Submissions closed last Sunday on the most significant changes to New Zealand fishing law proposed in 30 years, but industry is still far from agreement on the final form of those changes.

The Fisheries New Zealand (FNZ) discussion paper covers issues such as landings and returns to the sea and the penalty regime - issues that have been a thorn in the industry’s side for decades.

FNZ admit that the current law is inconsistent, unclear, and hard to comply with.

So, despite the paper’s shortfalls we should be relishing a chance to get these issues sorted.

Three options are offered around landings and returns but the industry see none of those options as the complete answer. It is suggesting a hybrid of those options be developed and industry discussion on this be undertaken with urgency.

The current 'option one' is to tighten the rules around returning fish to the sea (discarding). All Quota Management System (QMS) stock would have to be landed, unless they had no economic value – for example, ammoniating sharks. This option would also necessitate removing the Minimum Legal-Size (MLS) requirement and smaller fish that were dead would still have to be landed. It would also mean all catch would be covered by your Annual Catch Entitlement (ACE) and therefore disincentivise fishers taking small fish, presumably through new, improved fishing methods.

'Option two' appears to be less favoured by FNZ but offers increased flexibility for fishers to return fish to the sea.  MLS would be retained for those fish currently covered and extended to new species. The rules around which fish could be legally returned to the sea under Schedule 6 would be reviewed to enable fish of lower economic value, compared to the rest of the catch, to be returned.

'Option three' is the status quo, which is not an option. With the rollout of electronic monitoring and reporting and the likely introduction of some form of cameras on vessels, the current regime is untenable.

On the issue of the penalties, FNZ proposes to introduce infringements notices for lesser offences, rather than the current system which requires lengthy and expensive court cases in illegal discarding cases.

Currently, a fisher may return fish to the sea in certain circumstances or when permitted by an onboard official. The paper proposes removing the ability of fisheries officers or observers to authorise returns.

It has also proposed a new defence to allow returns to the sea in order to save a protected species. This was sparked by a 2017 incident where a Sanford purse-seiner dumped 30 tonnes of mackerel in order to save a pod of dolphins that had become caught in the net.

The discussion paper is a good start with good components, but no single option works.

A hybrid 'option four' that incorporates reporting all catch, returning to the sea where practicable and adjustment of the TACC accordingly is the most sensible approach.

Timing is tight, but we have been talking about these issues for ten years or so and a good amount of work was done by a working party over several years that was subsequently discontinued.

We strongly urge that there be a further opportunity for the affected parties to respond prior to when legislation is drafted later this year, as proposed.

There is likely to be a formidable amount of operational detail to deal with. This will impact primarily on those fishers at sea but also could have significant implications for quota holders, ace fishers, licensed fish receivers, retailers and the regulator.

In some cases, different fishing methods or alterations to gear may be required.

These are complex matters and it is in everyone’s interest to have practical long-term solutions and a well-considered and agreed transition process.