August 26, 2008

All the Fish in the Sea


The next time you wince at the price of fish, spare a thought for the people who troll the deep. Matt Rilkoff spends a day crayfishing.


OCTOPUS are the natural enemy of crayfish. The eight- legged spineless creatures suck flesh from the crustaceans so thoroughly that even their black beady eyes are emptied from their sockets.

And as New Plymouth crayfisherman Mark Bamford steers his boat past a dawn- soaked Paritutu, he says it sometimes feels the same thing is happening to Taranaki's small but hardy fishing industry.

Their octopus does not live in the sea, but rather the Beehive.

And there are others still who believe fishermen are the octopus and shouldn't be trusted more than a rat in a chicken coop.

Mark doesn't agree with this but acknowledges fishermen have a poor public image as enemies of conservationists and pillagers of the sea.

He's been fishing around Taranaki for much of his working life and believes the fishery is in good shape thanks to the responsibility of the region's commercial fishermen.

In a rare point of agreement, his opinion is backed by the Ministry of Fisheries, who says the crayfish numbers in Taranaki are in a healthy state, as are all species of wet fish.

Though the area the Taranaki cray fishery is part of is only a small one (total allowable commercial catch of 47 tonnes) relative to other cray fisheries around the country, it is part of a hugely important national export industry.

Seafood consistently ranks as the country's fourth or fifth largest export earner and contributes $1.7 billion to the GDP.

Mark, as skipper and owner of one of four commercial crayfishing vessels operating along the Taranaki coast, is a small part of this big number.

For three months, July to September, the price paid for crays on the international (mainly Chinese) market hits its peak, so this is when they place their pots.

The season brings with it 4.30am starts and a battle with the elements and market forces that lie between them and their prey.

This season they have had the worst of each to cope with. The weather has played havoc with their schedule and fuel prices, though dropping now, are well up on last year.

But on this day, a Wednesday in July, the weather is perfect and the grandeur of a sun-basted, cloud-free Mt Taranaki overshadows anxieties about the fuel bill - temporarily, at least

As they go about their tasks, both Mark and deckhand Howard Evans have the contented look you get from knowing you are exactly where you want to be, doing exactly what you want to do.

"I couldn't do an office job. It would feel like prison," says Howard, a transplanted and well- spoken Welshman now three years in New Plymouth.

On such a calm and beautiful day as this one is turning out to be, it can indeed be difficult to argue the benefits of a desk job, which makes it somewhat ironic that Mark is spending more and more time at a desk completing the endless paperwork a fisherman must now deal with.

"It's not just as simple as getting some quota and going out and catching fish anymore. For every hour I spend out here, it feels like I'm spending just as much time filling in forms. It's not so bad for me, I suppose, because I'm only targeting one species. I'd hate to be back fishing for wet fish (the finned swimming type) and all the complications that can bring," he says between bites of banana cake and gulps of coffee.

To explain just some of the complications involved in fishing could easily last an evening.

To put it simply: to catch, fish you need to hold Annual Catch Entitlement (ACE).

ACE is a yearly right bought from the quota holder.

uota is an ongoing property right to a percentage of the Total Allowable Commercial Catch (TACC) of a species.

TACC is set by the Ministry of Fisheries and can go up and down, depending on the health of a fishery.

This means the real quantity of fish a quota covers can go up and down, which means the amount and cost of ACE can go up and down.

Fishermen understandably don't want TACC to fluctuate much, because then their costs can fluctuate - and small players are vulnerable to even minor cost increases.

A healthy fishing industry, both financially and environmentally, relies on the TACC being set correctly, as from there everything should flow smoothly. However, this is easier said than done.

As an example, one of the complications stemming from the TACC seemingly being set too low is there can be literally too many fish in the sea and not enough ACE to catch them.

Earlier this year, local fisherman Rob Ansley said schools of snapper around the Taranaki coast were so numerous it was difficult to catch anything else.

No fisherman in Taranaki targets snapper at a serious commercial level and as such only hold enough ACE to cover their typical snapper bycatch.

If they catch more snapper than the ACE they have, fishermen must pay the government a penalty, called Deemed Value.

This is set on a sliding scale and charges the fishermen more depending on how many kilos over their ACE they catch.

In March, the snapper were so abundant along the Taranaki coast that fishermen couldn't avoid catching them. They were in real danger of having to pay the top DV, a financially crippling situation, as each fish caught could have cost them up to $17 a kilo, far more than what they'd receive from the processor.

In the end, the schools of snapper almost stopped Rob from fishing and certainly pushed him out of certain areas, increasing his costs of catching fish species he did hold ACE for and decreasing the economic viability of his livelihood.

Mark sagely nods his salty blonde haired head. He understands these problems, having dealt with similar ones himself. He's been in the fishing game since before he left school. The only interruptions were a four-year stint at university and an 11-year false start as a valuer.

He has invested heavily in a boat and holds a portfolio of quota rights for both wet fish and crayfish. Though he sticks to catching crayfish these days, it isn't simple or cheap.

The ACE for crayfish along the Taranaki coast peaked at $35 per kilo this year. That means a fisherman must pay a quota holder $35 for every kilo of crayfish they intend to catch.

Put another way: $35,000 a tonne and a fisherman wants five at the very least. This ACE must be bought before the fisherman sticks a pot in the water. Before they even have money coming in.

"I simply wouldn't buy it (ACE) at that price. I couldn't. It would be a waste of time. My costs for catching crays are about $15 a kilo and the average I get for what I catch is $50 a kilo. So if I bought ACE at that price, I'm not making any money."

Mark owns some cray quota and leases more cray ACE each year, if he can get it. He is reluctant to say how much he owns or how much he must buy, but says costs are becoming significant enough to stop anyone new from entering the industry.

"I mean, think about this: a tonne of Cray Area 9 Quota costs about $330,000, and that's a conservative estimate. On top of that, you've got entitlement fees, maintenance fees and all sorts of other things, so even if you have quota, you're still paying out each year just to hold that quota. Now, when you have to buy in more ACE, well, that is even more money and you might not even be able to get it, which affects the whole viability of your operation.

"It's not too bad for me, because I've been in it for a while and have a bit of quota, so that reduces how much ACE I need. But if you wanted to get into the industry, you'd struggle to do it without some serious financial backing."

Leaning back in his skipper's seat as he steers his boat around the buoys marking his pots, he says it seems government policies are designed to force smaller operators out.

But whatever fishermen may think, inshore fisheries manager Leigh Mitchell says the government leaves the business side of fishing to the fishing industry.

"We don't get involved in how many operators there are. We set the regulations and leave it up to the industry to mould itself to what is appropriate," she says.

Appropriate in this case will probably be an industry dominated by a few large companies: Talley's/Amaltal, Sealord, Sanford and the like.

These are the ones that can afford to front up with the staggering amounts of money that will be needed to battle it out for a piece of New Zealand's increasingly valuable fish stocks.

The big guys already have healthy quota portfolios and the financial power to purchase further quota and ACE at almost any price.

Smaller players simply don't have the financial clout to survive in the long term because the competition in the industry will only get more fierce.

As many of the world's fishing grounds near exhaustion and collapse, the marine life found within New Zealand's 400 million square kilometre, relatively well- managed exclusive economic zone is becoming more and more valuable.

Real prices for fish have trended upwards for years and owners of the right (Quota) to catch fish will have themselves a treasure chest, even with the increased costs of fishing.

But there will be a few hurdles along the way.

Fisheries Minister Jim Anderton has moved to give his ministry the power to set TACC limits without exhaustive scientific evidence.

Effectively, the ministry does not need definitive proof a species is being overfished before it limits the amount that can be taken. Previously, it did. When the ministry tried to cut orange roughy TACC because of over-fishing concerns, the fishing industry took them to court accusing them of unlawfully reducing the TACC. That time the fishermen won, but it won't be happening any more.

The "precautionary principle" is an important part of the Fisheries Amendment Act being rushed through Parliament in time for the new fishing season in October. It is expected to be popular with voters and recreational fishermen, but the fishing industry isn't quite so happy.

"It's not right to be able to take someone's livelihood away without enough evidence to ensure it is the right decision. Imagine if they did the same thing to dairy farmers. There would be hell to pay," Mark says.

His disgruntlement with what he sees as more anti-fisherman vote- grabbing legislation of the likes behind the Maui Dolphin fishing restrictions is also felt by Keith Mawson, of Egmont Seafoods in New Plymouth.

From his fishy smelling office on Centennial Drive, the middle- aged and iron-gripped fishmonger looks down on the bustlings of Port Taranaki.

He can tell at a glance which fishermen are in port, which are out working the sea.

He knows fishermen are struggling: high fuel prices, fishing areas lost to marine reserves, constantly changing oil exploration restrictions, customary Maori fishing ground exclusions and enough ministry paperwork to sink a ship.

It all takes the gloss off a sea-based livelihood, but he also sees hope.

"We're in a good position here in New Plymouth, really. We're relatively isolated and that will discourage outsiders coming here. We have a good healthy fishery with a small number of responsible fishermen. Even our bad weather is a benefit because it protects the fish stocks and discourages outsiders again. I know there are hard times right now, but I think if fishermen can hold on through these times, there are good days ahead."

Mark is also positive, if only because that seems to be his disposition. He says he wouldn't be fishing if he didn't love it, and believes it is the same for everyone operating from New Plymouth.

No matter how much paperwork he has to fill out, how many new restrictions he must adhere to, or how much sleep he loses over the money side of fishing, the thrill of raising a pot remains.

And on this day, as the winch quietly pulls the heavy pots from the thick green waters of the Cape Egmont coast, the anticipation is rewarded.

Most of his pots are full of crays - only four of five also hold an octopus.


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