Fears snapper populations could suffer if harvesting allowed again

A proposal to open the doors to widespread harvesting of snapper off the west coast of the North Island for the first time in 16 years has been slammed by recreational fishers.

They argue a huge increase in the amount of fish caught commercially could do long-term harm.

The area from North Cape to Kāpiti was largely closed to commercial fishers in 2005 after the collapse of snapper stocks due to over fishing.

Their numbers had fallen to just 8 percent of what would be found if the area was completely closed to fishing.

Sam Woolford from LegaSea, which represented recreational fishers, said the North Island west coast was absolutely hammered.

“Now, if it gets below 10 percent, you get into the realm of ecosystem collapse where there’s just not enough fish in the water to reproduce.”

But after 16 years of mostly being left alone, due to a reduced commercial catch and bottom trawling exclusion zones designed to protect Māui dolphins, the area had recovered.

“The whole ecosystem is growing stronger. We’re seeing the seaweed regenerate. We’re seeing the crabs, the crustaceans, the food sources for these fin fish is returning in abundance and that’s allowing populations like snapper to increase because there’s food there for them to eat.”

Hence a dramatic rebounding of snapper numbers which were more than six times higher than in 2005.

Now Fisheries New Zealand was proposing allowing more to be taken by both recreational and commercial fishers.

The plan included four options, starting at a 23 percent increase in the commercial catch and moving all the way up to a 100 percent jump – that was 4,152 tonnes of snapper every year.

Woolford said this risked another collapse.

He was particularly worried about increased bottom trawling as companies went after the lucrative catch, and the impact this would have on the other fish that lived alongside snapper.

“That’s also going to have a really negative impact on fish populations where we don’t actually know the biomass or we don’t know how healthy they are. That includes things like the gurnard, hapuka, trevally and tarakihi. They all swim together, they all school together. And if you’re using an indiscriminate fishing technique like bottom trawling, ultimately you’re gonna catch them.”

Emma Taylor from the Fisheries NZ said gurnard numbers in particular were dropping on the North Island west coast, to the point where a cut in the commercial catch was being considered.

Trawlers targeting snapper would be allowed to pull up a catch made up of up to 10 percent gurnard or other non-target species, but this would be monitored.

“Depending on the methods and approach, a lot of our fishers can be pretty good about actually targeting quite selectively the fish that they’re catching and trying to get the right mix of species that they want to catch but, inevitably, there is sometimes some bycatch, or they’re also catching other fish that they aren’t necessarily targeting.”

Taylor was confident none of the four proposed catch limits would see a collapse of snapper numbers back to where they were 16 years ago.

“We have acted quite precautionary with the snapper fishery. It was in a really bad state a number of years back and we’ve had a really pleasing kind of rebuild. And we’re obviously really mindful that we want to ensure that all our fisheries are sustainably managed.”

Despite nobody turning up to the public drop in meeting Fisheries NZ had in Kaitaia last week, Taylor was happy with the amount of publicity around the changes and the level of consultation.

People had two more weeks to have their say with a final decision by the minister due in September.

Seafood New Zealand did not returned calls on this story and one of the biggest trawler operators on the west coast, Sanford, was not available to be interviewed.