Commercial fisheries report reveals how 'frighteningly little' we know about ocean

The findings stressed the importance of taking a holistic view of the ocean.
The findings stressed the importance of taking a holistic view of the ocean. Photo credit: Getty

A new report on the country's commercial fisheries is calling for a more holistic approach to managing the country's fisheries and assessing the health of the marine ecosystem.

The report - The future of commercial fishing in Aotearoa New Zealand - was prepared by the Prime Minister's chief science advisor Professor Dame Juliet Gerrard and suggested more be done to reduce gaps in data and knowledge around fisheries and improve data accessibility in the sector.

It also suggested ways of making sure commercial fishing is done more sustainability, with the goal of having 100 percent sustainably managed oceans by 2040.

"We do have a lot of data about the ocean but in many ways, we also know frighteningly little," Prof Gerrard wrote in the report.

"What we do know is often uncertain, creating error bars in measurements which foster the differences in interpretations that fuel dissent. The data we do have is poorly integrated across different stakeholders. The mountain of electronic and other data collected for compliance purposes could be better mined for environmental, commercial, and social outcomes," she said.

"In the meantime, lack of data is used by many to excuse lack of action – this must change."

Dr Michael Plank, a professor at the University of Canterbury who was on the panel responsible for preparing the report, said the findings stressed the importance of taking a holistic view of the ocean.

"One of the things the report identifies is the need to move towards managing ecosystems as a whole, rather than separately managing individual fish species," he said. 

"Ecosystems are made up of lots of species and habitats that all interact in ways that we don't fully understand. This means that catching one species has effects on other species that can be indirect and hard to predict."

He said managing the marine ecosystem is a "balance between generating food production and conserving biodiversity".

"Moving towards an ecosystem approach to fisheries management could provide some win-wins for commercial fisheries and conservationists," he said.

The report's findings were welcomed by the seafood industry, with Seafood New Zealand chief executive Dr Jeremy Helson saying though some of the recommendations would be challenging to meet, the sector looked forward to "engaging constructively with Government on solutions".

Greenpeace said the report showed "urgent action" was needed to protect the ocean.

"We don't have enough data or enough transparency around the fishing industry to manage it properly, the science advisor is right that we're in the dark on the true state of our marine environment," said Greenpeace oceans spokesperson Jessica Desmond.

"What we do know is the ocean is in decline, we can see the impacts of destructive fishing and overfishing from what information we do have, and report after report tell us we need to reduce the fishing pressure on the sea."

She said the recommendations in the report didn't go far enough.