cases, the department can make an offer of diversion which involves the offender making a payment for costs incurred along with a charitable donation. The diversion is offered with full consideration of the facts, so as circumstances differ so too can an offer of diversion. 

"In the case of lower-level, first-time offending, the department will consider a letter of warning rather than a charge. The department feels this approach is both fair and appropriate, and decisions are made with the benefit of legal advice and in accordance with national policy."

But Connor isn't satisfied and says fishermen in the area are fed up.

"It's just a shambles and it has been for years. Fishermen down here have laughed at DoC and the way they enforce these laws."

He believes DoC should spend more time on serious offences such as poaching fish by means of drift netting rather than "petty litigation efforts on recreational anglers".