The total allowable catch in New Zealand waters in 2000 was 672,000 tonnes. Although the quota system was working well, attention focused on those 20% of fish species that were in decline. The Ministry of Fisheries had recovery plans for depleted stocks, but had a difficult task in enforcing its rules, especially in inshore fisheries.
Inshore species with commercial importance include crayfish (rock lobster), pāua (abalone), green-lipped mussels and snapper.
Snapper numbers off the North Island's west coast have dwindled. As little as 2% of snapper are older than 10 years, compared with 25%, 20 years ago. The total allowable catch has been reduced to allow stocks to recover. Rig shark or lemonfish (often cooked in batter in fish and chips) is also in decline.
Although there is a successful commercial pāua fishery, the coast is being stripped of pāua and crayfish by poachers who operate in international organised crime. In 2004 it was estimated that the amount of pāua taken illegally almost matched the legal harvest – nearly 1,000 tonnes a year. There is also increasing pressure from recreational fishers who compete with inshore commercial fishers for species such as kahawai and snapper.
Inshore owner–operator fishermen with small boats are becoming uncommon. The high cost of fuel and equipment, and declining quota allocations along with increased government regulations and levies have squeezed out many. In the past, in many coastal communities fishing was a way of life; however, by the 2000s it was primarily a business, and many small operators could no longer compete with the larger fishing companies.
Of about 130 species fished in New Zealand waters only 43 are commercially important. The gross tonnage and export revenue are most significant for deep-water fish, taken from depths of 200 to 1,200 metres – hoki, hake, orange roughy, ling, oreo dories, squid and silver warehou.
Some, but not all, orange roughy stocks collapsed in the 1990s, and these have been closed to allow their renewal. Other deep-water stocks thought to be in jeopardy include hake (often caught with hoki) and oreo dory.
In 2004, hoki numbers dropped and quota was cut from about 180,000 tonnes to 100,000 tonnes. In the eastern spawning grounds (Cook Strait and the Chatham Rise), the hoki population seemed to be steady. But in the western spawning grounds (off the West Coast of the South Island) the population was estimated to be only 13–22% of the original number. Stock levels around 20% of the original population are considered to be insufficient for sustainable fishing.
The fishing industry and scientists were undecided as to what caused the decline. Hoki numbers may vary considerably depending on how many young fish are coming through. However, conservationists blamed falling hoki numbers on overfishing and damage caused by trawlers dragging their heavy nets along the ocean floor.
Although attention is often focused on those species under threat by fishing, many species are being managed sustainably under the quota system.
Another major challenge facing the industry is to reduce the impact on untargeted species. Efforts have been made to reduce by-catch by using exclusion devices on squid-fishing nets to prevent sea lions from getting caught. There are methods to discourage albatrosses and other seabirds from taking longline hooks. And technology has allowed more accurate targeting of fish schools to ensure that fewer non-commercial fish varieties are caught in nets.
Fisheries managers still do not have enough information to know if trawling affects the ecosystems of seamounts. The Fisheries Act takes a precautionary approach; for instance 19 seamounts were closed to bottom trawling in 2000; and in 2006 a draft agreement was reached to close another 30% of the Exclusive Economic Zone to bottom trawling.
The New Zealand fishing industry has grown rapidly to become a major contributor to the nation’s economy. The major challenges faced by the industry are to ensure their contribution is sustainable and their impact on the marine environment is minimal. In 2005 the industry had probably reached its maximum level of harvest. It can only grow through finding new species to catch, or through aquaculture (fish farming). Increasing the value derived from the current level of harvest became a main focus of the fishing industry in the 1990s, and is likely to remain so into the future.