An Interview about Fisheries, Inequality, MSY, Waiheke&NZ, Dub and he tangata (the people) / by Francisco Blaha

A few days ago, I got my first full interview. It was a local newspaper in Waiheke, the island where I live, so it never will see too much public attention (thankfully).... but it made me compile my ideas in order over some fisheries topics, and while some of my "strongest" opinions were edited or taken away (It is a local newspaper, not fisheries one!) I share the original version here for what is worth.

 is about the people, mostly

is about the people, mostly

Do you see your self as an environmentalist or an aid worker?

I don't see my self as either of those at all.  I'm just a fisheries specialist that provides technical and practical advice to countries and organizations. I don't take sides in the fisheries arguments (NGOs vs Industry, recreational vs commercial) we all need to do better... end of story. But I'm a humanist and I believe that only people can me make a real difference, yet as long as everyone thinks that only their views are the only truth, we all fu*kt.

What is your connection to Waiheke? (the island in NZ where I live)

I wanted to move to Waiheke the 1st time I came over 20 years ago, I loved living in the Pacific Islands as I found very similar cultural/family environment to the one I grow up, but I also dig some of the benefits of more western societies, and in Waiheke I found a good mixture of both. So when I married and we had kids ready for school, we settle permanently here and are very much part of the society.

My kids went to local primary school, my wife Vibeke was on the school board, my son and I are very active in the Waka Ama Club, and so on. From all the places I worked and lived so far (52 countries) Waiheke is where I feel at home.

You’re an independent contractor/consultant, so what kind of work have you been doing in the last year or so? How do you typically find work?

Other than a couple of years as a Fisheries Officer with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations based at their HQ in Rome I always worked for my self for the last 25 years.

My main clients are in 3 groups: the development and aid components of international organizations like the UN FAO and the European Union, some regional organizations, I do a lot of work for the Pacific Islands Fisheries Forum Agency and also the international development agencies of some governments, presently I have contracts with NZAID and the Swiss Government. I also take the odd contracts with NGOs like WWF or organizations like APEC.

The key part of my workload these days is what we call Fisheries Monitoring, Control and Surveillance (MCS) as the tools to combat Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fisheries.

For the last couple of years, I worked training fisheries inspectors in Guatemala and Colombia for the EU, developing a Catch Documentation Scheme (legally caught certification) in most of the Pacific islands with FFA, developing data integration systems for many of the e-monitoring and e-reporting Apps we are testing in the Pacific, training inspectors and developing systems for port controls under the UN Port State Measures Agreement in PNG, Vanuatu, Palau, Tonga, Thailand and Myanmar, with the UN, mentoring inspectors on foreign vessels controls in the Marshall Islands, Solomons and Kiribati for the NZ MFAT, and some other stuff. 

But I also like to have one off projects like directing the development and design of a comic and colouring book aimed to train subsistence fisherman in the APEC economies countries, something I did with other 2 Waiheke based professionals.

Works come to me on my inbox, either by direct offers based on my CV and project history or by invitation to tender for projects. Thankfully I get offered more work than I can take. Said so I make a point of not spending more than 6 months of the year off the island, the rest of the time is for my family, the ocean, and my veggie garden at home

An important point to me is that In reality, I don't work with fish, I work with the people that work with fish. And while I’m introverted, I love working with fisherman and fisheries inspectors… I have gained much wider perspectives working as and with fisherman, getting a small boat similar to theirs and heading out at sea than working from shore and hanging out only with office people.

My favourite Māori proverb or Whakataukī says: He aha te mea nui o te ao (What is the most important thing in the world?)  He tangata, he tangata, he tangata (It is the people, it is the people, it is the people)

And the older I get, the more I believe on that… I’m not going to change the world, people will. and if I can help people with that, there is where my focus is. I work eye to eye with anyone, not Mr “foreign consultant” and poor fisherman/inspector from developing countries.

In the Pacific, tuna is a hot topic right now. I heard that you’ve been doing work with Pacific Island Nations to sustainably develop and protect their fisheries. Can you tell me more about that?   

In the Pacific, Tuna is “the" topic!. Recently the UN General Assembly proclaimed 2 May World Tuna Day, spotlighting the vital socio-economic importance of tuna around the world. And I’m one among the estimated 22000 people in the Pacific whose livelihoods depend directly and completely of Tuna. An industry that at its base produces some 256 million cans of tuna that are consumed annually, amounting to U$D 7.5 billion, yet around only 600 to 700 million come back to the resources owners, the Pacific Island Countries (PICs) where over 60% of the world tuna resources originate, and that is pure unfairness. 

Of course, there are serious challenges to their long-term sustainability of the fishery, as there is more fishing effort for tuna than for any other group of fish and the overwhelming majority of this effort is by Distant Water Fishing Nations (DWFN) i.e. China, Taiwan, Korea, Philipines, Japan, etc. They are as well as beneficial owners of PICs flagged vessels, and while all fish legally (as they are licensed) they interests are off shore. And this is an issue of overarching importance since confronting interests are pushing tuna sustainability.

There is a fundamental (and perhaps unbridgeable) difference; as clearly expressed to me, by my Nauruan friend and colleague Monte Depaune last year: “ for non PICs and DWFNs the issue of sustainability is one of long-term financial benefit. However, for Coastal States PICs it is also a food security issue, one that DWFNs have less trouble with, as they can leave… but PICs cannot”

Tuna is a key lifeline of the Pacific but the balance of benefits is entirely skewed, in a way that has not moved far from the times of colonialism. Countries with money, technology and resources get richer by using the resources of poorer smaller countries at a lower level of development. They do so by pushing many agendas (including aid) and taking advantage of the lesser level of institutional maturity in countries that are struggling to manage themselves, as they are only 40 to 50 years old and had to “learn” from scratch a system of laws and a concept of nationhood entirely foreign to their former reality.

A lot of my work is around facilitating that transition and help to foster their own controls and agendas over fisheries issues. My counterparts are my islands based colleages, not the international agencies.

Tuna gave me a new and good life when I came to the Pacific, escaping far from my origins and struggles. Tuna gave me friends and an extended family in places that barely figure in maps, yet there is more “humanity” than in countries whose “empires” cover the earth.

Doing what you do must be quite high-risk, given the money that’s involved in the fishing industry and the illegal practices of some companies?

The whole idea of high seas pursuits and boarding of rogue vessels from small dinghies while the wind and waves hit your face is a nice picture (and perhaps the one that some NGOs with video productions aimed at asking donations make you believe is the big part of the job), yet the reality is far from that.

 way less exciting than in the docos

way less exciting than in the docos

The key issue in the Pacific is not illegal fishing (as fishing without a license) is actually underreporting (declaring less than what you caught) and misreporting (declaring different from what you caught), the way to deal with these issues is more akin to the job of an accountant and data manager than to a "hero" jumping into boats, making everyone believe that all Asian fisherman are thieves.

I have spent more productive time and caught more “bad” operators with systems I learned from accountants and data managers than from my navy training.

Yes, of course, we still go on boats look at papers, but more importantly: we weight fish, estimate captures, we assess remotely via satellites vessels positions, we go over compliance histories, we use intelligence type work and so on.

Any fisheries inspector's job is way more going over a lot of paper, computer screens and boarding vessels when they arrive at port, rather than what you get to see on TV.

 a lot of paper and fact checking... lying is easy doing consitently is not

a lot of paper and fact checking... lying is easy doing consitently is not

Have you had any hair-raising adventures? Any unpleasant surprises? Any good surprises? 

I had a few close calls while working on fishing boats, but then that is expected since is the most dangerous job in the world, unfortunately, more people perish fishing than in mining, oil and forestry combined. 

Yet what really irks me the most, is the general perception that all commercial fishermen are horrible people bent on destroying nature. Yet, they are producing food, no different of a farmer or an orchardist. If you eat, the reality is that you need to kill, and while they are some very unpleasant rogue people out there that push the limits of legality in fisheries, that applies to any form of food production, not just fishing. 

Our society is very good at cherry picking the environmental damages it causes in order to produce food. We see a nice picture of a sunflower field and we say “how beautiful” while the picture of a skipjack tuna purseine vessel may bring the most vicious comments, yet that sunflower patch has biodiversity impact of 100%, everything alive that was there, was killed to plant those sunflowers at massive fuel cost. A purseine set has around 5% biodiversity impact and produces food at fraction of the fuel use, yet they are the environmental assassins?

On the other side of the equation, we have recreational fisherman that go and spend hundreds of dollars in petrol on their big completely inefficient 150 HP outboard engines that liquefy their exhaust fumes in the water to bring 15 kg of fish, while a coastal longliners brings 5000 kg with 300HP. So if we talk about environmental impacts… all of them need to be included in any discussion about sustainability.

Interestingly, I find that in fisheries more than in any other form of food production, everyone has a very strong opinion, yet not everyone has a fully factual opinion. I heard, architects, mechanics, builders, dentists have hard and definitive opinions on fisheries issues, but they will never venture the same level of anger towards, agriculture or livestock production. And what is more telling, is that they would be totally offended if a fisheries biologist had the same depth of negative views about their area of work.

The western theory of sustainable harvesting of fish stocks evolved during the first half of the 20th century, but by the 1990s many fisheries in the developed world were considered overexploited. This started to change in the mid 90s as more countries implemented fisheries management systems that had:
(i) specific objectives and targets for fishing pressure and abundance, 
(ii) monitoring of fishing pressure and abundance, 
(iii) assessments to determine if targets were being met, 
(iv) feedback management systems that adjusted regulations in response to the assessments and in particular restricted fishing pressure when it was too high, and
(v) enforcement systems to assure compliance with regulations. 
These are the basic elements of a sustainable management system, and without these elements there can be no assurance that the stock will be sustainably managed.

Hence quite simply “sustainability is a process” not a line drawn somewhere. Everything has advantages and disadvantages, and we have to navigate ethical choices since there is no one perfect way to achieve a complex goal.  

With science, we can determine what kind of management of a fishery will lead to long-term sustainability of food production, this, in turn, feed Fisheries policy that can set up the harvesting regimes needed, and then MCS ensures stakeholders obey the rules set and measure the outcomes, that then feed back into the science... and so the process restarts its cycle forwards. Is like a table with 3 legs, if one does not work, the table falls. 

Furthermore, science can (and should) evaluate the environmental impacts of a fishery (including fuel-related climate forcing results). Yet, it would be impossible for science, policy and MCS to tell you what environmental impacts are low enough – that is a question of individual choice and public policy via political pressure.

And I know this will sound terrible, but the only guaranteed way to have no impact on our environment is for all of us (humanity) to disappear (fast and at once). All other options imply compromises… and those compromises depend immensely from where you stand. 

I live in beautiful and safe Waiheke, but I work all over the world, from the people I work, around 15% live below 1 USD dollar a day, around 45% lives below 2 USD a day… yet don’t pity them, pity their circumstances they live in. These people are some of the most resilient, innovative and determined people I know, they wouldn’t be alive otherwise. 

Over 75% of the world population earns less than 10USD a day, in other words… 3 of every 4 people in this world earn less per day than the cost of a glass of wine at a Waiheke winery. Yet the definitions of what is efficiency, governance and sustainability are decided by western rich countries that compromise the top 25%, the ones that can afford to have future… we are very good at forgetting that too

The incredible level of income inequality in our societies is for me the biggest sustainability tragedy of our world. If we are failing to look after our own in such a catastrophic way, what hope is there for everything else? I believe that sustainability in fisheries (as in any other primary production area) would only be able to be managed with real long term prospects after we have dealt with our own collective failings a society.

 From work by Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman

From work by Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman

Can you tell me about what’s going on in New Zealand waters, there has been a lot in the news about the Quota Management System.

I have not been working with NZ fisheries for a while, but I still maintaining good contacts with a lot of people in the different parts of the system. 

Despite the many scientific and public discussions on the sustainability of fisheries, there are still great differences in both perception and definition of the concept. The result has been that each group (scientists, economists, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), etc.) defines “sustainable seafood” using whatever criteria it considers most important, and the same fish product may be deemed sustainable by one group and totally unsustainable by another one. (i.e. Hoki in NZ)

No fisheries management is perfect, they are all perfectible and the QMS is no exemption… yet to disqualify it based on a perception is erroneous. One could say under the same pretence that the snapper stock is in a sorry state because NZ is the only developed country (i.e. part of OECD) that does not have a recreational licensing scheme, hence it really does not know how many non-commercial fishers are and how much they catch. Under that premise and the definition of IUU fishing, you could say that presently all fishing is non-licensed and underreported. (The estimations of recreational catch in the Hauraki Gulf are above the volumes of the commercial fleet, and caught with a fuel usage that is by a factor of 1000 bigger than the commercial one)

If the stock were in a sorry state, fishing companies would be loosing money yet a company like Sanford has declared some of best revenues in many years. In NZ we don't have subsidies so in many ways commercial fishing is economically self-regulating; the cost of having a fishing boat in the water is X incremental (adds up every day), so the value of the volume of the catch on board has to be X+1, otherwise, they lose money. If they spend more money trying to catch fish (because there are none out there) that the value of the fish they have on board, they will be broken and soon out of business, on top of that the price of fish (while high) has been quite stable, if there was substantially less, then the price should be much higher.

Now if you were to say that the stock is in a sorry state in comparison to 1970s in that case yes, because the pressure was much lower, yet that argument can be applied to every thing in NZ, from milk to housing… so in not really relevant as a present discussion factor.

Of course this is not to say that everything is fantastic, there has been plenty in the news in regards fish dumping, the limited use of video evidence and so on, yet on the other side, serious fraud via under-reporting of catches by a fishing company (Hawkes Bay Seafoods Limited) was uncovered, and this would not have been possible if it wasn't for the way the  QMS works. I go back to my early words; no system is perfect, they are all perfectible.

Personally, I think that the Aquiles tendon of most fisheries management systems (QMS included) is that the biological assessment that the becomes the basis for the determination of the status of fish stocks, so they are maintained at or above a level that can produce the Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY).  

MSY reflects the greatest yield that can be achieved over time while maintaining a stock's productive capacity, having regard to the population dynamics of the stock and any environmental factors that influence the stock.  Controls are set so that the biomass level can support the maximum sustainable yield (BMSY).  This provides the conditions to maximise the yield of the fishery without compromising sustainability.  Once the BMSY is identified, the Total Allowable Catch of a stock can be determined.

However, there are BIG issues with MSY as a definitive concept. Dr. John Allan Gulland said it is  "A quantity that has been shown by biologists not to exist, and by economists to be misleading if it did exist". MSY was designed as a political construct more than a fisheries management tool. Is a theoretical construction that exists in three realms: as science, as policy, and as a legal concept. Despite substantial criticism by scientists and economists, MSY still remains at the heart of fisheries science and fisheries management (read Carmel Finley, 2009. The Social Construction of Fishing) and Maximum Sustainable Yield: The Worst Idea in Fisheries Management by Dr. Sidney Holt)

On the other side, Maximum Economic Yield (MEY) would be a much better idea! But I'm getting off point here!

Again, in fisheries, as in many aspects of life, nothing is completely black and white, there is very well informed and contrasted opinions, as well a chorus of uniformed ones that pick sides. I wish that all were to read always both side of the any arguments, since is the only way forwards, as I said before: sustainability is a process

Our news editor heard you as a guest DJ on a late-night show on BFM a little while back and was quite taken with your music collection. Are you a musician or a DJ? Does your interest in world music correlate to your work in any way, given that it takes you all over the world? 

Haahaa… yeap I was a DJ in bFM, KroadFM and the party circuit in the late 90’s early 2000, I played under the name of Mano Paco…

My friends Dubhead and Stinky Jim that still at BFm are very kind to invite me to their programs once in awhile so does the Martini Gotje to his Navigator programme in Waiheke radio on Sundays. 

Yes, I love music and I love playing it for people. I didn't have the opportunity of learning to play instruments as a kid but always loved it, and I always been particularly taken by the Jamaican sounds (in particular Dub).

Music is by definition people, and as said I think people are the key to everything. My work makes me deal with very different people and music, and I been always fascinated by the crossovers of Jamaican and electronic bases with the traditional music of different regions so that is my style and edge. I also do VJeing (videos mixing and explorations), If anyone has been to gigs in Waiheke by Radio Rebelde or the Deep Base Brothers, chances are you've seen or heard my stuff.

I don't like to be defined only by one thing, music and the ocean have always been a solace, a friend and an escape… I hope I can still enjoy them for many years. 

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