Summary and recommendations

Ministry of Fisheries: Follow-up report on information requirements for the sustainable management of fisheries.

In 1999, one of our reports1 drew attention to the risks involved in managing New Zealand’s fisheries. We were concerned that the agency managing those fisheries, the Ministry of Fisheries (the Ministry), did not have enough information to ensure that the fisheries were being managed in a sustainable way, and to their full economic potential. The risks were 2-fold:

  • particular stocks could be over-fished, risking the survival of the stocks; and
  • particular stocks could be under-fished, depriving New Zealand of export income, employment opportunities in the fishing industry, and tax revenue.

The Ministry maintained it had sufficient information to manage the nation’s fish stocks without necessarily knowing their status in detail. Specifically, it had enough data on productivity, growth rates, and commercial catches to advise the Minister of Fisheries on management approaches.

Our view was that scientific understanding of the complex biological, ecological, and environmental factors that affect fish stocks would always be incomplete. These uncertainties, we said, should be explicitly stated so that decision-makers were aware of the limitations of the information they used to make decisions on the size of the total allowable catch (TAC).

We also said the Ministry should ensure that it gathered enough research-based data to allow stocks to be fished for maximum sustainable yield (MSY) − that is, the largest amount of fish that can be harvested over time without damaging the productive capacity of the stock.

Our 1999 report found that the Ministry had been slow to fulfil the environmental requirements of the Fisheries Act 1996 (the Act). We recommended that the Ministry give greater priority to its legal obligations to protect the marine environment from any damage that might be caused by fishing operations. This would also require more research-based information.

Our findings

This follow-up audit looks at whether the Ministry had acted on the recommendations of our 1999 report. The information given to us indicates that it has done so. The Ministry has:

  • Provided clear assessments of the limitations of the information it holds on the majority of New Zealand’s fish stocks. However, a small number of assessments are either contradictory or conclude that it is not known whether existing catch levels are sustainable. The Ministry should state the level of risk to such stocks.
  • Prepared a series of 3- to 5-year research plans for the major fish species, to address the gaps in its research. In the meantime, the Ministry believes it has sufficient information to advise the Minister on the sustainability of the most important fish stocks.
  • Given greater priority to fulfilling the environmental requirements of the Act. Part of Spirits Bay in Northland and 19 seamounts have been closed to fishing methods that damage the seabed. Action has also been taken to limit the by-catch of New Zealand sea lions, dolphins, and seabirds.
  • Started to prepare environmental standards for the management of New Zealand’s fisheries, and their marine environment. If implemented effectively, these standards will be a significant step towards the better management of fisheries and the marine environment.
  • Begun work on a website that will contain up-to-date information on how our fisheries are being managed, conveyed through a set of environmental performance indicators (EPIs). These indicators will more effectively measure fishing’s effect on the marine environment.


For further improvement, we recommend that–

  1. In all cases, the Ministry of Fisheries provide in its annual stock assessment reports consistent, up-to-date, and complete information on the sustainability of fish stocks.
  2. Where it is not known if the current levels of fishing, or the current total allowable commercial catch, are sustainable, the Ministry provide an assessment of the risk to the stock if current fishing and catch levels are maintained.
  3. The Ministry improve its proposed strategy for managing the environmental effects of fishing by:
    • implementing the improvements to its reporting on the status of species and habitats affected by fishing;
    • implementing environmental risk assessments for fisheries;
    • completing the environmental performance standards for the management of fisheries as soon as possible; and
    • ensuring that, when the standards for the management of fisheries and their marine environment are finalised, they are written in sufficient detail to be measurable, and that it will be clear to all parties when a breach of the standards has occurred.
  4. The Ministry complete the work on its website for the environmental performance indicators programme for fishing and the marine environment. The Ministry will also need to ensure that data for the website is kept up to date.

1: Parliamentary paper B.29[99e], Information requirements for the sustainable management of fisheries, pages 49-112.

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