New Zealand’s commercial fishing sector has changed significantly over the last 40 years. Up to the 1970s, the domestic industry was almost entirely made up of relatively small inshore vessels, manned by owner-operators under a licence system. The country’s offshore waters were being fished by overseas vessels coming from nations such as Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Russia. The declaration of the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in 1977, followed by the property-rights-based Quota Management System (QMS) in 1986, fundamentally changed the sector. 

A comprehensive Fisheries Report (Report) that looked into the role of commercial fishing to the New Zealand economy was produced by BERL in 2017. 4467 The Report can be viewed here

The Report concluded that in the five years to 2015, commercial fishing provided:

  • a direct output value of $1,727 million and a total output value of $4,179 million;
  • a direct contribution to gross domestic product (GDP) of $544 million and a total GDP contribution of $1,609 million, being 0.7% of New Zealand GDP,
  • direct employment of 4,305 full time equivalents (FTEs) and total employment of 13,468 FTEs, being 0.7% of NZ employment;
  • and exports of $1,500 million, being New Zealand’s fifth largest export commodity by value and representing 3.2 percent of total exports

The Report also highlighted the commercial fishing industry is made up of:

  • 1,178 commercial fishing vessels registered in New Zealand and 239 licensed fish recievers and procesors;
  • 309 enterprises engaged in the Fish Trawling, Seining and Netting industry, 348 in the Line Fishing industry, 366 in Other Fishing enterprises, and 246 enterprises in the Rock Lobster and Crab Potting industry;
  • 2,200 individuals and companies own quota as part of the QMS, and this quota is estimated to be worth $3.5 billion; and
  • Te Ohu Kai Moana Trustee Limited, Sanford Limited, Aotearoa Fisheries Limited, Sealord Limited, Talley’s Fisheries Limited and Ngai Tahu Fisheries Settlement Limited who are companies/organisations with large quota ownership in inshore finfish stocks.

Commercial fishers target well over one hundred different wild species, which include finfish, squid, shellfish, lobster, crabs, sharks, sea cucumbers and seaweeds. Each year approximately 450,000 tonnes of wild fish are harvested under the QMS. The export value of this harvest ranges from $1.2 to $1.5 billion per year. The most valuable species is live rock lobster, with $302 million worth exported in the March 2016 year, followed by frozen hoki ($205 million). In terms of tonnage, the highest is hoki with an average of 137, 672 tonnes caught between 2010 and 2015 followed by Southern Blue Whiting (33,175 tonnes) and arrow squid (25,702 tonnes). 4468

There are four main types of commercial fisheries within New Zealand’s waters: 4469

  • Inshore (coastal) fisheries – these are located out to the edge of the continental shelf in relatively shallow waters up to 200 metres deep. They target a wide range of species such as paua, rock lobster, snapper, tarakihi, scallops, red cod and flatfish;
  • Deep-water fisheries – these are located within the deeper waters of the EEZ and include many of the commercially important species such as squid, hoki, orange roughy, ling and hake;
  • Highly Migratory Species (HMS) fisheries – these are target species that travel into and beyond New Zealand’s waters such as tunas and swordfish; and
  • Shellfish fisheries – these are located near the shore and target rock lobster and paua.

The Report highlighted that in the five years to 2015 on average:

  • Inshore fishing produced a total output value of $1,197 million, total contribution to GDP of $460 million and total employment of 3,861 FTEs
  • Deepwater fishing produced a total output value of $1,762 million, total contribution to GDP of $679 million and total employment of 5,679 FTEs
  • HMS produced a total output value of $197 million, total contribution to GDP of $76 million and total employment of 637 FTEs
  • Shellfish produced a total output value of $1,022 million, total contribution to GDP of $394 million and total employment of 3,291 FTEs

Coastal fishing occurs all around New Zealand, including around the Chatham Islands, with varying importance regionally and with differences in catch and method importance depending on area. There are ten fishing management areas. 

Much of the deepwater commercial fishing effort is concentrated off the South Island. From 2010 to 2015 the Challenger area (top of the South Island) had the largest average catch of 104,000 tonnes, followed by the South East Coast (66,000 tonnes) and the Sub-Antartic area (60,456 tonnes). The largest catch for a North Island area was 39,000 tonnes caught in Auckland East. 4470

Coral (Credit: Raewyn Peart)

In terms of industry structure, Seafood New Zealand provides overarching representation of the commercial fishing sector. It provides economic information and advice to the sector, co-ordinates industry resources, and seeks to enhance the industry's profile in the community. Currently, most commercial fisheries in New Zealand are represented under four sector representative entities, which are (in alphabetical order):

  • Aquaculture New Zealand
  • Deepwater Group Limited
  • Fisheries Inshore New Zealand Limited
  • Paua Industry Council Limited
  • Rock Lobster Industry Council

A wide range of methods are used to harvest seafood, which are described below. Each has different impacts on the marine environment, and these are of varying significance, depending on the location and intensity of the activity.

Collecting and diving

Divers gather kina and paua by hand for commercial sale. Cockles are harvested by hand using mechanical digging and raking.

Squid jigging

Jigging for squid involves using powerful lights, which illuminate seawater at night, and attract the prey of and the squid themselves to the area under the boat. Lures are attached at short intervals along lengths of line that are dropped over the side of the fishing boat. The lures are ‘jigged’ up and down by mechanically operated pulleys. These entice the squid which are caught on the hooks and hauled onboard.

Trapping and potting

Pots and traps are used to catch rock lobster, blue cod, octopus and crabs. They are usually constructed from steel mesh. A baited pot is lowered to the sea floor and connected by a line and float. The targeted species are attracted to the bait and enter the pot or trap. Once inside they are unable to escape. The pots are lifted by winch back onto the boat and the catch removed.


Trolling is mainly used to catch species such as tuna and yellowtail kingfish. A boat slowly drags a set of hooked lures through the water. Weights can be attached to the lines so that they sink in order to target fish at lower depths.

Long lining

Long lining is used to catch a number of species, including:

  • High value inshore species such as snapper and groper
  • Deeper living species such as ling and bluenose
  • Migratory species such as yellowfin and southern bluefin tuna

Long lining involves setting a long main line, which has numerous branch lines or snoods connected to it, each containing a baited hook. Long lining can be used to target fish near the surface, in mid-water or on the bottom. Long lines (between 80 to 150 metres deep) are used to target tuna and other large schooling and migratory species. They can be many kilometres long and each line can have thousands of hooks. Surface long lines are held up by a series of floats. The line is gradually let out as the fishing boat slowly moves ahead. The entire process of setting and hauling in a surface long line can take up to 12 hours. Bottom long lines are used to target the likes of ling, snapper, hapuku, bluenose and school shark. They are shorter than the surface lines and are attached to the sea floor with an anchor at one end and a weight at the other. The lines are left on the bottom for between six and 12 hours and are then hauled in. The number of hooks may range from 1000 to 30,000 per day.

Gill netting

Gill nets are used to catch a variety of inshore fish including flounder, rig shark, elephant fish, butterfish and grey mullet. The nets are normally narrow with the bottom weighted down and the top held up with floats. Driftnets are left to drift in water currents and are usually set at or near the water surface. Set nets are anchored to the seafloor and are usually set near the bottom. The net effectively forms a wall in the water which fish swim into and get caught, often by their gills. Using a net with a large mesh size can help avoid small fish being caught. 

Purse Seining

Seining is a method where a net is used to encircle fish and capture them. Purse seining is used to catch fish that feed on the surface such as tuna, trevally, kahawai and mackerel. When a school of fish has been sighted from the main fishing vessel, a small boat is launched which tows one end of the net around the school to encircle the fish. Ropes at the bottom of the net are drawn in (pursed) to completely enclose the fish. The net is then pulled close to the larger boat and the fish are scooped or pumped into the hold. 

Beach and Danish seining

Other variants of seining are beach seining and Danish seining. Beach seining, also called drag netting, is used to target mullet, flatfish, snapper, trevally and crabs. The beach seining net has long ropes attached to each end. One of the ropes is left on the beach and the net is then extended out into the sea and brought around in a semi-circle until the other rope reaches further down the beach. The net is then hauled in towards the shore. Danish seining is similar, but is undertaken in deep water with the net and ropes slightly weighted and drawn along the seafloor. It is used to target species such as snapper, flat fish, gurnard and John dory.


Trawling catches the greatest quantity of fish in New Zealand and the majority of tonnage in deep-water fisheries. It involves one or occasionally two boats towing a net through the sea. Steel cables attach the net to the specially designed trawling vessel. The mouth of the net is spread open by two doors. The fish enter the net through the mouth and are forced down to the smaller cod end. A large mesh size can help to avoid catching small fish. However with diamond-shaped mesh, the holes close due to the water pressure on the net being towed. In addition, as the net fills with fish, the meshes can get blocked by fish already in the net.

Trawling can be undertaken in mid-water or along the sea floor. Bottom trawling is used to catch species such as snapper, orange roughy, ling, hake, squid and scampi. The net is often protected along the leading edge by rubber rollers. Mid-water trawling is also used to catch a range of species including hoki, jack mackerel and southern blue whiting.


Dredging is used to harvest oysters and scallops. It involves dropping a steel dredge to the sea floor and then pulling it along the sea bed. 

Last updated at 4:16PM on November 23, 2017