Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Acting for sustainability

New Zealand's fisheries Quota Management System is considered to be a textbook example of the use of market mechanisms to promote sustainability. For those who don't know, it works like this: Ministry of Fisheries scientists analyse each species in each fishery in New Zealand waters to work out a sustainable "total allowable catch" (the number that can be caught without affecting the overall population or its long-term viability). An allowance is made for recreational and customary fishing, and the remainder is the "total allowable commercial catch" (TACC) for a particular species in a particular area. Fishing companies have quotas set against the TACC (known as "Individual Transferable Quotas"), which they can trade back and forth amongst themselves. If they exceed them, they face large fines or the confiscation of their vessels.

(If you're thinking that this looks a lot like something else I've been talking about recently, it's because it is. Which is one of the reasons New Zealand has historically been quite keen on emissions trading systems: because we've actually got quite a bit of experience with them...)

It ought to be obvious that the QMS is dependent on a proper assessment of the state of our fisheries in order to set the right TACC. Setting it too low isn't so much of a problem, since it means the population will grow and the sustainability of the fishery will be enhanced. But if it is set too high, we're playing the same game the QMS was supposed to avoid: mining our oceans until they are empty and all the fish extinct.

All of this is background to today's announcement from the Minister that total allowable catches are being slashed, in some cases by as much as 78%, and that "deemed values" for overcatch were being massively increased. Reading between the lines, it seems that MAF has been getting it wrong for some time, and that in some cases the fishing industry were simply overfishing and paying the low deemed values. The fishing industry is unlikely to be happy with this - as a rule they regard a fishery as "sustainable" until the last fish is gone, and their job as a race to get that fish - but if they want to have a future, this is something they are just going to have to accept. Otherwise, they may very well find themselves in the same situation as Europe's fishing industry: out of work having driven their livelihood to virtual extinction.

What's scary is that the new cuts may not go far enough to ensure the New Zealand fishing industry is sustainable. If that's the case, then Anderton may simply be sealing its slow death, rather than ensuring its long-term viability.