The NZ Initiative's Randall Bess says the growth in charter boat fishing requires a management rethink

By Randall Bess* 

Unless the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) imposes some restrictions on the charter boats operating in the Kaikoura region, the rock lobster fishery could be unsustainable within a couple years, according to local commercial fishers. And they could be right.  

Tourists, just like New Zealanders, are allowed to take up to six rock lobsters per person per day. The daily bag limit applies to each person on board a charter boat.

But there are no limits on the number of people taken out each day, the size of charter boats, the number of boats or the number of days they fish each year.

In this situation, the total number of rock lobsters caught can rapidly add up. The extent of the problem is heightened by the growing number of tourists fishing on charter boats.

On Radio New Zealand, Larnce Wichman expressed the concerns of the commercial rock lobster fishers in the Kaikoura region. Lance is working with local charter boat operators and MPI to come up with solutions, which include imposing limits on the total number of rock lobsters a charter boat can take each day.

The situation in Kaikoura is another example of New Zealand’s fisheries starting to face the problems prevalent in most other fishing nations. That is, increasing recreational fishing having a significant impact on sustainability.

In some cases, the recreational catch can equal or exceed the commercial catch, often resulting in tensions and conflicts between recreational and commercial fishers. The management measures that have worked in the past may no longer be sufficient. As a consequence, a management rethink may be needed.

As part of the New Zealand Initiative’s fisheries project aimed at improving New Zealand’s recreational fisheries, I travelled overseas late last year to research how other jurisdictions manage their recreational fisheries.

One visit was to Texas to research the highly-prized recreational red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico. Visiting this fishery feels like looking into New Zealand’s future. Recreational fishing demand for red snapper in the Gulf has more than tripled in the last decade.

Emergency reductions in daily bag limits and season length were first introduced in 2014. This year the fishing season in federal waters for private-boat fishers was just three days. The season for charter boats, and the larger party boats, was 49 days.

When the private-boat and for-hire seasons are closed, the harvest of red snapper in federal waters is prohibited. But, there is a novel solution that extends the season for charter boat fishing.

Some dually permitted (charter and commercial) boat operators are fishing year-round for red snapper by using commercial quota. While quota applied to charter boats is not a new idea, the fact that they are operating just like commercial fishing operations is novel.

None of the recreational rules apply, and the fishers on board do not pay for charter services. Because the red snapper caught on a dually permitted boat is counted against quota, it does not count against nor diminish the recreational portion of the total allowable catch.

Since quota is often referred to as “catch shares” in the United States, this type of operation is referred to as the “catch share experience”. The fishers simply place their orders with the fish processor that receives the catch. The fishers then participate in the harvest to fill their orders. When their catch is delivered to the fish processor, the fishers pay the pre-set price for filleted red snapper. No exchange occurs between the fishers and the boat operator. The fishers fish for free and are referred to as “riders.”

I went on a catch share experience fishing trip, leaving from the Texan Port of Galveston. The boat operator, Scott Hickman, also owns the quota that we fished against on board his dually permitted boat. Since it was a commercial fishing trip, Hickman was subject to all Gulf of Mexico quota requirements. These include using a vessel monitoring system to track his movements, giving hail-out and hail-in notices to federal and state authorities, along with estimates of landings on board.  

During the fishing trip, each rider caught around 30 red snapper, making it a thoroughly enjoyable experience. The red snapper were so abundant that we often caught one within seconds of each hook descending a few metres. This experience is an intriguing example of an unconventional solution that benefits both the recreational and commercial sectors in the Gulf of Mexico.

The same type of solution could be applied to the charter boats in the Kaikoura region and other regions that are experiencing the effects of a growing population and tourism. This solution might well become even more appealing if daily bag limits or season length decrease, and more people are inclined to fish from charter boats.

The New Zealand Initiative is presenting this unconventional solution and others to encourage debate now, before the tensions and conflicts between recreational and commercial fishing worsen any further.  

The New Zealand Initiative will release its next fisheries project report in early August, setting out our policy recommendations for improving recreational fishing. During the following few weeks meetings will be held throughout the country to debate the recommendations before they are finalised and presented to the new government late this year. Stay tuned. 

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* Randall Bess is a research fellow at The New Zealand Initiative, which produces a fortnightly column for interest.co.nz