Rec and Commercial fishers – building bridges October 19, 2015

Great article from a keen local fisherman Herb Spannagl published on Stuff today.–building-bridges

Building Bridges

Many years ago I was tied to a bunch of cray pots when the black hull of a commercial fishing boat steamed around a projecting cliff face and headed straight for me.

My first reaction was, “Here comes trouble,” while quickly untying my kayak.

The skipper came out from his wheelhouse, but instead of giving me a rocket he yelled, “How are you off for crays?”

Upon replying I had no means of catching any, he grabbed a couple from his bin and threw them into my lap. His boat was called ‘South Seas’, a name I remember fondly to this day.

It is safe to say that there is generally not much love lost between commercial and recreational fishers. Unfortunately, this unhappy relationship is constantly reinforced by mutual accusations, some of which are undoubtedly factual, but many are just regurgitated hearsay. Of course there is adversarial tension between the fishing industry and the recreational sector too, which recently ended up in a very expensive court action for a resolution that nobody really liked.

While the resource battle continues at the national level, there are ways to ease this tension at the local level. Often it only requires a small gesture, as happened to me a couple of years back. I had just logged my trip report with the coastguard when the skipper of the commercial boat ‘Predator’ called, asking if I was looking for tuna. I certainly was, so he told me to come out to 40 metres. I thanked him, and after a hard paddle joined his boat among several large work-ups. Being much faster, he could have cut me off several times, but to my surprise he gave me plenty of room to run my lures through the boiling fish. For him it was a small gesture, but for me it was an attitude-changing event. It made me realise that, as fishermen, there is more that unites us than divides us. Just waving out to a commercial boat and having that gesture returned adds to a nice day on the water.

Fishing as much as I do off New Plymouth, I occasionally get to talk to local commercial fishers who mostly operate small, family-run businesses. Apart from general fishing talk, I am left with the distinct impression that an attitude that they are up against it at every turn prevails amongst them. The recreational guys dislike them, the greenies want to put them out of business, the vote-sensitive politicians have abandoned them, the public does not care where their next fish meal comes from, and even the commercial sector’s own ministry often ignores them. It is the sort of background where it is easier to retreat into a shell of resignation than to explore new ways to make friends.

Considering the above malaise, it is remarkable that Keith Mawson, the owner of Egmont Seafoods, has made a serious effort to win public support for this small local industry. As I understand it, he has organised the only Fishery Liaisons Committee in the country, where commercial, recreational and Maori fishing interests can discuss issues affecting them. I attended such a meeting, and while we did not make momentous decisions, the mere fact that we could listen to one another made for a better understanding.

Another one of his good deeds involves supplying staff to fillet the fish caught in the annual Taranaki Classic kayak-fishing competition. He also told me that there is a convention among the skippers supplying his processing plant not to fish areas generally frequented by recreational boaties. No doubt there are other initiatives that I don’t know of, but suffice to say that this man is keenly aware that his beleaguered industry needs all the friends it can get.

The current standoff over the Maui dolphin is a classic example of a clash between conservation interest and people’s livelihoods that is crying out for a just resolution. While the current fishing restrictions are unlikely to be relaxed, there is a very good case for some sort of fair compensation from the public purse to local fishermen for their loss of fishing opportunity. While many rec guys might welcome the ban, having small operators go to the wall will only hasten the aggregation of fishing quotas into fewer and bigger hands more likely to hoover up distant fisheries with no care about local communities. I am convinced that with a bit of lateral thinking, compromise and tolerance on both sides of the fishing divide, there is room for a better relationship. After all, both commercial and recreational fishers are here to stay.

Whilst this article is written mainly from a Taranaki perspective, its rationale applies wherever there is conflict. Does it really have to come down to ‘direct action’ to resolve the long-running crayfish dispute along the Gisborne coast? Why not compensate the commercial cray potters for losses during the time it takes for crays to grow to the nationwide legal size limit? It might take a year or a bit longer, but playing on a level playing field would certainly go a long way towards easing the open hostility between the two groups in that part of the country.

As a former Department of Conservation recreational assets manager, my team and I built many swing bridges in the remote back country. Often the hardest thing was to initially get a tape or string line across a canyon or raging torrent to connect one bank with the other. The rest of the job was usually quite routine.

It seems equally difficult to get warring parties to sit down around a table, whether to discuss a local fishing dispute or to stop the current mass slaughter in the Middle East. Taking the first step may be challenging, but building a bridge across a divide is generally the best way to connect seemingly irreconcilable foes.

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Categories: Community Fishing


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