MPA Perspective: New Zealand Seafood Industry Proposes Huge Closures - Cynicism or Pragmatism?

MPA News

Editor's note: Kevin Stokes is chief scientist for the New Zealand Seafood Industry Council (SeaFIC). He also chairs the advisory board for Victoria University of Wellington's Centre for Marine Environmental and Economic Research. Prior to his work in New Zealand, Stokes served as chair of the European Commission's Scientific, Technical, and Economic Committee on Fisheries, and was the UK delegate to the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) Advisory Committee on Fisheries Management.

By Kevin Stokes

The recent proposal by the New Zealand fishing industry to place 1.2 million square kilometers of the nation's ocean floor off-limits to bottom trawling and dredging (see http://www.seafood.co.nz, and MPA News 7:8) has drawn both praise and criticism in New Zealand and abroad. While a number of people view the proposals as bold and constructive, others are skeptical, suggesting the industry proposes to close only those areas in which it is not fishing and holds no genuine interest in biodiversity protection. Here, I explain industry's reasoning behind its action.

The proposal, which would create a network of Benthic Protected Areas (BPAs), grew from a project looking at issues and solutions for deepwater fisheries - mostly orange roughy and oreo dory - but was broadened to include all middle-depths fisheries (hoki, hake, ling, and others). It covers all marine areas from 12 to 200 nautical miles offshore. Conceived by the major companies in the industry, the proposal was amended following discussion with the Minister of Fisheries, and will soon be publicly released for consultation. The Minister has indicated his full support for the proposal.

The BPA proposal was developed by quota holders in response to a challenge from the government to (a) ensure economic benefits to New Zealand from a vibrant seafood industry and (b) resolve concerns that bottom trawling was adversely affecting marine ecosystems. In light of the fact that less than 10% of seabed within the New Zealand EEZ is estimated to have been trawled, it made sense to identify large, pristine areas now and close them to bottom fishing to provide durable, long-term biodiversity protection.

The proposed BPAs include examples of the various marine environmental classifications developed by government for MPA purposes ("New Zealand announces new MPA policy", MPA News 7:7) and are distributed geographically and by depth. They are also large and feature simple boundaries. As such, they represent a network of representative areas - a stated government goal - with which compliance will be relatively easy. The total area proposed for protection is far greater than the 10% intended by government under its MPA strategy. In fact, the total proposed BPA coverage is more than 30% of the EEZ, and includes 42% of seamounts within the EEZ. It is 1.7 times the entire EEZ of Iceland.

The accusation that the proposal amounts to a cynical move by industry to look good while avoiding real concessions is not unexpected, but is disheartening. The industry has tried to meet criteria laid down by government to meet biodiversity protection goals. In doing so, it has of course been pragmatic and tried to minimize the impact on its activities. In doing so, it has also delivered a degree of protection far greater than envisaged by government.

From an industry perspective, the proposal has opened up the issue and perhaps revealed the intentions of different parties. It puts conservationists on the spot. Industry critics who are genuinely interested in the long-term protection of marine ecosystems should be generally supportive. Detractors may be revealing an agenda that is not so much focused on protecting biodiversity, as such, but one that is more anti-fishing in general.

The industry proposal would give up a significant part of the development right inherent in its quota. Potentially, this is a huge amount and the decision to give it up was not taken lightly. What the industry will gain in return, if the proposals are carried through, is certainty. Deepwater fishing and international market development require a large amount of capital investment. By squarely facing the near-certainty that MPAs would have been put in place anyway, with or without industry consent, the deepwater quota owners are trying to create a clearer picture of the future. The industry is also intending to avoid a significant amount of money and effort being spent arguing about protection areas and closures. Costs of this type are crippling for business. In a nutshell, in giving up huge potential, the industry is trying to secure a more certain future and to reduce large upfront costs.

There are still a number of steps to be taken before the industry-proposed BPAs are realized. These include a government audit of the industry analyses (just finalized at the time this essay went to press), development of codes of conduct to ensure compliance, formal public consultation, and writing and passing of legislation. The processes will take time but will hopefully be in place by the start of the 2006/07 fishing year, starting this October.

For more information on the BPA proposal:
Please visit the SeaFIC website at http://www.seafood.co.nz.

For more information on the views expressed in this essay:
Kevin Stokes, New Zealand Seafood Industry Council, 74 Cambridge Tce, Private Bag 24-901, Wellington, New Zealand. Tel: +64 4 385 4005; E-mail: stokesk [at] seafood.co.nz