Monday, December 3, 2007

Fighting off the fish pirates

Stuff reports that the long awaited fishing war in the Pacific is beginning to warm up {}. Spanish trawlers flying Senegalese flags of convenience have been after Swordfish in international waters off the Kermadecs. The report dramatically states one of four trawlers was "caught" by the RNZAF - but in fact this means the Orion videotaped the poachers in action.

While the boats were "caught" in international waters it is obvious that there is a growing need to patrol our EEZ as catch pressure forces fish into our waters, and to enforce international fishing conventions. The arrival of HMNZS Otago and HMNZS Wellington, the new Offshore Patrol Vessels, cannot come soon enough. New Zealand needs a platform for interception operations - using the Seasprite helicopter if the trawlers try to evade.

In carrying out my defence review the thing I discovered about fisheries is how much deterence and accurate information matters. Where most civil disasters involve a massive initial capital loss followed by a period of rapid recovery fishery losses can become a sustained loss of cashflow in a relatively short period of time. Once a fishery dips below a recovery level (as for example our disastrous management of Orange Roughy demonstrated) the cashflow from that fishery is lost for considerable periods (decades) before the stock is once again at a harvestable level.

As Mark Kurlansky shows in "Cod", his book about the disastrous collapse of the North Atlantic Cod fishery, fishers are usually the worst people to ask to manage the resource. Fishers have to buy vastly expensive capital equipment and then face the gamut of interest rate increases, while banks watch them like hawks to ensure they have a recoverable asset should the fishing firm fail to make its payments. For fishers cash is king and without a catch there is no cash. Thus all fishing is innately over-optimistic about the possibility of a catch because without optimism nobody would put to sea at all.

"Cod" shows there are two things the fishery has to be protected from: mistaken over-allocations of resource and wasteful harvesting.

In New Zealand there is only two ships engaged in resource assessment. Both the RV Tangaroa {} and the RV Kaharoa {} are operated by the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research. NIWA employs 40 seafaring staff and the annual turnover of the operation is $8 million. This is to manage an EEZ of 4 million square kilometres.

The Ministry of Fisheries relies on NIWA research voyages to monitor fish stocks. It also places fisheries inspection officers aboard vessels operating from New Zealand ports. And finally it relies on the Defence Force to provide patrol craft to police the fishing fleet at sea.

The New Zealand defence force will shortly have two Offshore Patrol Vessels and four inshore patrol vessels plus No.6 Squadron's Seasprites and No 5 squadron's Orions for surveillance and response.

While wishing the force all the best my review concluded this force was inadequate to the task. I note the Irish, with a far smaller EEZ, have eight offshore patrol vessels.

I proposed three very long range maritime surveillance jets, five shorter range twin turbojet fisheries surveillance aircraft, five long range intervention maritime helicopters, two long range UAVs, two survey ships (able to host the helicopters), two environmental patrol vessels (also able to host the helicopters) two ice-capable offshore patrol vessels, four coastal patrol boats, plus an expanded coastguard function with 75 Rhibs. Even within the terms of my own review this was a stretch which required a fair bit of dual functionality to be justified.

The advantage of this line-up is that it more than doubles the nation's research capability; and provides constant on-station patrols of three deep-water vessels at any one time (compared to one OPV). This is linked with the ability to island-hop the long range helicopters so that operations off the Kermadecs in the North or the Campbell Islands in the South can be used to enforce New Zealand's sovereignty to the limits of its EEZ.

As the world gets hungrier and richer we can only expect the price of seafood to rise. As the price rises so too will the reward for those willing to risk their vessels to plunder our waters. The pressure on New Zealand's sovereignty will come not from multi-billion dollar naval vessels but from multi-million dollar trawlers who will gamble on the vast area of our EEZ, their own numbers and our inability to catch and arrest them to harvest our resources.

Fisheries protection does not require expensive hardware. The South Africans have employed a US$19 million 83 metre Environmental Patrol Boat to patrol their southern Ocean to protect the Patagonian Toothfish. It is a very economical platform and is scarely armed at all because the average fishing pirate is in no position to fight. But fisheries protection does require good information and that means having both the presence and the ability to respond quickly to developing situations.

New Zealand's defence force is progressing in this direction. It is just a shame that it is still overburdened by WW2/Cold War style thinking that is so clearly out of place in todays political-economy.