How I lost the taste for fish

by | Nov 25, 2021 | Opinion

A year ago I lost my taste for seafood.

That’s disappointing because I love kai moana. I love fresh oysters delivered on a bed of shaved ice. I love a crispy snapper fillet fried on a campfire and served with a squeeze of lemon. I like the camaraderie of fishing – it’s a leveler, where a guy in a tinny will have as much fun as a titan in a launch. I love the ocean. I got my PADI at age 15 and still have the shark books from my childhood.

There are a million reasons to love seafood. But for me they’re no longer enough.

It started this time last year. I was lucky to do some work with The Noises Marine Restoration Project, a consortium of interests including the Neureuter family, iwi, the Auckland Museum and the University of Auckland. The islands are in the heart of the Hauraki Gulf Tīkapa Moana Te Moananui-ā-Toi and hold the honour of being the first predator-free islands in New Zealand, possibly the world. The main island Ōtata has remnants of an ancient pohutukawa forest and is home to wetapunga, native bees, rare geckos, a spotted shag colony and other important seabirds. The islands are a testament to what can be achieved by decades of careful and loving conservation.

The seas surrounding the Noises are a different story. Here the kelp forests have turned into kina barrens and the mussel beds that once covered the rocks are now just little tufts, as if the seabed’s suffering from alopecia.

Auckland University has conducted marine surveys around the islands and confirm what the Neureuters have been saying for years: the seas are suffering from ‘alarming degradation’. The surveys show ‘low density of legal-sized reef fish, with reef fish biodiversity assessed as low-to-moderate … and very low tipa/scallop density, with only 31 legal-sized individuals encountered over a square kilometre. Despite high quality habitat for kōura/crayfish and extensive searches, only three were observed, and all were below legal size.’

The Noises are a microcosm of a Gulf in freefall. Last year the State of Gulf 2020 report shocked everyone but surprised no one with its damning assessment of the Gulf’s marine ecosystem. Since human arrival there’s been a 100% drop in green lipped mussels, 100% drop in seals and sea lions, 97% drop in dolphins and whales, 86% drop in sharks, 83% drop in snapper, 67% drop in seabirds. Crayfish are ‘functionally extinct’.



Source: The State of our Gulf 2020, Hauraki Gulf Forum


Some of that is due to pollution. Some to sedimentation. Mostly it’s fishing, more than half of which is estimated to be recreational. The commercial fishers, having done their best, have abandoned the Gulf for bluer pastures.

Every summer weekend, a flotilla of powerboats heads out to drop lines and nets followed each night by a rogues’ gallery Facebook posts showing chilly bins bursting with shiny fish and proud kids holding up their catch. Stand on top of Mt Victoria on a sunny weekend day and you’ll count hundreds of white dots, bobbing, waiting to catch their fair share, asserting their right to fish 4eva.

Snorkeling around The Noises is disheartening. It’s like flying over a desert. It’s supposed to be teeming with fish darting around the kelp, with seabirds divebombing from overhead and rays gliding through the gaps. Most people never put their heads below the surface so they don’t see the wasteland the Gulf has become.


Snapper populations as reported in ‘State of our Gulf 2020’


The story is repeated wherever boating is popular. Along the North Island’s east coast and in the top of the South Island, kina barrens are prolific. Similar declines in biomass are reported.

It barely needs mentioning that New Zealand’s oceans are a microcosm of a worldwide catastrophe. A comprehensive study released this year by Australian think-tank Minderoo found that ‘of the 1,465 stocks assessed, almost half have been depleted to less than 40% of their pre-fishing population – our definition of ‘overfished’. Additionally, nearly 1 in 10 have been driven to collapse.’

I could go on. I could talk about the discovery that microplastics are now found everywhere, even in the deepest ocean trenches and, disturbingly, in the stomachs of 95% of hoki from the West Coast of the South Island, Cook Strait and the Chatham Rise. In case you think that’s no problem NIWA’s Northland Marine Research Centre found snapper fed a higher concentration of polystyrene were more likely to have microplastic in their white muscle tissue. Mmmmm tasty.

I could talk about the extraordinary levels of exploitation that happens in the fishing industry (including slavery) or the brutality of bottom trawling. Bottom trawling is mind-blowing in its barbarity. Nothing like it on land would be tolerated.

But out of sight, out of mind, right?


I’ll have the schnitzel, thanks

When I see John Dory on the menu I feel like repeating the words of economist John Maynard Keynes: ‘when the facts change, I change my mind, what do you do?’

For me it’s easy: order the chops, not the chowder.

The answer to overfishing is to stop fishing. When it became obvious that cigarettes killed us, most of us did the sensible thing. When we realised that smacking our kids did more harm than good, we stopped. When our native forests reached catastrophically low levels, we ceased logging. It’s unimaginable that you could walk out of the bush with a dead kiwi under your arm. Or that you hold up a dolphin as a trophy shot for Facebook. What makes killing a kingi any different?

When we stop catching fish, the results can be profound. The experience of the marine reserves around New Zealand is that ecosystems can recover when left alone. The Goat Island Marine Reserve was established in 1975 (one of the first in the world) and has been studied by Leigh Marine Laboratory ever since. Despite the reserve’s inadequate size and cynical positioning of craypots on the perimeter, research unequivocally points to a system that can recover if given the chance. But it takes time.

Talking to RNZ, marine scientist Nick Shears says the numbers of snapper and crayfish increased at Goat Island in the first five to 10 years, but it took another 10 to 15 years for those predators to reduce the number of kina. At places like Long Island-Kokomohua Marine Reserve in the Queen Charlotte Sound, Shears says densities of kina were so high it could take several more decades for the barrens to recover.

In the Horoirangi Marine Reserve, near Nelson in Tasman Bay, parts of the reserve are still dominated by kina barrens despite the area being protected for 15 years. The 904 hectare reserve was created in 2006 and Shears said it could take decades to see regeneration of seaweed and kelp.

Source: RNZ

“We live in a system that’s been fished very heavily for 70 years and so the current abundances of predators are a tiny fraction of what they would have been naturally and it’s been like that for a long time. So in some cases, in a reserve, over time, you can protect those predators and restore that balance but it does take a long time.”

There are many exciting experiments going on with Marine Protected Areas in New Zealand ranging from local rahui to a major plan called Revitalising the Gulf that could see almost 6% of the Gulf in various kinds of marine protection. That’s miles off the 30% being asked for by conservationists and the public, but it’s a start and, gratifyingly, it includes a proposal for an approximately 60 square kilometre protection area around the Noises. Great!

Even if they are partially protective, MPAs work to restore ecosystems and act as pumps for the surrounding areas.

But do you know what works even better? Stopping altogether. A global meta-study of MPAs showed that ‘no-take’ areas have 670% more fish biomass than unprotected areas and 343% more biomass than partial protection. By comparison, in the partially protected MPAs ‘often it was not different from unprotected areas.’

If we want to help our oceans, then it’s really, really simple: stop eating fish.

Yes but what about …

Our minds play tricks and as I write my head is spinning with ‘yes but what about ..’ questions. What about sustainably harvested fish from companies that give a damn? What about farmed salmon from Twizel (you bought one this summer, Vincent). What about mussels from iwi-owned, deep-water farms in the Bay of Plenty? What about skipjack tuna that’s made a stellar recovery thanks to international cooperation. What about mana moana who have a customary right to catch and eat? Who are you to tell them what to do? To tell anyone what to do?

Who am I, indeed. No one important or well qualified, that’s for sure. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be running a series on sustainable kai moana written by people more qualified and experienced to speak on the subject. I’m looking forward to learning more and maybe changing my mind.

But having dipped my head below the surface, even just a little, I’ve lost my taste for it.




About the Author

Vincent Heeringa

Hi, I'm Vincent! I'm a co-founder of The Feed, a writer, marketer and PR expert specialising in food, tech and sustainability. In a previous life I was publisher of Idealog, Stoppress, NZ Marketing and Good magazines and helped establish the Science Media Centre. I'm also the host of a podcast ‘This Climate Business’. When I'm not burning the midnight oil, I'm hitting the town or planting trees with my wife Sarah. Ping me to talk about all things food. @vheeringa

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