A Greenpeace investigation has revealed the true extent of the powers that the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) has given the fishing industry to self-regulate and report on its own performance.

The months-long investigation shows that MPI is paying FishServe (Commercial Fisheries Services Ltd), a company controlled and owned by a powerful fishing industry lobby group, to collect data, manage so called “public registers”, register and unregister vessels, monitor overfishing and quota holdings, and even provide Official Information Act (OIA) responses in place of MPI.

The discovery comes on the back of the controversial revelation last May that MPI had awarded the contract for video camera monitoring of fishing vessels to Trident, an entity owned by several of New Zealand’s largest and most powerful fishing companies.

At the time, MPI was widely criticised for engaging the fox to guard the hen house.

Greenpeace New Zealand Executive Director, Dr Russel Norman, says deeper digging has revealed that the Trident saga is “just the tip of the iceberg”.

“Last month we made an OIA request to MPI about fishing quota holdings. We were stunned when, despite the fact that MPI had access to the information we asked for, it instead referred us to a pay-to-subscribe service through the ‘public register’ of a company called FishServe,” he says.

“A closer look revealed that FishServe is in fact an entity owned and controlled by the fishing industry and is run out of the very same office that is home to not only Trident and Seafood New Zealand, but also other fishing industry lobby groups including Deepwater Group, Fisheries Inshore New Zealand and New Zealand Federation of Commercial Fishermen.

“We have learnt that for more than 20 years MPI, or its predecessor the Ministry of Fisheries, have outsourced a broad range of powers, duties and responsibilities to FishServe.

“This worrying web of connections raises serious questions about MPI’s outsourcing of camera monitoring and regulatory powers to vested interests.”

Further muddying the waters, Seafood New Zealand’s Chief Executive Officer, Tim Pankhurst, is also one of four FishServe directors. MPI has allowed a Seafood New Zealand subsidiary to become a proxy regulator, and is paying them for the privilege, says Norman.

“We just don’t understand how FishServe, working alongside lobby groups and fishing industry owned companies on a daily basis, owned and controlled by a powerful industry lobby group, can be allowed to act as proxy ‘regulator’,” Norman says.

“What this means in practice is that, in order to prosecute fishing companies for legal breaches, the government regulator, MPI, has to rely on data collected and provided by a company owned by the fishing companies themselves, FishServe.

“This is a classic example of regulatory capture – where an industry controls the government regulator that is supposed to be controlling the industry.

The Greenpeace investigation was initially launched in response to MPI’s controversial decision to award the contract for video monitoring in New Zealand’s largest fishery, Snapper 1, to Trident.

Not only is Trident owned by several of New Zealand’s most powerful fishing companies, but it’s also a relative newcomer that was chosen over the only other competitor, Archipelago, an independent and internationally respected fisheries monitoring company.

“At the time we already had serious concerns around MPI’s repeated failure to prosecute large fishing companies for the dumping and discarding of fish, and the decision to award the video monitoring contract to Trident was even more troubling – it left the impression that MPI had chosen to have the fox guard the hen house,” says Norman.

Late last year, it was widely reported that the first few months of Trident’s camera monitoring programme had a camera failure rate of almost 80%. MPI called the failures “technical issues”.

Norman says the failures were hardly surprising given Trident’s relative inexperience, but raised further concerns about MPI’s decision to award the contract to Trident in the first place.

“As a result, Greenpeace has continued to investigate MPI’s relationship with the fishing industry, and it’s safe to say that what has emerged since is a complex and highly concerning web of relationships, suggestive of a cosy relationship between MPI and New Zealand’s fishing industry,” he says.

“This is something that at the very least warrants further investigation and we’ll be looking to refer this to the Auditor General for review.”