The Seafood Industry Association's boss, Peter Bodeker is right on one thing: Good reputations are hard to earn and easy to lose. And it's for exactly that reason that the fishing industry should be appalled at the environmental vandalism being carried out by the deep sea trawl fishery. Their continued trawling for overfished deep sea species is dragging New Zealand's clean, green reputation through the dirt – or more to the point dragging it through the deep seabed ecosystem.
But instead of expressing outrage at this blatant disregard for the environment, for the future of fishing and for our reputation as a country that knows what sustainability means, the industry's top advocate is making excuses on behalf of bottom trawlers.
Bodeker's article in yesterday's Herald seems to be the bottom trawlers' equivalent of the Japanese whaling fleet hanging signs saying “Greenpeace misleads you”. But whatever words are employed to defend an industry, if there's a dead whale being dragged up the slipway or a two-meter, centuries-old piece of deep sea coral being hurled overboard as trawl bycatch, why bother?
And those are exactly the sort of pictures that Greenpeace crews capture when they go out to bear witness and take action against environmental destruction. Of course a much less damning photo (yet ironically, a Greenpeace picture from the same expedition) was used to illustrate Bodeker's article.
Attempting to portray deep sea trawling as an environmentally friendly way to fish is something we've seen before. Back in 2005 the world was getting close to agreeing a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling (tragically this was blocked at the eleventh hour by Iceland). New Zealand presented a nifty animation at the United Nations discussion showing how bottom trawl nets actually glide above the seabed, rather than plough through everything in their path. How they did that with a straight face knowing that the gear itself bears names like “rockhopper” and “canyon buster” is a matter to reflect upon.
Fortunately, the Rainbow Warrior was at sea in the Tasman at the time, and “the photo our trawl industry doesn't want you to see” was snapped. Images like that speak for themselves – a thousand words, some say. But they certainly aren't the words that Seafood Industry Council wants you to hear.
As if the destruction of deep sea ecosystems isn't bad enough, the New Zealand bottom trawling industry is also grossly overfishing many of the stocks they are targeting. Three of New Zealand's orange roughy stocks have been fished to collapse and closed. One was fished until 97% of the population was wiped out. This is not some historical problem we've now solved – the most recent stock closure, on the South Island's West Coast, was three years ago. Right now two further orange roughy stocks are teetering close to the brink of collapse, yet in the recent round of quota-setting, fishing in both areas was allowed to continue. The status of those stocks is summarised in a briefing we prepared recently, but if you'd rather go direct to source you can also find the data in the Ministry of Fisheries stock assessments.
Bodeker reckons the scientific jury is still “well and truly out” on the matter of bottom trawling – but I reckon he might be confining himself to the company of scientists paid by the fishing industry. In fact, a statement from almost 1,500 of the world's scientists was part of the push to ban bottom trawling in international waters. The scientists' statement didn't sound much like a hung jury at all: “As marine scientists and conservation biologists, we are profoundly concerned that human activities, particularly bottom trawling, are causing unprecedented damage to the deep-sea coral and sponge communities on continental plateaus and slopes, and on seamounts and mid-ocean ridges...”
All of the above is verifiable from photographs, scientists' statements and Ministry of Fisheries stock assessments. Which begs the question: What are the “wilder claims” about bottom trawling that Bodeker says aren't true? And for that matter, with such a broad array of damning evidence available on the impacts of bottom trawling, why would anyone need to make things up?
You might expect the fishing industry, or the Ministry of Fisheries, to try and evolve beyond the fishing method that is tarnishing New Zealand's fishing reputation, but instead we're seeing greenwash end excuses. In response to this head in the sand attitude, a lose alliance between environmental groups, recreational fishers and Maori community groups have been working together in the Hokianga Accord based on our shared vision of “More Fish in the Water - Kia maha atu nga ika ki roto i te wai”.
But some things are changing. Sustainability-conscious retailers in our export markets are increasingly saying “no thanks” to unsustainable seafood including species like orange roughy and hoki that are caught by bottom trawling in New Zealand. In a recent summary, we found major retailers in the UK, France, USA and Canada that had removed orange roughy from sale. In fact it's no longer stocked by any of the eight major supermarkets in Canada.
So where does that leave Kiwis? Orange roughy is still on sale at New World and Countdown supermarkets, and the fishing industry and Ministry say everything's just fine.... Are we being misled? Imagine Bodeker's article illustrated by the picture on the left, rather than the one on the right, and decide for yourself if you'd believe a word he says.