The Press Council has not upheld a complaint by the New Zealand Seafood Industry Council against North & South over an article about Antarctic toothfish.

North & South magazine published an article in its July 2010 issue, Fish out of water: Hypocrisy on the High Seas discussing the commercial fishing of Antarctic toothfish in the Ross Sea. The article argued that not enough was known about the impact of fishing either on the species or on the marine environment and raised questions about the decision to fish there.

The Complaint
The New Zealand Seafood Industry Council (SeaFIC) complained to the Press Council that the article was unfair and unbalanced and contained omissions, inaccuracies and serious distortions. NZSFIC listed 16 specific instances. These claims can be grouped as follows:

It claimed the article was inaccurate in claiming little was known about the juvenile toothfish and challenged the ages given for sexual maturity and life expectancy. SeaFIC pointed to research supporting its point of view.

It rejected figures quoted for the size of the average annual catch and the number of vessels involved, providing figures from the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) for each season between 1996/97 and 2009/10.

It rejected the statement that CCAMLR did not seek the views of a scientist who had been studying the toothfish for 50 years and had dismissed his research. It said the scientist concerned had presented a paper to a 2008 meeting of a CCAMLR working group, which had found inconsistencies and asked for more information.

It challenged the view presented in the article that little was known about the impact of fishing on the marine environment and on the toothfish species and cited a number of papers presented to CCAMLR on ecosystem monitoring and management.

It rejected the article’s criticism of the management of the fishery, saying that CCAMLR operated a phased development of a new fishery in the Ross Sea with annual notification, a research plan, annually submitted research and fishery data and regular review of data.

It disputed the claim that there were CCAMLR observers on board the fishing boat the Paloma V while it was operating illegally in Antarctica. It said the vessel was flagged in Sierra Leone not Namibia as reported.

It claimed the magazine misreported a statement by container shipping company Maersk about transporting Antarctic toothfish from New Zealand.

It disputed that overfishing had caused the collapse of Canada’s cod fishery, saying it was considered to be a victim of regional employment policy.

In more general comments, SeaFIC said the article misused research data and other information to misrepresent the level of management, research and control in place for the Antarctic toothfish fishery. The article was not executed in good faith and ‘unjustifiably vilified fisheries scientists, agencies and New Zealand fishing companies’.

SeaFIC also challenged the magazine’s choice of photographs in the use of pictures of an Australian customs vessel tackling boats fishing illegally in the South Atlantic, rather than the Ross Sea.

The Magazine’s Response
North & South editor Virginia Larson did not accept the article was biased, unbalanced or inaccurate. She said the article was carefully researched and represented a wide range of scientific and expert viewpoints. The writer had extensive information and source material and had conducted interviews with more than 20 people. These included representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Ministry of Fisheries, NIWA, Antarctica New Zealand, Sealord and the Seafood Industry Council (the complainant).

She said the story was not about the New Zealand fishing industry in general, or how it compared internationally in its fish stock management, but was about a specific fishery – the Antarctic toothfish and the Ross Sea. The story dealt with fishing in the world’s most pristine ocean, which was an issue of international concern.

The magazine responded point by point, citing its sources, to the 16 points initially outlined by SeaFIC.

On the issue of whether a juvenile toothfish had been discovered, the magazine cited research prepared for CCAMLR in 2007 and a submission to the Marine Stewardship Council in 2008. On the question of the age of sexual maturity, it cited an interview with a NIWA principal scientist. On the life expectancy of a toothfish the magazine cited four scientific papers.

To back its assertion that ships take more than 3000 tonnes of toothfish each year, the magazine provided figures from a 2009 CCAMLR fishery report and it also cited a NIWA document prepared for CCAMLR in 2007. It said the same report backed its view that the numbers of fishing boats had increased to more than 20.

The magazine said CCAMLR did not seek the views of a scientist who had been conducting long-term research on the toothfish. The scientist had submitted a paper to a working group, which had dismissed his research as unscientific and incomplete.

The magazine made reference to an interview and a statement by New Zealand’s Minister of Foreign Affairs to support its claim that the Paloma V was a Namibian-flagged vessel. As to whether there was a CCAMLR observer on board it cited an interview with New Zealand’s CCAMLR commissioner.

North & South quoted from a Maersk press statement to back its report that the company was reviewing its practice of transporting toothfish from New Zealand.

The complaint by NZSFIC is broad, challenging the magazine on its facts, on the people it interviewed and industry viewpoints it failed to express. Its complaint is a defence of what it says is a well-managed ‘exploratory’ fishery where careful reporting and scientific research is part of the process.

SeaFIC and North & South have presented scientific and other material to back their claims – for example, we have different views on what is a juvenile fish, age at sexual maturity and life expectancy. When it comes to figures, both sides interpret annual tonnages provided by CCALMLR to arrive at different results.

SeaFIC claims the writer shows bias and lack of balance; North & South has provided a list of 18 people whose views contributed to the article, including a representative of SeaFIC.

In considering this complaint, the Press Council will not attempt to determine the points in contention one by one. The Council cannot arbitrate between scientists over what is happening to the toothfish or the Ross Sea – and cannot be expected to rule on accuracy about what age a toothfish dies.

It is clear, however, that no one yet knows the likely impact of the fishing. The Ross Sea fishery is still classed as exploratory 14 years after fishing began in 1996 and, according to information supplied in SeaFIC’s complaint, the fishery will remain exploratory because it is not allowed to expand faster than the information needed to manage it can be collected.

This tends to support one of the main arguments of the article that there are gaps in the knowledge about the toothfish and the impact of fishing: “we go in and fish, do some science afterwards and hope we haven’t made an irretrievable mess in the interim”. This view doesn’t seem that far removed from the explanation of the process by CCAMLR itself: “the conservation measure that the Commission has implemented for exploratory fisheries allows for continued regulation of the fishery while the scientific information required for a full assessment of the fishery and stock(s) concerned is being collected”.

There is clear disagreement on whether there were CCAMLR observers on board the Paloma V when it was operating illegally but the Press Council accepts that the magazine relied on the view of New Zealand’s CCAMLR commissioner.

As to whether CCAMLR dismissed the views of a scientist doing long-term toothfish research, material supplied by SeaFIC itself supports the statement by the magazine. On the statement by Maersk, the article is also supported by material supplied by SeaFIC that the company is reviewing its practice of shipping toothfish. References to overfishing off the California coast and to the collapse of Canada’s cod fishery are fair comment in the context of the article. On the choice of photographs, the pictures showing Australian Customs at work in Antarctic waters are suitable in the context.

SeaFIC is concerned to defend New Zealand’s fishing industry’s good international record of fisheries management. North & South, however, is entitled to challenge the practice of fishing in the Ross Sea and to ask questions. The Press Council considers that the magazine took a conscientious approach and canvassed a wide variety of viewpoints, including those of the industry and agencies responsible for managing and reporting on the fishery.

The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan, and Stephen Stewart.


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