As climate change highlights new challenges facing businesses, one practice has been attracting attention, and that is the strange fishing trade going on between New Zealand and China.

Fishing industry heavyweights such as Talley’s Group Limited ship gutted fish to China for thawing, processing and re-chilling, only to ship it back to New Zealand for sale. In a recent meeting in Parliament, the Green Party expressed its concern to the Minister for Economic Development, Pete Hodgson that this ‘bizarre situation’ undermines both the prime minister ’s goal of carbon neutrality and kiwi workers ’ jobs.

It is a bizarre situation indeed, although the Ministry claims that virtually no seafood is imported back from China, whereas China makes up about 10 percent of New Zealand’s export market.

"The overwhelming proportion of seafood consumed in New Zealand is processed in New Zealand. Fish that might be re-exported back to New Zealand is typically produced in a large scale processing plant supplying seafood to all markets around the world including New Zealand as one of those small destinations", said Hodgson on behalf of Fisheries Minister Jim Anderton.

But one has to ask, what is the resulting carbon ‘fin print’ of these fish that go to China and back? And where is the logic in this practice? At a time when consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about food miles and carbon footprints this practice certainly cannot be in the best interests of New Zealand’s long-term export industry.

The Minister says it is the way trade works. He gave as an example the case of Cadbury’s and Gregg’s, as other food companies that import to New Zealand and then re-export products. “That is the nature of trade”, he said.

It might be so, but then this brings us to question how unnatural is the nature of our trade, how good, or badly designed it is and how it is undermining our planet.

The Greens believe the free trade deal between New Zealand and China (where wages are lower and workers do not have the same rights as those in New Zealand) will only increase this polluting practice.

Talley’s says it has been reducing the amount it processed in China, and that it is going along with plans for a new processing plant on the West Coast. Sealord has been processing in China for more than 15 years and although it has "pulled some back", it couldn’t rule out increasing processing in China in the future. "It depends on circumstances,’ said company a representative.

It looks as though the Greens may be correct as the free trade agreement (FTA) will relax trade laws, enabling cheaper imports and exports between China and New Zealand. The current trade deal sees tariffs charged on exports to China, but not imports from China. This means it is more economic to export fish for processing there before shipping them back – even with the tariffs. However, this process will be even more attractive when all trade tariffs are dropped under the FTA.

Talley’s may be planning a new processing plant, but the incentive to process offshore is only going to grow under the FTA, reducing the incentive to change the industry’s polluting behaviour.

Retailers and consumers in countries such as the UK are already demanding products with less ‘food miles’, and it is time for New Zealanders to demand the same.