BY JANET ROTH
AUCKLAND, New Zealand - On December 23 last year, fisherman John Hikuwai landed 7.7 tons of snapper, claiming this was legal under Maori customary fishing rights.
A storm of controversy raged nationally in the weeks following. Spokespeople for the government parties, National and New Zealand First, as well as the right-wing party ACT, the opposition Labour Party, and representatives of commercial fishing interests, led the charge in calling for the government to limit customary fishing by Maori.
Hikuwai is the skipper of a hired boat, the James O'Brien, one of six vessels registered with the Confederation of Chiefs of the United Tribes of New Zealand. His catch was distributed to marae (tribal meeting places) in Auckland and Northland in exchange for a donation, usually cash. Legally, fish caught for customary purposes cannot be sold.
He and the confederation have stood firm in defending their actions. "As Maori we have a right to survive off the sea, especially coastal tribes. There is no way people can stop us making a living from the sea," Hikuwai said. "It's about our birthright to use and protect what is ours, our assets. Tino rangitiratanga [Maori sovereignty] over our whenua [land], our peoples, our kaimoana [seafood].. everything."
The confederation announced that the James O'Brien was continuing fishing and that further large quantities of fish would be available for distribution to marae.
On January 19 the Ministry of Fisheries seized the James O'Brien. The next day the government announced new interim rules to crack down on Maori exercising their customary fishing rights.
Hikuwai argued that the vessel was operating within the law and accused the ministry of "piracy and high treason in seizing the boat."
All commercial fishing is governed by a quota system, which determines how much fish and what species each company or independent operator is entitled to catch. Introduced in 1986, quotas were allocated according to previous catch records. This favored the biggest companies and left many small fishers with quotas too small to live on. Thousands were driven out of the industry. Those left mostly buy or lease quotas from the big companies in return for selling their fish exclusively to that company.
In 1992 the government brought in new legislation following what is known as the Sealords deal, in which Maori tribal authorities gave up all claims to ownership of commercial fisheries. In exchange, in a one-off settlement, they were given fishing quota, major shares in fishing companies, and cash. This deal has been an ongoing source of debate, over how the settlement is allocated and the character of the settlement itself.
Under this agreement, regulations governing noncommercial customary fishing by Maori were to be implemented also, following further negotiations. The government has now formulated regulations, which it is pushing to have introduced by the end of April.
These regulations will require anyone who wants to collect fish or seafood under customary rights to apply in writing in advance for permission from an especially appointed guardian. Any permit granted would state exactly what could be collected, where, and by whom, and the catch could not be sold. The Ministry of Fisheries say they will enforce the regulations and prosecute those who breach these rules.
A number of tribal authorities have signed up to the regulations, while others are calling for further negotiations because they claim that Maori, not the government's fisheries ministry, have the right to manage and enforce customary fishing. They also want the right to control all fishing - not just customary - in areas set aside as special Maori reserves. Negotiations broke down at the end of 1997.
The Ministry of Fisheries tried to prosecute Hikuwai and another confederation fisherman last year, but failed because of the lack of rules on customary fishing.
The quota system and limits on customary fishing are portrayed as necessary to conserve fish stocks. In reality, as fishing has become a major capitalist export industry over the past decade, the needs of the major companies are put ahead of preservation of the resource.
Last year representatives of the fishing industry succeeded in preventing the government from cutting the snapper quota by 40 percent, despite a dramatic drop in the number left of this species. Fishing boats regularly dump species they catch for which they do not hold a quota.
Calling for regulations to limit Maori customary fishing, the chairman of the Auckland Inshore Commercial Fishermen's Association, Maurice Ashby, claimed, "If this situation is allowed to continue, with Maori taking as much fish as they want when they want, then the quota management system no longer has any integrity."
The New Zealand Herald editors fumed, "The country now pays for the government's lack of intestinal fortitude in resolving the controversial issue of Maori customary fishing rights."
Hikuwai explained, however, "What we have been taking is nowhere near what those with quotas and the black marketeers have. A few tons might sound like a lot, but once you divide it up among the [confederation] members in the North Island, it does not really go that far at all."
Hikuwai has called for the whole quota system to be scrapped because it is unfair to Maori.
In another challenge, supporters of customary fishing rights set up a refrigerated trailer in the Northland town of Kaeo from which residents could give a cash donation in exchange for fish. The Ministry of Fisheries immediately confiscated the trailer and arrested a confederation fisherman, John Ututaonga, for obstruction.
"We are not going to stop," explained Ututaonga. "It is survival time. Everything in the sea is being killed. It is the commercial sector that is raping and killing. We only take for our needs. We want to feed our own people."
Confederation supporters have pointed to the importance of fish being made available to Maori on a donation basis because of the high unemployment in Northland, where the confederation is based.
Northland, with a large Maori population, has the second- highest unemployment rate for any region in the country. Nationally, the unemployment rate for Maori is 18.2 percent compared to 4.5 percent for white New Zealanders.
A January 22 meeting of Northland tribal representatives, which was called to discuss the confederation's activities, appointed a negotiator to restart talks with the government on customary fishing regulations. The confederation rejected this and said it would continue fishing as it had been.
Meanwhile, Maori on the East Coast are occupying land at Lake Waikaremoana and at Waimana, outside the Urewera National Park, in protest against the Department of Conservation's administration of the areas. This includes its lack of protection of native birds and use of a pesticide called 1080 poison.
Six of the Waimana protesters were arrested on January 20 on charges they were blocking a bridge.
Janet Roth is a member of the Service and Food Workers
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