Wednesday, 26 June 2019

The very rocky future of Taranaki's inshore fishing industry

Longtime fisherman Ian McDougall says rules and regulations are killing the country's inshore fishing industry.

Ian McDougall's face tells a story.

The story of a weathered 70-year-old fisherman who has been working on commercial boats for more than 20 years. It's a hard life. Pay cheque not guaranteed, away from home the majority of the week, and the ongoing battle of trying to get the smell of fish out of your clothes. But it's addictive, he says. He's got the bug. But he wants out. Except finding the right person, known as a skipper, to take over his boat Compass Rose, in an industry McDougall says is in threat of dying out, has been a struggle lasting more than 12 months.

New Plymouth-based McDougall is already five years past retirement. He wants to be home spending more time with his wife Rose and their two dogs - Bella and Sonny. "I need to get out, physically I can't do it anymore. But I don't want to get out unless I can find the right person to run the boat and hopefully buy it outright." Bella is a frequent companion for McDougall, who at 70 wants out of the fishing industry so he can spend more time with his family.

Fishing is New Zealand's fifth largest export industry and contributes $4 billion to the country's economy, according to a 2017 report by Business and Economic Research Limited.

If the Taranaki fishing industry collapsed, the amount of capital required to start it again means it's not a foregone conclusion it would ever return. For a region surrounded by ocean the thought of losing our access to fresh seafood seems bizarre.The alternative is having the fish for our fish and chips caught here is having it come from massive factory boats operating in different parts of the country.

Considering New Zealanders spend around $177.7 million a year on fresh and chilled fish, and that fish and chips is our most popular takeaway, that may be a scary thought. Egmont Fisheries owner Keith Mawson says they are in dire need of more fish and fisherman. It certainly is for fish processor and exporter Keith Mawson of Egmont Seafoods. Mawson has created a lucrative business supplying fresh seafood to Taranaki businesses and residents.

Most days the shop is packed and people are disappointed when they run out, which Mawson says is starting to happen more regularly due to lack of supply.
His business is crying out for more fish and more fishermen to get involved in the industry. Because if things stay the way they are, Mawson says it's not a pretty ending and could be the end of them.

Continued compliance lumbered on fishermen, such as electronic documenting, the recently announced cameras on boats, and limited snapper and kingfish allowance, is what's stopping people from getting involved and forcing those that are involved out.

McDougall usually takes his fishing boat Compass Rose out an average three or four times a week, depending on weather. Life would be a lot easier for McDougall if he could catch more snapper and kingfish. Right now he can legally catch 7 tonnes in a year but once he goes over this he gets charged for it.

"When we get into the situation where there's too much snapper but the quality of the other fish we are catching with it is of a high value, we've got to get out of that area because we can't afford to catch the snapper." Due to this, and having to go out 7 miles because of protections put on Māui's dolphins, McDougall says his income has dropped 25 per cent.

In 2012 McDougall was the Taranaki fishermen that caught a dolphin in one of his nets. As per guidelines he tossed it back and reported it to authorities but says it caused "one hell of a stink". "I apologised to the rest of the industry, but I had to report it. The minister at the time blatantly went out and said a Maui's dolphin has been killed in a set net and that went world wide and that's when all the closures came in. "I had an observer on board for a long time and we travelled all over the place and never saw one."

And more restrictions have been proposed in the recent Hector's and Māui dolphins Threat Management Plan review, which McDougall says could cut off 75 per cent of area he currently fishes in and reduce his income even further.

The fishing industry pays more than $27 million a year in government levies. But Minister of Fisheries Stuart Nash says compliance is a last resort as he knows it may have significant impact on commercial operators.

"Ultimately, everybody wants the same thing – healthy oceans with plenty of fish.

"But, many of our important shared fisheries are under pressure, consumers are demanding greater sustainability assurance for seafood, and public expectations about how we manage our marine environment and the impacts of fishing continue to grow.

"The commercial fishing industry has tough challenges ahead of it. But it also has shown itself prepared to look at new ways of doing things." Nash says the way we fished 50 years ago is no longer sustainable and the progression of technology allowed for better decision making.

Back then, coastal fisheries had become fully exploited and too many boats were chasing too few fish. "For example the cameras on boats initiatives is being 100 per cent funded by government – the industry will not have to contribute towards the hardware or software. The new requirements are not yet in place so it's hard to argue that they are killing the industry." Some saw it as a way to embrace the 21st century but Nash understood others saw it as a threat.
"The New Zealand fishing industry has a strong future but, like all primary industries, faces increasing expectations from consumers and international trade partners to prove that fish are being caught sustainably." According to Ministry for Primary Industries research 97 per cent of New Zealand's commercial catch is from sustainable stocks. Supplies of fresh local fish could soon be replaced by frozen products transported in from other parts of the country.

It's a long road before McDougall can get out. But when he does he says it will benefit the other five commercial boats in Taranaki as he can be a relief skipper.  He has had two people interested in taking over his beloved boat but neither are ideal. One would require three more years of training and the other is only a few years younger than McDougall and about to undergo major shoulder surgery. His wish is for the industry to get the same support as dairy farming. "If I was a farmer and I had a drought the Government helps. We get bad weather, we get no assistance and my crew don't get paid."

It's important to McDougall to look after his crew. He has them on a $200 a week retainer and supplies their meals. Over a 12 month period McDougall says a fisherman takes home up to $600 a week. "Everybody thinks fishermen are making a fortune because it's $35 - $38 a kilo in the supermarkets." But after the annual catch entitlement lease is deducted, McDougall only makes 50 cents a kilo for snapper.

More young people getting into the industry would help it survive, McDougall says. After more than a year of searching McDougal hasn't been able to find a replacement skipper for his commercial fishing boat Compass Rose. Ellen Kibblewhite is a minority in the industry because of her age and gender. She can count on one hand the number of skippers she knows under 35. At only 24 she has her skipper's ticket, truck driving licence, forklift licence, is a registered electrician, is studying a bachelor of commerce, and one of the few women working on a fishing boat. "I've kept myself busy," she laughs. Ellen was 17 when she fell in love with fishing after working for a summer on her dad's boat. She loves the challenge and being on the ocean with a tight-knit group of people working toward the same goal. If you love working hard and getting rewarded she says it's a good industry, but it can be hard.

Ellen Kibblewhite got involved in the fishing industry as her dad Richard Kibblewhite (pictured behind her) owned his own fishing boat.
"You don't get much free time, if I get invited to a party I can't RSVP until that date. "I remember as a child asking dad if he would be home for my birthday and it was always 'oh you know if the sea's rough I'll be there'." When she does come back to shore, her clothes get thrown in the washing machine with three heaps of washing powder. "But the clothes never fully lose their stench, you usually have a bit of a tinge to you." Ellen has gone to university with the goal of taking over her parents' fishing business one day. Ellen Kibblewhite has her skipper's license at only 24 and is one of the few young women in the fishing industry.

If it wasn't for her father, Richard Kibblewhite, who has been fishing in New Zealand for more than 30 years, she would have struggled. Her father enjoys finding younger people passionate about fishing and helping them get in to the industry. He has put 11 people aged 18 to 20 through their skipper's tickets. However he does say Generation X has an unreasonable expectation of their value. "They'll start at the bottom but they want a million dollars for it. Young people these days are really different to what I've trained. "Sometimes they'll just send me a Linkedin profile and say 'you got a job bro?'"

Because he puts the energy into training he says he doesn't have a problem finding young people to get into the industry. But he's looking for those who want to move up and run a boat. That can be hard though when any training skippers undertake has to be funded themselves.

According to Kibblewhite and McDougall, drugs and alcohol are rife among young ones in the industry and a big reason for their high crew turnover. There is also a generational collide. Where Kibblewhite saw the benefit of fishing as getting away from the world, the new generation weren't prepared to be disconnected from it. "When you're out past seven miles you don't get internet on your phone so some of these young ones go 'can you anchor up a little bit closer so I can get on Facebook?'. "It doesn't fit in with the new world that the young ones live in."

Fishermen would like to see the amount of laws they have to abide, which Kibblewhite claims there are more than 5000, rationalised and tidied up. The laws look after the fish and nothing is looking after the fishermen, Kibblewhite says. "The fish under the water is in a terrific shape. It's one of the best managed fisheries in the world. "What's going on above the water is disappointing. Different Governments make fisheries decisions on what's under the water based on political viewpoints to win votes.

"That costs our livelihoods."

So why would young people get involved? Thousands of laws to adhere to, a risky job in an industry with an uncertain future, the pay is unstable, close living quarters, and you're away from home for days on end. It's not all bad though, Kibblewhite says. There is plenty to love about working in the fishing industry. "You can get away from all the idiots on land and nothing beats a good catch of fish on a beautiful day."

Stephanie Ockhuysen