The right issue, the wrong voice: the Kermadecs and Te Ohu Kaimoana

The Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary is a proposed marine sanctuary that will cover 620,000 square kilometres; for comparison, that is 35 times larger than the combined area of Aotearoa New Zealand’s existing 44 marine reserves and would mean 15 percent of our ocean environment is fully protected. The Kermadecs are about 1,000 kilometres from Aotearoa New Zealand, halfway between the Bay of Plenty and Tonga. Imposing these restrictions would mean that commercial fishing and aquaculture, recreational fishing and fishing-related tourism, as well as oil and gas mining cannot occur there.

Te Ohu Kaimoana, supported by about 50 iwi, are objecting to the sanctuary on the basis that it is effectively a confiscation of indigenous fishing rights. The legal niceties are not my forte, but my understanding is that Te Ohu Kaimoana objects on two grounds: firstly, as a partner with the Crown under Te Tiriti o Waitangi, we should have been involved in the discussions and decision making at the outset, rather than treated as one party out of many to be consulted; secondly, imposing the restrictions on this area reduces the area available to commercial fishing which in turn has the potential to impact on the value of the commercial fishing quota granted to tāngata whenua, and under the 1992 Sealord deal we were guaranteed involvement in statutory decisions of this nature. The Crown are breaking the terms of a Treaty settlement. As I said, not my forte, but something like that seems to be the problem here.

The objections are made on a principle I support. Tāngata whenua are not just another ethnic group nor another commercial interest in fisheries; we are the Crown’s partner in all decisions that relate to the building of our nation, the wellbeing of our people, and the protection and use of the environment. Our settlements for historical and contemporary grievances with the Crown were made in good faith; there is no time limit on the partnership, no point at which we are done. We signed the Treaty as two sovereign people; we go forward on that basis.

Unfortunately, those making the argument and presuming to speak for tāngata whenua on fisheries and the ocean are not a group I can support. They have been negligent stewards of Tangaroa and Hinemoana, and their profession that they have “protected the seabed and biodiversity of the Kermadec region for almost a decade” ring hollow. All that statement means, as the Minister and his ministry pointed out, is that the Kermadecs is one region they haven’t deigned to fish in for a decade. Te Ohu Kaimoana and the commercial entities associated with it have exploited our fish stocks, abused the poor of the world and transferred the communal value of the fishing quota for their own personal gain.

In 2011, an University of Auckland Business School study reported the atrocious conditions and illegal practices on board foreign charter fishing vessels in our waters, including: indentured labour of a predominantly Korean workforce; beating, assaults and rapes of the same men; illegal dumping and throwing quota and by-catch fish overboard in the hope of getting higher value commercial catches later. The majority of these boats were fishing for Māori fishing quota. This led to a law change requiring all ships to be New Zealand flagged. Te Ohu Kaimoana, iwi and Māori owned fishing companies sought an exemption to that law until 2020, saying it was uneconomical to move away from foreign ships and crews. In other words, slavery was working very well for us, thanks very much.

This week, the Ministry of Primary Industries has admitted the fish dumping is a widespread and systematic practice in emails. Indeed, they suggested that if they could stop the practice, half of the in-shore fishing fleet would go out of business overnight. The Sanfords Chief Operating Officer played down the report, bizarrely asserting the “90 percent of fishers were conservationists,” to which he could just as well have added that 90 percent of miners are landscape gardeners. An Auckland University report looking at 1950 to 2010 suggested that the total amount of marine fish caught in Aotearoa New Zealand waters is 2.7 times more than official statistics suggest, and that unreported commercial catch and discarded fish account for most of the difference. Te Ohu Kaimoana, iwi and Māori owned fishing companies are complicit in this practice.

Te Ohu Kaimoana recently restructured after considering a range of proposals. The proposals ranged from reducing Te Ohu Kaimoana to a skeleton structure and returning the bulk of assets to iwi through to retaining the same structure and assets with some weak beer governance changes. No guess as to which option won out on the day. Urban Māori were further disenfranchised, the assets that represent the settlement of all tāngata whenua rights are held by a few, and the lack of interest in redistribution of wealth for the communal good was put most succinctly by Sir Tipene O’Regan:

“Trying to transmute them into some social welfare distribution model may be all right basically for calming the chooks, but it doesn’t look after the farm. We’re talking about the quota and the asset holding entities that hold it – that’s the farm and that’s our duty to protect.”

Te Ohu Kaimoana are a poor spokesperson for our Treaty relationship and the importance of fisheries for us all. They are a purely commercial entity who are quite happy to move the environmental and social costs onto the community if it improves their bottom line. In this they are no different to the majority of corporations throughout the world.

Finally, as tāngata whenua we can be myopic on the issue of our Treaty rights. Yes, we have substantial rights to our fisheries and a fundamental right to be treated as an equal partner by the Crown in the development of Aotearoa New Zealand.

Those rights mean nothing if there is no planet on which to enjoy them. The world is burning. The latest NASA figure show a sustained global warming of 1.76 degrees in June and August of this year. Given the lack of action or change, the only way is up for global temperatures, and the acidification of the ocean is one of the effects of this climate change. This is and will continue to pressure our fisheries. If we genuinely desire a sustainable fisheries through which to enact our Treaty rights, we need to protect our oceans and marine species, and crack down very hard on practices that are exploitative and destructive. Keep an eye on the prize: fisheries for our children, grandchildren and descendants. In this light, the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary could well be an appropriate response to a global crisis that both Treaty partners can support.



3 thoughts on “The right issue, the wrong voice: the Kermadecs and Te Ohu Kaimoana

  1. I wonder if 1: the govts insistence that treaty settlements be negotiated with iwi only if they take the form of a corporation is the root cause of TOKM profit first model. and the view that TOKM is not a treaty partner but just another fishing lobby group.

    and 2: if the govt has actually designed this as a controversy to cause division in the left. jk knows that there are those who support marine sanctuaries no matter, and that there are others that will support TOKM whatever their methods and practices because they put treaty rights first no matter what.

    1. Kia ora Kellar, I appreciate the time you’ve taken to comment. Few could deny that your speculations are possible. My only reflection is that I have had exactly those discussions with people who are Treaty no matter what or marine sanctuary no matter what today. My plea has been for us to work towards embracing the complexity here rather than being tricked into reductionism.

  2. hi Graham, I really appreciate your perspective on this issue. I am one of the artists involved in campaigning, via our exhibitions, for the sanctuary, which as you know has taken a full 5 years to convince a Govt that wanted to firstly check they couldn’t profitably exploit the region first.
    Finally agreeing to it, regardless of their motivation, was deemed by all concerned a success at last . .except for TOKM who rightly felt bitter about being left out of the Govt decision making.
    The inability, however, of TOKM to see past their own ego-dinted interests and support this initiative for future generations and the health of the planet is overwhelmingly disappointing and frustrating.
    Your independent perspective is incredibly welcome at this moment in the process, which currently looks doomed to stall, fail and fade, especially with the majority of NZers being largely ignorant of both the issues involved and the incredible importance of the Kermadec sanctuary for ocean health etc.
    Your perspective needs to go wide-public. People need to be way better informed than they are presently.
    How do we do it? Can we get GREENPEACE or some other organisation behind it to make it a public issue and protest for fast resolution and ratification.
    Phil Dadson

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