Fishermen face prosecution over observers

Two southern fishermen are being taken to court by the Ministry of Fisheries for not allowing observers on board their boats last summer.

If convicted, the skippers face a maximum $250,000 fine and forfeiture of their vessel.

One of the fishermen is Steve Little, Port Chalmers Fishermen's Co-operative president, and the other, is believed to be Bluff fisherman John Young.

Early this year, the ministry instructed inshore fishermen around the South Island and west coast of the North Island to take observers on board as part of a programme to assess whether regulations announced last year to protect endangered Hector's and Maui dolphins have been effective and what impact commercial fishing is having on the mammals.

Many fishermen protested what they called the "heavy handed" approach from the ministry and safety concerns about taking an observer on board.

Some refused to carry the observers.

Dunedin district compliance manager Murray Pridham said it was an offence to fail to comply with a notice from the ministry requiring them to take an observer.

The ministry had "seized" the two fishermen's vessels, but at the skippers' requests, had "bonded them back", until the outcome of the court case.

The bond allowed the skippers to continue fishing.

Charges had been filed in the Dunedin and Invercargill district courts, he said.

No date had been set for the Dunedin case, but the Invercargill case could be heard on July 31.

Mr Little said the threat of prosecution was why "a lot of guys didn't stand up.

"They were afraid this exact thing would happen".

A maximum $250,000 fine could "wipe out" a fisherman's business, he said.

He was concerned at the repercussions the court action could have, but was "confident" he had a good case.

The case would highlight the lack of collaboration between the ministry and the fishermen as well as safety concerns about having a less experienced person on board and concerns about smaller boats not being surveyed to take an extra person on board, Mr Little said.

"They've frittered away a lot of money with the way they have done this survey, by not talking to the people that matter the most - the guys out catching the fish."

Federation of Commercial Fishermen chief executive Peter Dawson said the ministry's move to prosecute was "bloody minded" given the letters instructing fishermen to take observers failed to explain fishermen's rights or address safety concerns.

"As a consequence [these fishermen] stuck to their guns and face getting a criminal conviction."

Observers spent 963 days at sea and did not see a Hector's dolphin death, yet the ministry was going ahead with prosecutions, he said.

All it did was raise the levels of antagonism between the ministry and fishermen and put fishermen already facing hard times in an even tougher position.

"Education is far better than putting the boot in."

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