A Fishy Tale, Part 1 – Reader Contribution: Landing The Big One (Jones Casts His Net)

Which fish will Shane Jones fry first?

In Maori mythology, Maui and his brothers went fishing. They hooked a whopper and hauled it to the surface – thus founding what we know today as the North Island of New Zealand – Te Ika a Maui.

Last night on Maori TV current affairs show Native Affairs, Shane Jones and a gentleman who could well be his ‘brother-in-arms’ went fishing too. Inside a number of waste bins outside a waste processing plant in Waikato. What they hooked wasn’t just one fish. Instead there were schools of them – and most alarmingly of all, they appeared to be whole, fresh and included some of the most expensive species you can find – such as snapper – in your local grocery store. They were there to be processed into fertilizer and animal food.

The bins belong to Progressive Enterprises, the Australian-owned company who run the Countdown Supermarket chain. Progressive and Countdown have been a target of Mr Jones and his Labour party for the past month, following allegations he made under Parliamentary Privilege about Countdown using intimidation and bullying tactics against NZ suppliers and producers to lower prices for their products on Countdown shelves.

Progressive confirmed they reject 0.2% of fresh whole fish per annum because they fail to pass industry-recognised safety standards.  But Mr Jones ‘brother-in-arms’ rejected that statement. With his own eyes he saw bins capable of holding up to 6 tonnes, full of whole fish. He put the wastage down to ‘inept management’.

That could very well be the case. Certainly there’s grounds to call for some form of scrutiny to be run over management practice of what is a food resource under pressure worldwide.

But that pressure is due to consumer demand and commercial fishing companies are trying to meet it by catching and supplying as much as they can. Supermarket chains owned by outfits like Progressive are the distributors. So where should the scrutiny in this matter focus on?

Obviously Progressive should take a closer look at their end of the supply chain and see if they can tighten up on ensuring less whole fish is rejected. Then again, surely it’s the suppliers role to try and get fish to the filleting bench as quickly as possible in order to beat the rejection deadline?

It’s a difficult question to answer. Just as difficult as the underlying and unasked question on Native Affairs last night – was the alleged ‘dumping’ impacting on pricing in stores? When snapper is sold at almost $40 a kilo you have to wonder.

But that question was never answered – and right now it probably can’t be. Nor will it. Because to do so could have New Zealanders fishing for answers – and possibly pulling up some extremely uncomfortable ones. 

For example, a question was put to Shane Jones on the Native Affairs live studio panel last night about whether or not commercial fishing company Sealord are supplying fish to Progressive. Sealord are owned by Aotearoa Fisheries Ltd (AFL), who quite rightly proudly call themselves, “…the largest Maori owned fishing company in Aotearoa/New Zealand.” (http://www.afl.maori.nz )

AFL are a product of a settlement of an historical claim brought by Maori against the Crown who were found to have eroded Maori control and stewardship of their customary inshore and coastal fisheries. 

To resolve this grievance, in 1989 an interim agreement was reached. The Crown transferred 10 percent of New Zealand’s fishing quota (some 60,000 tonnes), together with shareholdings in fishing companies and $50 million in cash, to the Waitangi Fisheries Commission. This commission was responsible for holding the fisheries assets on behalf of Māori until an agreement was reached as to how the assets were to be shared among tribes. In 1992, a second part of the deal, referred to as the Sealord deal, marked full and final settlement of Māori commercial fishing claims under the Treaty of Waitangi. This included 50% of Sealord Fisheries and 20% of all new species brought under the quota system, more shares in fishing companies, and $18 million in cash. In total it was worth around $170 million. (see ‘Sealord’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Waitangi_claims_and_settlements )

In 2000 Shane Jones was appointed to the Waitangi Fisheries Commission as a Commissioner.

In 2003, agreement was reached as to how the assets would be shared. Over 90% of tribes agreed with a proposal that held 50% of assets centrally and allocated the rest directly to tribes based on coastline length and tribal populations. ( http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/fishing-industry/page-7 )

In 2004 a governance body, Te Ohu Kaimoana, was set up to oversee all Māori commercial fishing settlement assets. Shane Jones was appointed as Chairman of Te Ohu Kaimoana. (http://beehive.govt.nz/release/commissioners-appointed-treaty-waitangi-fisheries-commission )

Since 1992 the value of these assets had tripled in value, to around $750 million in 2004. About $350 million, representing around a third of New Zealand’s commercial fishing industry, was to be administered under a company called Aotearoa Fisheries. ( http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/fishing-industry/page-7 )

In 2005 Shane Jones entered Parliament as a Labour List MP. He did not relinquish the Chair of Te Ohu Kaimoana until 2007. The unusual situation of an MP holding a senior position on a governance board responsible for almost $1 billion in assets raised a lot of questions in Parliament. (http://www.parliament.nz/en-nz/pb/business/qoa/48HansQ_20060906_00000784/12-te-ohu-kai-moana%E2%80%94appointment-of-directors )

 During his tenure as Chairman of Te Ohu Kaimoana Jones was also appointed as chairman of Sealord. Questions in Parliament to then Minister of Maori Affairs reveal it was felt necessary Jones hold that position because he was involved in commercial partnership negotiations between Sealord and Japanese commercial fishing company Nissui.

That relationship has been beneficial for Maori tribes down the years. But last year a failed investment project in Argentina saw AFL earnings plunge by $23 million while Sealord recorded a $36.54 million loss for the financial year.

It is more than likely Sealord and other AFL fishing companies are supplying fish to all supermarket chains, including those owned by Progressive. Will scrutiny be cast on suppliers like AFL and Sealord? Will Mr Jones cast light on their operating practices? Last night on Native Affairs he mentioned in passing, the allegations he made in Parliament against Countdown. He also said it was likely he would raise more issues in Parliament over this fishy affair. Will it shine the light on the commercial fishing industry he helped build? You may have to go trawling in very deep and murky waters for that.