That is according to an Environmental Defence Society (EDS) report into inshore fisheries released this week, Voices from the Sea, written by its policy director Raewyn Peart.
There had been some notable successes, for instance snapper stocks have increased, she said.
But the current status of most inshore stocks was unknown and the system was so unwieldy a Total Allowable Catch (TAC) review can take as long as eight years.
There are more than 400 inshore stocks, which are not being actively managed.
There was a marked loss of institutional knowledge within the Ministry for Primary Industries, the system was now largely reactive and there was only a sketchy legislative and policy framework.
“After more than 30 years of the quota management system we still don’t know enough about most of our inshore fish stocks to make informed decisions – we are flying blind,” the report says.
“Where the system has most grossly failed is in protecting the marine habitats essential for future fish production, as well as for the health of our marine environment more generally.
“There are multiple examples of the marked decline of fisheries and in some cases total collapse, linked to habitat degradation and loss.”
The Challenger scallop fishery in Tasman and Golden bays, paua and blue cod stocks in the Marlborough Sounds and kina barrens along the Northland coast were given as examples.
“This is the element of our research that I found most alarming, because such habitat changes can be very difficult, if not impossible to reverse.”
However, the report shows a misunderstanding of the QMS. It was set up to preserve stocks that were being overfished, it is not a mechanism for dealing with heavy siltation and other land-based impacts on the marine environment. That is the responsibility of the Resource Management Act and one that has not been well discharged—to the detriment of inshore fisheries.
Peart also took issue with the structure of the commercial fishing industry, with quota being largely controlled by three corporate entities, but did not give weight to the collective nature of iwi ownership.
While there is much to agree with in the report, it makes sweeping generalisations about the fishing industry – ie, all inshore boats are old, skippers are frightened to speak out for fear of losing catch access, no innovation since 1992 (Precision Seafood Harvesting, larger net mesh, international marketing, anyone?), draws on selective and anonymous interviews – and completely ignores the impact of recreational fishing, the missing part of the QMS jigsaw.
When as much as half of the snapper catch in the Hauraki Gulf is caught by the ever expanding Auckland recreational sector and several hundred charter vessels are de facto commercial fishers, all unmonitored, how can it be argued they are not a factor in assessing the health of fisheries and setting catch limits?
However, there is no argument the QMS, and our wider fisheries management system, cannot be improved and Peart deserves credit for highlighting contentious issues, if not for some of her statements.
She was also a key contributor to another recent study into the QMS, initiated by the American-based The Nature Conservancy, titled: Learning from New Zealand’s 30 Years of Experience Managing Fisheries under a Quota Management System.
That study presented New Zealand’s QMS as an international example that “offers lessons relevant to many other countries that are contemplating fishery reform efforts”.
Curiously, Peart makes no reference to the Nature Conservancy report, neither in the text or the references.
Instead she has opted for alarmist “we stand to lose our fisheries for good”, which if not arrant nonsense, certainly lacks scientific rigour.
Some of the concerns raised in the EDS report – lack of research, inflexibility, poor policy settings - have been canvassed by industry for a number of years.
But an independent statutory inquiry under the Inquiries Act, as proposed by EDS, is not the answer.
Most of the remedies are known and lie within the existing Fisheries Act.
There has already been extensive consultation under different names. The previous Government launched its review in 2015 by initially seeking views that were to be summarised in responses called “What We Heard” and “What We Think” (neither of which made it beyond the MPI bureaucracy).
What did finally emerge was the Future of Our Fisheries, which lacked any coherent vision and was instead a shotgun approach to addressing “issues of the day”. If we really want to improve and future-proof our fisheries management system, let’s dispense with the populism, the uninformed comment, and management by anecdote.
All yet another review would do is provide a stage for rehearsal of entrenched positions and bog the process down for another two years. Applying some genuine expertise to advance the solutions we know exist would be a far more productive approach.
Fisheries Minister Stuart Nash, in launching the book, said he was learning fisheries management was a very complex topic, likening it to Middle East religion and politics.
He said there needed to be change and he was keen to implement it, without being specific.
The challenge for all parties is to deal with the acknowledged shortcomings of a system that has served us well but one that all agree can be improved.