Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The criminal fishing industry must be exposed to scrutiny

Over the past few years, the Official Information Act has been a vital tool in exposing our appalling fisheries management regime and the way it turns a blind eye to serious criminal behaviour by the industry. Those revelations have driven the push for a better monitoring regime, including video monitoring of fishing boats to detect and deter false reporting, dumping and high grading. But the fishing industry - which according to MPI would go out of business if the law was enforced - is deeply unhappy with its pervasive criminality being exposed. Their solution? Secrecy:

The commercial fishing industry wants to stop the public getting access to videos and images of fish being discarded and seabirds being caught by fishing boats because they say it could be bad for New Zealand's reputation.

The industry has asked the Government to change the law so that the Official Information Act could not be used by journalists, competitors and other groups to access such information.


"We suggest that the Fisheries Act be amended to clarify the purpose for which the IEMRS information (and other information on commercial fishing activities) will be obtained by MPI, and to expressly provide for the OIA to not apply to this information," the letter reads.

The document raises concerns about video revealing secret fishing spots, and that "potentially embarrassing" footage of paua divers getting undressed and changed into their wetsuits would be held by MPI.

Of course, privacy and commercial interests are already protected by the OIA. But that's not what really concerns them - what the fishing industry is worried about is pictures and footage of protected species caught in their nets and lines, or of criminal behaviour by fishers, which would damage their reputation. But to echo Kevin Hague, if fishers don't want the public to see pictures of dead dolphins in their nets, maybe they should not kill any? If an industry relies on secrecy to maintain social licence, then it deserves to die.

The OIA has been called a "quasi constitutional" statute. Its principle of transparency of government information is fundamental to our democracy. And we shouldn't be exempting information from it without a seriously good reason. The law and the Ombudsman are clear: the potential for political embarrassment is never a good reason to withhold information. That applies to politicians and public servants, and it should apply to the criminal fishing industry too.