On 16 May 2016, a long-awaited report into New Zealand’s fisheries hit the inboxes of media, politicians, and fishing industry bosses. It was complex, detailed and damning.
In addition to data suggesting our oceans were being plundered, there were reports within reports that were suggestive of a benevolent and toothless regulator allowing a misbehaving industry to act with impunity.
The ‘catch reconstruction report’, released by the University of British Columbia, found that the total amount of marine fish caught in New Zealand from 1950 to 2010 was 2.7 times more than recorded by official statistics. It started a firestorm, making headlines throughout New Zealand and internationally.
Social media was abuzz with condemnation of the industry and the government, and greenies, recreational fishers and opposition parties were united in their call for a wide ranging inquiry into the fishing industry. In response the fishing industry and its lobbyists went on the offensive, using ad hominem attacks, partisanship and hyperbole to attack the science that made them look bad.
For those who bothered, the report made for troubling reading. It painted a picture of an exploited natural resource, with widespread underreporting and dumping by industrial fishing companies. Most troubling was the revelation that approximately 37% of total catch was made up of commercial discards – and the suggestion that the regulatory agency responsible for enforcement was aware of the nature and extent of the issues and was ignoring them.
In a country built on the exploitation of natural resources, the report can be read both as metaphor and an excoriating expose of the capture of a government regulator by the very industry it is supposed to be regulating.
In the wake of the release, it was fascinating to watch the fishing industry, its lobby groups and the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) wade into the argument, seemingly testing different and sometimes contradictory public relations lines day-by-day. If they had taken the Myers-Briggs test, they’d have been operating at the far extreme of feeling mode.
They claimed the report failed to understand how official data was reported, that it was highly politicised, that it contained stories masquerading as science and was highly biased. The regulatory body charged with protecting our fisheries, MPI, went even further, criticising the report's methodology and claiming that it was contradicted by its own evidence.
Except that it wasn’t.
After a few days of official attempts to discredit the reconstruction report, an internal MPI report was leaked to Newshub. This MPI report, Operation Achilles, followed a cameras-on-boats trial and revealed levels of waste consistent with the reconstruction report data. More troubling, the report suggested that MPI may have given an undertaking to those being monitored not to prosecute any offences caught on camera. Which if true, surely was an open invitation to dump, discard and offend carte blanche?
In response to the leak, MPI set about trying to undermine its own report, claiming it was out of context, preliminary, misinterpreted and plain wrong. And then another MPI report was leaked, Operation Hippocamp, with remarkably similar findings.
Attempting to explain the ministry's failure to prosecute Fisheries Act offences captured on video, Primary Industries minister Nathan Guy argued that it had insufficient evidence and claimed it had received a legal opinion saying it was unable to prosecute - a strange dichotomy when there was video evidence.
Important questions arise from these claims, which seem to have been recognised by the Director General of MPI, Martyn Dunne - who appointed Michael Heron QC to review the decision not to prosecute in Achilles, Hippocamp, and a third operation, the aptly named Operation Overdue.
Up to this point, the story had been centred on fish dumping, underreporting and non-prosecution. The argument had become, ‘sure it happens, but not in any way near the numbers the academic report suggests’, even though the MPI reports reinforced the data in the reconstruction report.
Then Greenpeace revealed that MPI had contracted an industry owned and controlled firm, Trident Systems, to video and monitor Snapper 1, the country’s largest and most valuable inshore fishery. On the face of it, it’s a clear conflict of interest. No matter what access MPI has to what would ultimately be many terabytes of footage, if an industry is responsible for reviewing, analysing and reporting on itself, there is a risk of abuse, and the public would quite rightly have little confidence. In response, government and industry have argued that the RFP was an open and fair process.
But was it?
I know from reviewing MPI’s Request for Proposal (RFP) document that Snapper 1 could not be monitored by cameras without the agreement of industry. MPI appears to have had no way to enforce the installation of cameras or the video monitoring programme. The RFP process required applicants to have the consent and support of industry as part of their application. You would assume Trident, an industry-owned firm, might have the inside running on getting its own consent and support.
And so, a new series of questions arise. Who, in this so-called open and transparent system, entered the RFP process? Why was Trident Systems preferred over the other applicants? Which individuals made the decision to award the tender to Trident, and on what criteria? And how did MPI and industry manage the inherent conflict of the industry consenting to and supporting itself, relative to external applicants?
The past fortnight of evidence paints a damning picture. The public has learned that MPI has known about high levels of dumping and underreporting, then ignored it, and failed to prosecute. Despite having video evidence of serious offending. There are suggestions there were agreements not to prosecute, and the awarding of a contract to the fishing industry to monitor itself. These are serious questions, requiring serious consideration.
MPI’s only substantive response to date has been to order an inquiry into facts the public only knows about because of the three leaked reports. It has the appearance of a deliberately narrow inquiry designed to look firm but achieve little. The message to hard working MPI staff seems to be that if you really want something done, you have leak like a sieve to get the MPI hierarchy to do anything.
If MPI had reacted to the independent report in a responsible and concerned way, if officials and the minister had taken it seriously and immediately begun looking into the independent statistics, they may have been able to hold onto the public’s confidence. Instead, mirroring our worst suspicions about their relationship with industry, they came out shoulder-to-comms-line-shoulder with industry, firing the same asinine lines at the independent researchers who had produced the report.
I’m left wondering what’s coming next. I know the fishing industry and MPI’s tactics and denial have backfired, and they now have the interest and attention, not just of Greenpeace, the researchers from Auckland, British Columbia, and Oxford Universities and a number of respected journalists, but of recreational fishing groups and kiwis already worried about our disappearing fish.
Whether the current investigation reveals MPI is not the dispassionate even-handed environmental regulator New Zealanders expect it to be, or quietly tries to put the whole situation to bed, is yet to be seen. It is possible that MPI might be in need of a reconstruction itself.
Whatever happens there must be a broader inquiry: to examine MPI’s overall approach to regulating and prosecuting large fishing companies, its relationship with the fishing industry, and how it came to award the contract to monitor the industry, to the industry.
Usually fishing stories are about the one that got away. This fishing story has such a stench about it, it is vital no one is let off the hook.
Tim McKinnel is an investigator with Greenpeace