From Bay of Empty to Bay of Plenty again

Nick Dredge uses the ocean to put food on the table. Image: Daniel Hines/SunLive.

It’s one of the critical things some people factor in when making major lifestyle decisions to move to Tauranga.

Like Nick Dredge, president of the Sons of Tangaroa Spearfishing Club.

“Taking food from the land and sea is something we’re very lucky to be able to do in New Zealand. And that’s one reason I live in Tauranga over anywhere else in the world.”  

Any meat that crosses his table – smoked kahawai, kingfish, wild pork or venison, the freerange chickens in his yard, are all wild caught.

But as a Son of Tangaroa, it seems the god of the Sea has forsaken him and other local spear fishermen, and seriously compromised their ability to enjoy and fish some of the rich and spectacular inshore reefs and rocky outcrops that the waters of the Bay of Plenty offers.

“Our members are depressed, gutted,” says Nick. And on the back of a controversial court decision, some members are talking about upping-and-leaving Tauranga. They fear the ruling may result in protected marine areas and blanket “no take” areas at their favourite recreational spots in the Bay of Plenty - the very accessible reefs and outcrops of Okaparu, Astrolab, Brewers, Tokoroa Plate and Schooner.  

“Controls on total catch and take methods would go much further to protect the bio-diversity of the area while still maintaining reasonable access for user groups like the spear fishermen,” says Nick.

“We would like to see a more subtle, multifaceted approach, rather than a blanket ban.”

Their problem arises from several years of litigation where Forest and Bird and Motiti islanders battled with the Government and fishing interests over the right to protect biodiversity fish and seabirds in Bay of Plenty.

Then the Court of Appeal decided the Western Bay Regional Council can use the Resource Management Act to safeguard the Motiti bio-diversity specific to this particular habitat, from the effects of unsustainable fishing.

And that may involve new rules prohibiting the taking of plants and animals, including fish and shellfish from 70 square kilometres of three marine protection areas near Motiti.

“I don’t believe it was us versus them,” says Nick Dredge. “Because the islanders had just as much to lose. I think originally the intent was to limit catch methods in these areas to line and spear. The intention was pure, just poorly thought through.”

And the spear fishermen fear the Appeal Court decision will evolve into a blanket ban which is “grim news” for a recreational sport enjoying explosive growth. “About a hundred members and we’re receiving between five and ten requests a week from people looking to join.”

Meanwhile the tortuous legal process continues.  “Should the final Environment Court uphold the three protected marine areas near Motiti, the regional council would introduce new rules,” says BOP Regional Council’s David Phizacklea. They would involve a complete ban on fishing in those areas. But first the rules would have to be ticked off by the Minister of Conservation.

And because of the unique way this decision has come about, the complex nature of the court cases, there has been no public consultation process. “Unfortunately this is not something we can change,” says David. Even though it acknowledges the areas are highly valued by fishing groups and the wider public.

Forest and Bird says the talk from fishing interests in the Bay of Plenty has been out of proportion to the size of area to be protected. But it too uses emotive language. “It will help the Bay of Empty become the Bay of Plenty again,” says Forest and Bird’s Dr Rebecca Stirnemann.  “Ninety-nine percent of the of BOP will be open for fishing and just 0.76 per cent the new Motiti marine protected area.”

But, as the spear fishermen understand it, the latest ruling will have significant effect on the diversity of species available for them to hunt and have access to – like the  mature trevally, the large kingfish, the skipjack tuna, and the places they can go to hunt and the variety of underwater experience.

“I have had some pretty incredible swims with them all – sharks, whales, seals and a couple of particularly cool experiences with local dolphins. They seek you out and play – do forward rolls and backward flips. They’re as interested in you as you are in them.” And this circus is having a regular play right off our coast. “The seals are pretty good fun, but a pain in the butt at the same time because they scare off the fish.”

And when the seals aren’t performing, the big currents across the shallow reefs will bring huge schools of fish. “Just thousands of them,” says Nick. “Schooling you, swirling round you in a vortex to the point you can’t see a meter in front of you.” And the kingfish – huge, imposing, a real presence in the water.

“But the spear fishermen have protocols. They’re even written into the Sons of Tangaroa vision statement.

“You would never take more than one kingy. There’s a huge amount of meat on one. Or you might already have one in the freezer, so your encounter with the king fish becomes an experience and not a hunting thing.”

There’s already smoked kahawai in Nick Dredge’s fridge, so when he encountered a school of perhaps 3000 kahawai right off the back of Rabbit Island, the fish were safe form him.

“And that attitude should be taken into account. Spear fishermen will target a meal.  Other recreational fishermen will fill the bin. Although that attitude is changing too.”

And there’s a self-imposed taboo on slow growing and reef species that are vulnerable, like the red moki. “They’re legal, very easy to shoot and fine to eat. But spear fishermen would be frowned on for taking them because they don’t quickly replace themselves, are localized and vulnerable.”

Each one of the areas the spearfishermen stand to lose. has a very unique habitat. “And while the same things happen on a reef 50 metres deep, free diving spearfishermen don’t have access. That is big boat territory and only available to the top five percent of spearfishermen.”

Forest and Bird say hapuka and crayfish have almost disappeared from the Bay and commercial quota for terakihi and snapper have been cut as stocks diminish.

While they acknowledge the fishery is damaged, the Sons of Tangaroa Spearfishing Club insists it too wants to protect the diversity of wildlife out there.

But Nick Dredge hasn’t yet found a huge amount of evidence to support the idea that small, localized marine sanctuaries have a significant impact on the health of a fishery.

“A total ban would be a big sacrifice for what is more a feel-good gain than a long-term gain.

As one of the primary user groups, the spearfishermen would love a seat at the table when restrictions are being considered.

“I would personally like to see councils have more power to enact controls locally but in a more measured manner, to be able to look at these things and say, hey, maybe it's not so bad if we have a few recreational guys in there.”

The spearfishermen may want to be heard, but it seems they will simply be told to play nicely and legally. “If the decision is upheld, we will be working with tangata whenua, fishing groups and the wider public, to make sure they understand the rules and why they have been put in place,” says David Phizacklea.

Forest and Bird understands it will be hard for some people who won’t be able to go to favourite fishing spots. “And that’s hard to get used to,” says Dr Stirnemann.

“But the changes we make now will mean more fish for everyone within the next few years.”

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