Friday, March 26, 2010

Racing for the last fish

Last week, the National government betrayed New Zealand's environmental values by voting against a ban on international trade in the critically endangered Atlantic bluefin tuna. Today, they went one better, raising the catch limit for the critically endangered Southern bluefin tuna from 420 to 532 tons [PDF]. The government's justification is that we've been allocated a greater share of the international resource. But as Greenpeace points out, that resource is declining, and other countries are cutting their catches by 20% or more in an effort to preserve it. Against that, it looks like we are racing to catch the last fish.

But apart from being immoral, the decision is almost certainly illegal. Southern bluefin tuna is a schedule 3 fish, and the setting of catch limits is governed by s14 of the Fisheries Act 2996. This allows the Minister of Fisheries to ignore the normal process for setting catch limits and instead set any limit they want. The only restriction is that the limit must be "appropriate to achieve the purpose of this Act". The prime purpose of the Act? Sustainability - meaning "maintaining the potential of fisheries resources to meet the reasonably foreseeable needs of future generations".

Increasing the catch limit on a species which is critically endangered and declining both internationally and locally (the estimated stock of Southern bluefin fell 4.6% last year) is the very opposite of sustainability. While it may mean a windfall for fishing companies (who have basically all been given a 27% increase in their annual allocation for the year), that comes at the expense of future generations, and it puts their ability to catch this fish at risk. That is contrary to the purposes of the Act, and it means that the Minister's decision could be overturned by judicial review. Sadly, the tuna don't have lawyers...