Much is made of our bountiful NZ seafood resource and the way in which we manage it, but the evidence is otherwise, and unless the fishing industry take a careful re-evaluation of its current position the whole lot could come tumbling down quicker than an Invercargill sports stadium.

The challenge to New Zealand’s fishing business was clearly made by the decision last week by one of the largest retail food chains on earth to colour code its seafood offerings according to their sustainability. Currently two of New Zealand’s six largest export species, hoki and orange roughy, are on the red list for being unsustainable.

Whole Food Market, with 270 retail outlets in North America and the United Kingdom, is not a small player in the fish business, so its decision to cease selling all red-graded species from 2013 at least gives New Zealand fishing interests a chance to improve the method by which they catch hoki. Worth $152 million in exports last year, hoki is the third largest species exported in terms of value, and it has the benefit of being reasonably well managed so that the resource itself is sustainable.

However, the bottom trawl method of catching hoki has caused it to be banned from a number of retail outlets in the Northern Hemisphere, and this is likely to increase in the near future as more public pressure comes on retailers to take more respect of their natural resources.

New Zealand’s problem in addressing these issues lies in a seeming inability on the part of fishing industry leaders to recognise the true state of our fishing resource. While much is made of the size of our marine economic zone, which is one of the largest in the world, not much information on its productivity is communicated to the general public. Put simply, there may be a lot of sea out there, but compared with other fisheries there are not a heck of a lot of fish in it.

If we consider our fish resource from this basis, that what we have is relatively small and not especially diverse in a commercial sense, then we can see that the state of our fish industry is parlous. From a total allowable catch of commercial species (TAC) of 572,000 tonnes, just 422,000 tonnes was landed in the last year. Of this 68% was exported, a tiny portion of the global fish trade of some 140 million tonnes.

While it is responsible for NZ$1.35 billion worth of exports in 2009, this number represents selling our seafood at the bottom of the market. The average price per kilo for exports is a mere NZ$4.70, and that includes so-called luxury fish like crayfish and paua. In terms of premium caught and marketed products from this country, there is very little making its way to the top of the world’s seafood business.

Again, as with our dairy, meat and wine exports, New Zealand is commodity trading with its most valuable natural resources. If this does not send us broke trying to ship to distant markets at low returns in an era of fuel prices increasing dramatically, it will most certainly cost us as more consumers are made aware of our industrial fishing methods and poor stewardship of the Southern Ocean.

The only good news for our seafood sector is that aquaculture continues to thrive, with two of the top five exports, and 20% of the total coming from this source. The Opotiki mussel farm announced this week is good news here, but while hoki and orange roughy are being traded like junk bonds, the future is gloomier than many like to think.

~ Keith Stewart

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