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Rock lobster fishing families 'want a fair go'

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Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

Rock lobster fisherman Sam Wood is 33 Years old. Based at Whitianga, Sam is a third-generation commercial fisherman. Like his father and grandfather before him, Sam fishes in the CRA 2 management area which extends from Te Arai Point to East Cape. Six years ago, Sam and his brother Aaron took over their father’s lobster fishing business which he ran for over thirty years.

"My family has a long-term commitment to the CRA 2 fishery and we are heavily invested in our future as commercial fishermen", says Sam. "I have seen a lot of negative stuff in the media lately about lobster fishing across the Bay of Plenty and I want to see better recognition and respect for the people involved in this business".

Sam is particularly concerned about recreational fishing lobby groups such as LegaSea, who claim that big business is dictating fisheries management and is somehow in collusion with the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI). Sam is adamant that such claims are false.

"The facts are that in CRA 2 last season there were 28 commercial lobster vessels operating. All of them are private owner-operator family businesses. And I mean family - second and third generation commercial fishing families".

Sam also points out that the family connections extend further than working at sea on the boats.

"Our wives and extended family are all involved helping us get out there and come home safely", says Sam. "This includes helping with equipment, maintaining communications, handling and transporting the catch and doing the catch returns and other paperwork required of all commercial fishermen".

"We are not big business as LegaSea have put it. We live in small rural towns and coastal locations. I believe we have contributed a lot to our local economies and to our communities and schools, and we should be allowed to continue doing this, without uninformed criticism from lobby groups. Many of our smaller towns across the Bay of Plenty and Auckland regions are very reliant on primary industries. It's like this for most of the New Zealand inshore fishing industry not just us lobster fishermen".

Sam agreed that the last few years had been tough catching years for a variety of reasons in addition to the state of the stock, "but we have still managed to meet our agreed catch limits. In fact, catch rates have recently improved. The current fishing year finished a little early in February, six weeks before the end of the lobster fishing year".

Sam also mentioned a local initiative to help the lobster stock. The fishing year commences April 1st and ends 31st March. Whitianga lobster fishermen have voluntarily imposed a closed season from April to July inclusive. "This leaves a good period to spell our fishing grounds" said Sam.

Sam is very supportive of the CRA 2 Rock Lobster Management Company. Established as an industry representative body the company has a solid track record of fishery data collection and stock management initiatives.

"The CRA 2 industry is doing what it can to help maintain abundance of our fish stock", says Sam. "We initiated a quota cut three years ago, and last season and again in the current season we have voluntarily reduced the commercial catch limit by 50 tonnes. With our catch reductions, the commercial fishery is now rebuilding, but we've had to tighten our belts to maintain the resource for generations to come".

Sam observes that things have changed out on the water, especially since his father’s time as a commercial fisherman.

"We are seeing more and more recreational diving, fishing and charter operators out there. It's like Queen St over the Christmas and New Year period but they are there in increasing numbers all year round now. Technology has changed a lot over time as well; the recreational boats these days are larger and have fish finders and other electronics that are way superior to what my Dad had for much of his commercial fishing life".

Sam points out that commercial fishermen are restricted to using pots whereas the recreational sector is allowed pots and diving, including with underwater breathing apparatus (UBA), to take rock lobsters.

"Potting is size-selective of lobsters", says Sam, "I worry that divers, especially those using air, are taking the lobsters that pots leave behind. I am not certain that is a good thing for the fishery in the longer term".

Sam also highlights that all commercial fishermen must stop fishing when they have caught their quota. "It concerns me that there is no cap on the numbers of recreational dive and pot fishermen who turn up here to take their daily limit which is six lobsters per person; nor any limit on the number of days they can do that".

"The CRA 2 fishery is a shared resource with customary, recreational, commercial and even fish thieves recognised as users by the Ministry for Primary Industries. I strongly believe that commercial fishermen are making sacrifices to help the fishery, but we shouldn't be doing it alone. By my reckoning industry has stockpiled around 100 tonnes of lobsters to the CRA 2 fishery over the past two seasons and we will add another 50 tonnes this season".

"Non-commercial harvesters and fish thieves are putting more pressure on the stock and I would like to see customary and recreational interests assisting industry efforts to protect the resource. This includes stamping out fish thieves and the black market for lobsters. I reckon non-commercial users also need to take the initiative to constructively limit their take to enable to protect and rebuild stock abundance, supported by the CRA 2 industry".

Sam’s closing comment as he goes back to sorting ropes and floats for the new season - "I want this fishery to be here for my family and for all the other fishing families that make up the CRA 2 rock lobster industry - not just the current crop - but for future generations of commercial, customary and responsible recreational users."

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