“Our industry is doomed”, Rewi says to me angrily. “And it happened the day those bastards in Wellington introduced the quota management system.” Rewi pours some milk into a steaming cup of tea and hands it over to me. “Ever since then, our industry has been on a slippery slope to oblivion.”
His comments surprise me. I’ve just seen him offload a large haul of groper, hapuka and ling, and it hardly seems like the catch of a dying industry. I’m also well aware that many of the fishermen with quota have become wealthy men as its value has increased.
I take a sip of milky sweet tea before replying. “Yeah but surely you guys are still catching your fish and making money”, I say to him. “I don’t see how you can claim you are doomed with all those fish you just caught.”
Rewi snorts. “Look. This is not just about me. It is about this industry. And today, people like me are a dying breed. Every time quota comes up for sale, small guys like me cannot afford it. It gets snapped up by the big corporates like Sanfords and Sealords. And they have no interest in small operations. For them it is all about size – Big boats and big profits.”
“Look at this”, he says, pointing out at the empty dock. “This area used to be crawling with small boats like mine that worked these coastal waters. We employed local blokes to help us catch the fish. Our fish was all processed locally, employing more people. And we contributed to the community. Today there’s only a couple of us left. The rest, they’ve all sold up, and now we are totally dominated by a couple of big companies with big boats”… His voice trails off.
“Well maybe that is just the way it is. Why does it really matter if the boats are big or small? Surely they still employ people.”
Rewi puts his cup down and considers me for several seconds. “Look. If you think these big corporates employ kiwis then think again. About the only kiwi on their vessels is a single Observer. The rest are all little Asians working in shocking conditions and getting paid well below our minimum wage.”
“And who do you think owns the quota anyway? All these cock-up free trade agreements our government has signed on our behalf gives foreigners equal access to all our assets – Including our quota and fishing industry. Eventually our entire fishery will be owned or controlled by Foreigners… And we’ll all be slaves in our own fucking country. It’s half way there already. Take a look at the share register for Sealords. Nissui Corporation or whoever it is sure isn’t a Kiwi.”
“You know what I reckon”, Rewi says, after a long pause? “We sold our soul when we allowed foreign ownership of our quota. But our bastard government sneaked it through by stealth. They allowed big companies to buy the quota up, then they allow those same big companies to be bought up by foreigners. But they never asked New Zealand if it was OK to sell it. If there was a referendum tomorrow on foreign ownership of our fishing quota, I guarantee Kiwis would soundly reject it. But it’s too late with those fucking free trade agreements our government signed on our behalf.”
The noise of water on the windscreen distracts me. I look out and a worker with a large blue apron is hosing down the forward deck area. He works methodically around the wheelhouse. Not an easy life on a small commercial fishing vessel.
I watched a Greenpeace video a few weeks back titled “The Last Fisherman”, and it detailed the decline of local fishermen in British waters. It seems they are in an almost identical situation – Large foreign vessels with quota and trawl nets come in and clean out their waters. Effectively, small fishing businesses are being forced from the waters that in many cases, their families have fished for generations.
Amazingly, this same situation is playing out all around the world right now. I met with a Minister of Fisheries in West Africa recently, and he was espousing the virtues of selling fishing quota (to foreign companies). And there is no doubt that in the short term, it would help his country, with a sudden injection of capital. But once sold, then what? Well then they look for the next injection. So they sell more quota – Or other assets. The capital injections from overseas become like an economic drug and the country gets addicted. And in many ways, I agree with Rewi – The moment you sell your quota overseas, you sell your soul.
The trouble we face though is what would we propose instead? Well after much deliberation, I proposed to the Africa Minister an alternative. Firstly, I argued there should be a ban on all foreign vessels fishing within a coastal region of 25 nautical miles. It is unfair to have locals in small vessels competing against large trawlers. And secondly, I proposed they only lease the quota, rather than sell it outright.
Whether the Minister will take my advice remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure – If countries continue introducing quota and allowing it to be sold to globally owned corporations, then they will continue to erode their local fishing industries until they eventually collapse. Where will that leave guys like Rewi? Well… Probably they’ll be asked to retrain as website developers or something equally as suitable to a maritime captain with 30 years at sea.