A ban on scallop dredging off the Coromandel coast has sparked fears commercial operators will switch their operations closer to the Mahurangi coast, with potentially devastating consequences for recreational fishing, tourism and businesses generally.
Warkworth Gamefishing Club and Warkworth-based diving shop, New Zealand Diving, is currently alerting interested local groups and businesses to the dangers and urging them to band together to oppose the dredging.
The fears come after Fisheries Minister David Parker endorsed a voluntary rahui and banned scallop harvesting on the eastern Coromandel earlier this month, after widespread concern that dredging operations had devastated both the scallop beds and the wider marine environment.
New Zealand Diving owner Neil Bennett says dredging involves dragging a net across the sea floor, which scoops up not just the scallops, but also things like seaweed, mussels, crabs, crustaceans and invertebrates, much of it food for larger fish species.
“Basically, the whole ocean bed where they dredge becomes barren. It destroys everything,” he says.
“Most other places in the world have banned dredging but in New Zealand it is still going on.”
Mr Bennett says the Mahurangi area is a major recreational fishing destination and the negative impact of dredging on tourism and business generally will be huge. He estimates about 70 per cent of his own customers are interested in diving for scallops.
“We are already suffering from the loss of crayfish, now we are destined to lose our scallops. Once we lose them, it’s another nail in the coffin for tourism in Rodney,” he says.
Mr Bennett’s views are echoed by LegaSea – an organisation dedicated to restoring New Zealand’s marine environment.
LegaSea spokesperson Sam Woolford says while commercial fishers can no longer fish off Coromandel, there has been no reduction in the 50-tonne quota they are allowed to take from the Hauraki Gulf as a whole.
“So, the outcome of closing down any part of the commercial fishing area is that all the pressure will be transferred somewhere else. In this situation, scallop beds off Omaha, Little Barrier and Great Barrier Island will receive the bulk of that pressure,” he says.
To indicate what that pressure will likely look like, LegaSea secured a dredging map from Fisheries New Zealand under the Official Information Act. The map shows there were 3829 dredges off the east coast of the Coromandel (area 2L) from July 2019 to December 2020 compared with 2327 in areas off the coast of Omaha, Little Barrier and Great Barrier Island (2R and 2S), suggesting dredging operations will likely more than double in these latter areas.
Mr Woolford adds that the fishing quota is also far too high and the dredging technique has not only wreaked havoc in Coromandel, it has also closed other fisheries, such as in the Marlborough Sounds.
“If dredging is not banned in all the Hauraki Gulf then Omaha, Great Barrier and Little Barrier will be desecrated,” he says.
But these concerns are not shared by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), which says adequate protections are in place.
Fisheries management director Emma Taylor says Fisheries New Zealand (a division of MPI) does not believe that closing the east Coromandel scallop fishery will necessarily cause an increase in the scallop harvesting off the coast of Omaha, Little Barrier and Great Barrier Island.
She says there are also a range of restrictions for this fishery, including bans on commercial fishing in key recreational scallop areas and a limited commercial fishing season.
“As part of our management of scallops we closely monitor where and when fishing occurs and respond to any changes in catch,” she says.
Ms Taylor acknowledges dredging can “impact” communities of sea creatures and plants on the seafloor, but dredging within Coromandel Scallop Fishery (known as the SCA CS, which includes the Hauraki Gulf, Coromandel and Bay of Plenty), is confined to small areas. In the 2020-21 fishing year, the dredge footprint within the SCA CS was estimated to be 3.8 square km out of a total SCA CS area of 17,017 square km.
Ms Taylor says the Government’s Revitalising the Gulf action plan released in June this year proposes banning recreational dredging, freezing the footprint of commercial scallop dredging to existing areas and facilitating the transition to alternative commercial harvesting methods for scallops.
But the Revitalising the Gulf action plan does not go far enough for Warkworth Gamefishing Club spokesperson Terry Creagh, who reiterates that any dredging devastates the sea bottom and the fish species that live there.
Mr Creagh, who is also a delegate on the New Zealand Sport Fishing Council, says the council will be lobbying Fisheries Minister David Parker to ban all dredging in the Hauraki Gulf.
Anyone interested in learning more about the anti-dredging campaign should email Terry Creagh at email@example.com