I move, That the Fisheries Act 1996 Amendment Bill be now read a first time. At the appropriate time, I intend to move that the Fisheries Act 1996 Amendment Bill be referred to the Primary Production Committee for consideration, that it be an instruction to the committee for the bill to be reported to the House by 12 June 2007, and that the committee have the authority to meet at any time while the House is sitting, except during oral questions, during any evening on a day on which there has been a sitting of the House, on a Friday in a week in which there has been a sitting of the House, and outside the Wellington area during a sitting of the House, despite Standing Orders 192, 194(a), and 195(1)(b) and (c). In order that the proposed amendments are available in August 2007 to inform the next major set of fisheries management decisions that must be made by 1 October 2007, I intend to move that the committee report the bill by 12 June 2007, in accordance with Standing Order 291(1).
The Fisheries Act 1996 is a principal statute governing the management of New Zealand’s fisheries resources. The Fisheries Act 1996 Amendment Bill will amend the Act to give clearer direction to decision makers where there are gaps or flaws in the information on which they must base their decisions. The amendment bill will ensure that where information is uncertain or lacking, decision makers can take measures they judge necessary to ensure sustainability in fisheries resources, and protection of the marine environment.
The purpose of the Fisheries Act is to provide for the utilisation of fisheries resources while, at the same time, ensuring sustainability. In order to achieve this, the Act provides for limits to be set within which sustainable fishing can occur. Often, there is uncertainty or other flaws in the information available on how ecosystems and fish stocks behave. This means that decisions to allow harvest carry some degree of risk. The impact of a flawed decision will vary according to the nature of the flaw and the stock characteristics. If a decision overestimates the relevant stock levels, sustainability of the fishery is put at risk. If it underestimates the stock levels, then harvest has been unnecessarily constrained. Internationally, there is a consensus that where information is uncertain or otherwise flawed, fisheries managers should adopt a precautionary approach and should not use the uncertainty in information as a reason for postponing, or failing to take, measures to ensure sustainability. This general precautionary approach is contained in a number of international agreements to which New Zealand is a party.
Currently, the principles on how fisheries managers should deal with information when making fisheries management decisions are set out in section 10 of the Act. These principles explain that decision makers should consider any uncertainty and be cautious where information has this or other flaws. It also states that decision makers should not use the absence of, or uncertainty in, information as a reason for postponing or failing to take measures to achieve the purpose of the Act. The reference in this section to the purpose of the Act creates ambiguity. Because the purpose includes two objectives—providing for utilisation, on the one hand, and ensuring sustainability, on the other—the current wording of section 10 does not provide the decision maker with clear directions on which of the two objectives they should favour in situations of uncertainty.
The amendment contained in this bill will make clear that where information is uncertain or incomplete, this is not a reason to delay or avoid taking measures to ensure sustainability. It protects decision makers from the argument that they should not take measures to ensure sustainability if the threat to sustainability is uncertain. Although the impacts on both utilisation and sustainability will continue to be considered in situations of uncertainty, the amendment will indicate a clear preference that measures taken should favour sustainability. This is consistent with the international interpretation of the precautionary approach and good fisheries management.
The proposed changes may constrain utilisation in certain circumstances in the short term, but the overall impact should be positive, helping to ensure a more sustainable resource base so that all New Zealanders can obtain value and enjoyment from our fisheries resources into the future. The short point is that if we do not preserve our fish sustainably, we will not have any to fish for.
In summary, this bill provides for amendments to the Fisheries Act 1996 that will ensure that the Act better reflects the international interpretation of a precautionary approach as it applies to fisheries management in New Zealand. It will ensure that even where information is uncertain or otherwise flawed, decision makers can act cautiously and take measures to ensure sustainability of fisheries resources and address any adverse effects on fishing and on the aquatic environment. I commend this bill to the House.
We agree with the Minister that the Fisheries Act 1996 Amendment Bill needs due consideration. The National Party will certainly be supporting the bill going to select committee. The bill clarifies the law by providing a clearer direction to the Minister of Fisheries that where there is inadequate information on fish stock health, it will take a cautious approach and set annual catch levels lower rather than higher.
The Fisheries Act 1996 did, in fact, have the intention that the Minister would take a cautionary approach. Unfortunately, in setting the total allowable catch, the legislation states that the Minister will have regard to the purpose of the Act. Of course, the purpose of the Act is to have utilisation of the fish stock alongside ensuring sustainability. Unfortunately, when there is not enough information the Minister cannot necessarily err on the side of sustainability. He must still consider the purpose of providing for utilisation.
This bill is intended to clarify where the balance lies between the utilisation of fish stocks and the sustainability of fisheries resources. The amended legislation will make it explicit that when information is absent or otherwise poor the Minister should take a precautionary approach to ensure sustainability of the fish stock for future generations—whether that be for commercial, customary, or recreational use.
We know that the precautionary approach is in international agreements. Those agreements generally say that States shall apply the precautionary approach widely to conservation management and exportation of struggling fish stocks—that is the usual definition.
National has some concerns, of course. One of those concerns is how the Minister will sense what value or volume of information is sufficient so that he does not have to use the constraint of new section 10(c), inserted by clause 4, to consider sustainability—one can never be 100 percent sure about the fish stocks in terms of surveys.
The second concern we have is how much further research will have to be done. What compliance and research costs will be borne by commercial fishers to avoid this new standard, whereby the Minister will retreat to the precautionary approach? We are concerned that fishers may have to meet larger and larger compliance and research costs. We are interested to know how the Minister will sense what value or volume of information is required to avoid this particular clause. We will support this legislation to select committee. We do not have any commitment after that, but look forward to submissions.
I will take a call, which will be quite a short one, given the impending hour of the rising of the House. This legislation is another significant add-on to what is already quite a comprehensive Act—the Fisheries Act 1996. Some members who were not here in 1996 can reflect on the fact that that Act broke new ground in terms of sustainable harvest, not only in New Zealand but internationally. If one goes back and looks at that 1996 Act, one sees that—in what we might call the religious part, right at the start, which is purposes and principles—it contains enshrined elements of sustainability for the first time anywhere in the world. Therefore, New Zealand’s 1996 Fisheries Act has been acknowledged in many places internationally as a very worthwhile standard for managing a wild resource in a sustainable way.
Since that 1996 Fisheries Act was passed, I do not think that there has been an Act of Parliament that has been amended more often than that Act. When the issue of fisheries comes up there is generally a glazing of the eyes for a significant number of members; I see some members nodding at me now. But, in reality, fishing is a very significant resource for New Zealand. It is a very important part of the New Zealand export economy, and we need to clarify issues surrounding the question of how we might do it better.
My colleague Phil Heatley spoke quite candidly about the areas of concern that National has. Yes, we will support this bill’s going to the select committee. Yes, we believe we need to err on the side of sustainability. But the bill does open another door—and I will make this claim: we will be back again to refine another element of it. I do not have a problem with that, because this is a work in progress and we need to refine and improve on a consistent basis.
I am a little perplexed by clause 5, which is going to bring some retrospective elements into this bill before we pass it.