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Being a regular fisherman over the last successive 25 years and earlier for several years in the 1970s for kahawai in Marlborough’s  Wairau River estuary and Diversion mouth, this summer has been the worst season ever.

The demise of kahawai around the northern end of the South Island is sadly very evident.

I can recall kahawai years ago in Marlborough’s Cloudy Bay and the Marlborough Sounds working in several shoals just offshore, easily identifiable by excited gulls overhead. To see the birds hovering above the feeding frenzy of fish today is a rarity. In the autumn in the 1970s, big kahawai shoals entered the Wairau River estuary. Those autumn ‘runs’ have gone.

Kahawai have been labelled “the family fish” because everyone from nine years of age to ninety used to be able to catch a kahawai or several at the river mouth.  Kahawai often formed the basis for a family meal in the evening. As a fish to dine on, they are very underrated but appreciated by those who know them.

The cause of the drastic decline in kahawai numbers is not hard to pinpoint. Big commercial companies have wrecked the resource. Purse seiners surround the shoals offshore and scoop the fish up in their hundreds or thousands. The plundered kahawai are reportedly sent to Australia for crayfish pot bait. Also according to a scientist I spoke to as I wrote this column, over the years kahawai have been sent to Canada as pet food and ground up for fish meal and at one stage were coloured orange and marketed as cheap salmon. Overall in export terms, it is a very low value fish.

But its recreational value is high and that has a potentially very high value to the economy. Read on.

The ruthless greed of the big corporate fishers is to blame but also culpable are  the Ministry bureaucrats and a succession of inept ministers of fisheries.   

Kahawai are a very important part of the ecosystem. A shoal of feeding kahawai, benefits several other species in the food chain. Gulls feed on scraps of bait fish which kahawai prey on. Kingfish are likely to feast on the kahawai. Below the surface activity, species such as snapper, tarakhi and others dine on the sinking scraps. Kahawai are an integral part of the food chain.

Kahawai are arguably, the number one recreational species to New Zealanders - a “family recreational fish” where everyone can have a ball at a river mouth fishing.

They are arguably the most spectacular sports fish especially on light tackle.  

I fish for them with fly fishing gear and they are superb sport. Overseas anglers especially saltwater fly fishers will travel the world to catch a sports fish. Bonefish for instance, draw US anglers to far flung places such as the Christmas Islands and the Indian Ocean’s Seychelles Islands. 

Kahawai could be New Zealand’s bonefish in the eyes of those wealthy US anglers. They could earn millions of dollars as a sports “tourist” fish and as Kiwi’s recreational fish.

The kahawai is an excellent eating fish- an important aspect given the excessive price of sea fish in shops such as snapper at $40 -$45 a kg. The New Zealand family can enjoy a feed of sea fish by catching a kahawai.

In recent years it has become recognised that recreational fishing is a substantial and significant industry in New Zealand. In 2014 the New Zealand Marine Research Foundation decided there should be a better understanding of the economic contribution that fishing-related recreation made at a national and regional level. A project was initiated and experienced international researchers Southwick Associates were engaged.

The value begins with recreational fishers’ spending, which totals about $946 million each year. That’s eye-opening but it‘s not the whole equation. The survey found those dollars then circulate through the national economy supporting 8,100 jobs and stimulating $1.7 billion per annum in total economic activity. 

Like other industries, the flow-on effect embraces firms who support fishers include retailers, boat builders, service stations, tackle manufacturers, suppliers, marinas, motels, restaurants, charters, media and more. They employ thousands of people who work hard to ensure the recreational fishing public can enjoy their day out on the water.

Unfortunately probably due to relentless pressure by corporate fishing companies on political parties and the ministry, government has favoured commercial interests.

Recreational fishing has been neglected.  Bureaucrats too often have overlooked the significant contributions generated by marine recreational fishers and of the economic value of kahawai, with sound management.

by Tony Orman

Footnote: Tony Orman is a Marlborough recreational fisherman and author of outdoor books and life member of the Marlborough Recreational Fishers’ Association.