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The Heart of Kiwi Coastal Life: Fishing, Community and Conservation

Catching fish and being able to feed our families is an important part of the kiwi lifestyle, especially around coastal areas such as the Coromandel. Exchanging stories at the end of a long day is what builds relationships, communities and creates lasting memories.
 |  Ian Steele  | 

Fishers value the experience of fishing with friends and whanau, enjoying the ocean and the range of marine life it supports. It’s not just about what they can catch. It’s their sense of being, and often why they choose to live in coastal regions. Mental health and general wellness are a key reason why we seek solitude on the water. Alongside the positive impacts on our social wellbeing, recreational fishing financially benefits many New Zealand’s small coastal communities.

The value of fishing to our community was highlighted in March when thousands of people poured into Whitianga for the Kubota Billfish Classic contest. The wide-ranging benefits these visitors brought to our communities are still being felt around the region today.

Established in 1924, the Mercury Bay Game Fishing Club is the oldest of four fishing clubs on the Coromandel Peninsula affiliated to the New Zealand Sport Fishing Council (NZSFC). The other clubs are Matarangi Boat & Fishing Club (1995), Tairua-Pauanui Sports Fishing Club (1980) and Whangamata Ocean Sports Club (1958). The New Zealand Sport Fishing Council has over 50 affiliated clubs nationwide with a combined membership of over 36,000 people.

Further, in 2012, LegaSea was established by the New Zealand Sport Fishing Council to elevate public awareness of the issues that affect recreational fishers and inspire people to support us. This support funds advocacy, alignment, education and research. Together, volunteer club members are constantly active in their communities, hosting kids’ fishing days and fundraising for local charities including Coastguard and the Breast Cancer Foundation. While this work hits the headlines, the work they do to enhance our coastal fish populations often goes unnoticed.

In the past year alone, the fishing clubs, club members and NZSFC have made seven substantial submissions regarding the Hauraki Gulf and contributed to the Hauraki Gulf Alliance to try and bring some balance to the discussions around marine protection and fisheries management in the Gulf.

Advocating for local fishing and environmental interests allows us to work closely with local iwi Ngāti Hei. Matua Joe Davis has been the spearhead on many occasions, most notably for laying the rāhui to conserve Opito Bay scallops in 2020, and pink maomao in 2021. Since then he has worked with the New Zealand Sport Fishing Council and LegaSea to promote Ahu Moana.    

Ahu Moana is an iwi/hapū and wider community-led initiative that drives workable solutions to local problems. The community are empowered to manage their local areas using local knowledge and scientific data.

Originally there were two pilot Ahu Moana projects planned for the Hauraki Gulf, one at Aotea Great Barrier, the other on the western side of the Coromandel Peninsula. It seems officials have got cold feet on the whole idea because nothing tangible has emerged since being proposed in 2017. However, this hasn’t stopped the local fishing clubs like Mercury Bay, Tairua-Pauanui and Whangamata continuing to work with Ngāti Hei and others to drive significant changes in behaviours and attitudes.

We must lead the change if we want to restore our coastal fisheries, it has been proven that this will not happen if the status quo continues. Our Coromandel clubs are leading the way and taking action in the absence of meaningful management by MPI.

Working together for positive change

Years of unconstrained commercial harvest and destructive dredging decimated the scallops, mussels, crabs, and other sea life that previously inhabited the seafloor around the Coromandel and beyond.

Numerous attempts by the Opito Bay Ratepayers Association over several years to engage with Fisheries New Zealand officials about ongoing depletion were unsuccessful. So, the locals took the bold step of initiating community-led action.

Together with Ngāti Hei, the Ratepayers Association, LegaSea, the New Zealand Sport Fishing Council and local clubs, developed the Coromandel Scallop Restoration and Sustainability Plan. In early 2021 Ngāti Hei applied for a temporary closure of the scallop fishery within their rohe. A scallop baseline survey was collaboratively designed and actioned by a team of experts.

By September the then Minister for Oceans and Fisheries, David Parker, approved the Ngāti Hei application to close the waters around the eastern Coromandel to all scallop harvesting.

This led to a government funded scallop survey of the entire scallop fishery on the northeast coast from Northland, through the Hauraki Gulf and down to Waihi, Bay of Plenty. The results were so dire the Minister eventually closed the entire northeast coast to commercial and recreational harvest.

The New Zealand Sport Fishing Council and the local fishing clubs are committed to achieving improvements in the way that the land and sea are managed so coastal fish populations are restored and available for future generations.

They will continue to advocate for our collective interests and continue this story in future editions of the Informer. If you want to enjoy abundant fish populations, a healthy marine environment and a fair go for future generations of Kiwis, make sure your voice is heard.

Ian is President of New Zealand Sport Fishing Council