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Wise Coastal Practices for Sustainable Human Development Forum

Community-based fisheries stewardship / New Zealand

Posted By: Martin O'Connor
Date: Wednesday, 28 July 1999, at 5:15 p.m.

Key words: tribes, market supply/demand, tradable quota.

TIAKINA NGA TAONGA O TANGAROA: The phrase comes from the title of the report by the New Zealand Fisheries Task Force (1992): Sustainable Fisheries: Tiakina nga Taonga a Tangaroa. A literal translation is: "Looking after Tangaroa's Wealth" -- Tangaroa in Maori tradition is god of the sea.


This short contribution outlines a feasible institutional framework for locally-based stewardship of the seafood and marine fisheries resources of Aotearoa/New Zealand (Aotearoa is a name used by Maori, referring to The Land of the Long White Cloud as seen more than a thousand years ago by Polynesian canoe voyagers on their horizon). Although the framework as sketched here has not actually been implemented, the legal base does already exist within current fisheries law, and the proposals are consistent with the "partnership" spirit established between the indigenous Maori and the European (mostly British and Irish) colonists under the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 and affirmed, even if ambiguously, in recent New Zealand resource management law (RMA 1991; see Arnoux, Dawson & O'Connor 1993).

New Zealand is a "big" South Pacific nation in terms of its 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone, an oval about 500 miles wide, and stretching nearly 1500 miles from north to south. Since the 1970s, pressures have been increasing on fisheries from both local and (more especially) off-shore interests. The question of sound management principles for coastal and deep-sea fisheries became prominent throughout the 1980s. Indeed, during the past 20 years the legal and institutional framework for fisheries management has been under almost continuous review. While the relevant questions of control date back to the years before the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi -- which (arguably) placed the fish under Maori tribal jurisdiction (Kawharu 1989; Cullen & Memon 1991; O'Connor 1991) -- it is convenient in this note to restrict ourselves to the more recent past.


In the mid-1980s, a sweeping reform established a system of State-controlled ITQs (individual tradeable quota) for most fish species under heavy commercial fishing pressure. In effect, a property rights system of individual transferable quotas (ITQs) was introduced, designed along neoclassical economics textbook lines for control of an "open access" resource. Widely represented as a pioneering effort to put economic theory into practice, the idea was to ensure simultaneously the twin goals of ecologically sustainable catch levels and economically efficient levels of fishing effort.

Though fine-tuned several times, this scheme has not always prevented over-fishing -- due in part to frauds and piracies both local and off-shore, and in part to setting the initial quotas too high for sustainability anyway. (A detailed appraisal of the working of the quota management system over the ten years up to 1993 was made by Leith Duncan 1993; for the textbook justification see Sissenwine and Mace 1992). Several commercially important species were seriously "at risk" in the early 1990s (although, since then, this menace has been somewhat alleviated by reduction in total catch quota for several of the species in question). At the same time, the introduction of the ITQ regime aggravated existing tensions between Maori and the Crown over control of resources. The catch quota were allocated on the basis of "officially" documented catch history, meaning declared income of commercial fishing companies or individuals. Among the (mostly non-documented) small-scale, non-declared and "part-time" fishers who -- in the name of tidying up the industry and reducing fishing effort -- were squeezed out of then-existing fishing activity, were large numbers of Maori. So the introduction of the ITQ system provoked outcry from Maori tribes who saw their traditional (and quite large-scale) local economic, ceremonial and subsistence base being dispossessed.

By the end of the 1980s and after several court-cases with far-reaching significance, it was admitted by the New Zealand government that the Maori people have a major stake in coastal fisheries (see in particular, reports by the Waitangi Tribunal on claims by the Muriwhenua and Ngai Tahu tribes (WAI 22 and WAI 27a,b); see also the retrospective analyses by Kelsey 1990; Temm 1990; Dawson 1993). It was also accepted that a substantial "informal" (recreational? non-commercial?) fishing activity should be provided for. So, by the early 1990s the New Zealand fisheries management reforms were being conducted explicitly in terms of a "balancing of interests", a reconciliation of conflicting claims over ownership, rights and use.


Fisheries legislation reforms of the early 1990s sought simultaneously to ensure efficient levels of fishing effort, and to establish "environmental bottom lines" (EBLs) that would ensure conservation of threatened species stocks. In particular, a Fisheries Task Force was appointed by the Minister of Fisheries to look at fisheries management questions and suggest appropriate reforms to the quota management system. The major focus of attention was to be the sustainability of fishing activity, and the conservation of the fish stocks. The Task Force in its April 1992 report to the Minister of Fisheries (Fisheries Task Force 1992, p.15) recommended that the guiding principle for future law should be the "environmental bottom line" (EBL), meaning that: "Marine fishery resources shall be sustainably managed in a manner [such that ....] the size of harvested populations should not fall to levels below those that ensure greatest net annual increment...."

However, now that the commercial fishing catch rights were "capitalised" in the form of tradeable quota, the battle over quota actually amounted to a battle over "assets" valued in hundreds of millions of dollars (see O'Connor 1993b). The interests at stake, in addition to the fish themselves, fell into three main categories: (i) "species protection" meaning, in particular, some species of sea mammals and birds whose survival is "considered under threat from human activities" including present and foreseeable future fishing practices; (ii) integrity of ecosystems as expressed by the identified "need to maintain ecological relationships between harvested, dependent, and related populations of marine living resources"; and (iii) the dependent and related human populations who are making use of the fish species. (The cited passages are all from the Fisheries Task Force 1992, pp.11-18.)


Human users were, in turn, divided three ways: Maori, commercial, and recreational. This three- way demarcation of discrete interests/activities to be sustained, roughly parallels that found in the New Zealand Resource Management Act (RMA 1991) which sets out a rhetoric of "sustainable development" developed in terms of objectives and mechanisms for simultaneous respect for Maori, commercial, and amenity values of the environment (for more detail see Arnoux, Dawson & O'Connor 1993; O'Connor 1994, 1999).

A key question for the Fisheries Task Force was to consider how the catch rights should be apportioned between the potential user groups. Under their proposals for a new Fisheries Act, a "balance" is to be preserved. The ideal being promulgated seems to be one of a peaceful coexistence of all of Maori, commercial, and recreational activities subject to an across-the-board duty to conserve: the obligation of all users to pass on a viable stock to the future. However, the questions of a viable institutional framework to achieve this, and of a just distribution of the benefits from catching, selling and eating the New Zealand coasts' fish, remain to be resolved.


What could be a good basis for looking after Tangaroa's wealth (tiakina nga taonga a Tangaroa)? According to established Maori resource management tradition, the fish are made available to us by Tangaroa (the god of the sea); this makes us Tangaroa's guests (see O'Connor 1993a, 1994; on related anthropologies see also Hyde 1983). So the question arises: how do we show proper protocol, etiquette, appreciation? The Maori, as tangata whenua (people of the land) are the "natural" caretakers - the Maori word is kaitiaki - for the fish. Equally, the Maori, as tangata whenua, are the "natural" hosts. The fish and seafood, themselves, are taonga, items of great value: they are a part of the people's wealth-in-common; and it is in this symbolic connotation that they are offered to guests (this is part of maanakitanga). So, if we follow this management reasoning, we can easily see that an invitation may be extended from Maori to the tauiwi, those who come from elsewhere, to come in friendship. And indeed, this friendship was, supposedly, affirmed in the Treaty of Waitangi signed by Maori tribal chiefs (rangatira) and representatives of the British Crown (then Queen Victoria) in 1840. It seemed a natural offer of hospitality at the time: there are plenty of fish, let us eat. Ko maru kai atu, ko maru kai mai, ngohe ngohe. Giving and receiving, we are rich as each other's guests. (This is an archaic Maori proverb, in free translation. More literally, perhaps: "Give as you receive, and all is well"; see O'Connor & Arnoux 1992; O'Connor 1993a).

How might these notions of hospitality-based resource management practice be reconciled with modern-day considerations of efficiency and the iron laws of market supply and demand? Not easy, would be the honest answer. Yet with proper care, in New Zealand (and perhaps elsewhere) it could be done.

In Maori tradition, rangatiratanga (the authority of the chiefs) is an authority of service; it is the duty of a rangatira to provide for his people. In a related way, the duty of a kaitiaki (care-giver, warden, steward) is to the people and to the common wealth, e.g., to look after the whanaunga of people and fish. As Hegel would have said (1807: 342-343),

Just as everything is useful to man, so man is useful too, and his vocation is to make himself a member of the group, of use for the common good and serviceable to all. The extent to which he looks after his own interests must also be matched by the extent to which he serves others, and so far as he serves others, so far is he taking care of himself: one hand washes the other. But wherever he finds himself, there he is in his right place; he makes use of others and is himself made use of.

The marketplace, domain of "exchange" par excellence in the modern world, must somehow find its right place, respectful of this collective vocation. In working out how to do this, we can look already to seeds planted by the recent law reforms.

The Fisheries Act 1983 which provided the initial entrée for the market-oriented ITQ system, had already, by the early 1990s, been tinkered with several times in an effort to make things work and to take account of political-ecological reality. We jump over most of these minor reforms, up to the 1992 Treaty of Waitangi (Fisheries Claims) Settlement Act, which - among other things - included the following provision (Fisheries Claims Act 1992, Section 34):

Recognising and providing for customary food gathering by Maori and the special relationship between tangata whenua and places of importance for customary food gathering (including tauranga ika and mahinga mataitai), to the extent that such food gathering is neither commercial in any way nor for pecuniary gain or trade.

Two important points should be noted here. First, there is nothing in this clause (nor, indeed, anywhere in any Act of the land) actually requiring that fishing (food gathering) has to take place of a "commercial" nature or for "pecuniary gain". Second, there is no limit, other than respect of species and ecosystem bottom lines, placed on the level that "customary food gathering" might attain.

Taking account of underlying Treaty rights and human common sense, it would thus appear that "customary" food gathering should take precedence over fishing for pecuniary gain or trade. The latter should properly be permitted only when, and in such ways that, the activity for pecuniary gain does not compromise the well-being of the people. How might this be ensured, taking account the Demand of an Outside World hungry for Aotearoa's fish?

The same Section 34 of the Fisheries Claims Act further empowers the Minister of Fisheries "to declare any part of New Zealand fisheries to be a mataitai reserve," having regard for local community interests, the sustainable management of the fish and associated marine life; and allows such reserves to be, for this purpose, placed under the jurisdiction of kaitiaki (wardens) amongst the tangata whenua. Also in Section 37 of the Fisheries Claims Act, provision is made for "fish taken ... for hui, tangi, or non-commercial fishing use". A hui is any meeting (usually at a marae, meeting house); a tangi is the mourning and funeral when someone dies.


It is easy to see the logical further step, which would be to extend the jurisdiction of the kaitiaki to overseeing all of the fish. (This could have some practical bureaucratic advantages, for example by economising on some duties of the Director-General of Agriculture and Fisheries, which could bring a saving of public funds.) In effect, this extended jurisdiction would amount to declaring all New Zealand fisheries within the 200-mile exclusive economic zone to be, jointly and severally, mataitai reserves under management jurisdiction of the tangata whenua of each region.

If the scheme were to be followed through, each tribal group or sub-group would appoint its kaitiaki (wardens), and there would need to be co-operation through hui (tribal groups) on a national scale. (This is not something automatically achieved, as rivalry within and between tribes for mana (power, standing, prestige) is as old as Polynesian civilisation itself. However, presuming that some sort of working compromises can be achieved, a plurality of different fisheries uses may then be recognised, in appropriate priority. First, customary local fishing for ceremonial needs (hui, tangi) and immediate subsistence. Second, recognising the special importance of the various species of fish and seafood in different regions, innumerable restaurants could be run by local hapu (sub-tribal groupings) or franchised.... There could be regional and seasonal variations, in any and every town along the rivers and coast. Does this constitute "commerce", "trade" or "pecuniary gain"? That would be a moot point; but in the way the scheme is envisaged, it still falls into the "customary" category of good hospitality. Deliveries to other iwi for ceremonial needs is another matter again: these are koha, gifts respecting the mana and vitality of the donors and hosts.

Through these activities, all New Zealanders -- Maori and Tauiwi -- should eat well. Then also, in keeping with these tourist times, we can invite the foreigners -- the Germans, Norwegians, Japanese, Koreans, those of the Americas, all those who would otherwise seek to buy commercial "catch rights" and thus alienate the fish. They can come to eat in the local restaurants; there's a long coastline, there's enough space for them all. (Given the price of jet travel, there will still be lots of fish, when the "Demand" is localised in this way.)

Under such a regime, conservation goals could quite plausibly be assured. The local communities will be self-policing: the threat of loss of tribal mana (prestige, influence) will ensure that. A rahui (interdiction) can be placed, short or long term, on any locality where depletion or algae bloom becomes a problem. And then, after all these local needs are met, if there still seems to be a surplus, one might think (twice!) about the possibility of exports. Possibly at this point, it would be appropriate for the tribes to vest administrative responsibility (kawanatanga) for any surplus available for "commercial" exploitation, in the Crown; it could perhaps be managed through an adaptation of the ITQ commercial catch scheme. (This would return a role, albeit limited, to the Director-General. The specification of the TACC -- total allowable commercial catch - would be a matter of joint responsibility, involving the Maori tribes, administrative duties of the Crown, with appropriate advice from the fisheries scientists.).

Managed this way, at the initiative of local communities whose vested interest is in the land and sea as a material place of life (not a disembodied source of profits), respect of ecological limits is still not guaranteed but becomes at least more plausible; and the high prices obtained on the World Markets would constitute authentic resource rents. As regards foreign boats, the country's Navy has recently acquired a small number of highly priced and technologically very up-to-the minute frigates. These could effectively be used to keep the high-waters pirates under surveillance. (No need for nuclear arms for that!) Perhaps it will be objected that the New Zealand people are not, thereby, feeding the world's poor? The commercially caught fish are not feeding them today anyway, not even in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Moreover, perhaps if we established proper hospitality at home, here in New Zealand, we would have some chance of showing generosity abroad. And we would not have to fear the hollow eyes of our ancestors' ghosts, or of the hungry people in our streets, or of our fish-starved children not yet born.


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