The Political Economy Of Fish

Dr Sutch Looked At Our Fishing Industry 35 Years Ago. What Would He Think Today?
Listener 18 January, 1997

Keywords: Business & Finance; Political Economy & History;

The fishing industry may not seem a likely paradigm for New Zealand’s economic history. Yet in January 1962, Dr Bill Sutch, public servant, economist, historian, writer, and New Zealand nationalist, persuaded a Nelson WEA summer school it was. Sadly, however, there is no written record of the speech. The challenge is to try to reconstruct it.

Sutch would have started with the classical (pre-contact) Maori. Fish was a major part of their diet; they conserved the fish stock; many were skilled fisherman; according to Captain Cook, they were in some ways superior to the fishermen of Europe.

That changed with the arrival of the European. As the Maori lost their population and their rangatiratanga their fishing became marginalized too. Fish stocks began to be run down.
Initially fishing was important to the early settlers too. Fish supplemented their diet, while recent work by Brad Patterson shows that whaling was the foundation of much of the commercial enterprise of Wellington. Other east coast settlements may have been as equally dependent. Once the whales were exhausted, the exports of the fishing industry stopped too.
Sutch would have drawn attention to the oddity that New Zealand was surrounded by sea rich in fish. (Later we were to acquire one of the largest Exclusive Economic Zones in the world.) Yet our fishing industry was primitive 35 years ago. Certainly we still ate fish – mainly battered with chips. But at the time, excluding crayfish which were being depleted like the whales, New Zealand imported more fish than it exported. All fish exports came to less than 1 percent of total exports.

Fishing was then a “stunted industry”, a term we know that Sutch would have used, because it is in a report on his Department of Industries and Commerce later that year. The official report tiptoes around Sutch’s explanation. Fishing has “good possibilities and it is regrettable there has been insufficient impetus and encouragement.”

He would have been franker to the WEA. Sutch both commended the enormous government contribution to the development of the pastoral industry, but also thought that the government interventions had favoured the farmers at the expense of everyone else. While today’s Federated Farmers may flagellate themselves over that assistance – cheap loans, subsidies, infrastructure, producer boards, preferential treatment, and so on – Sutch’s message was not a popular to the farmer government of the day, for farming had built itself on this government assistance. Farming was the great success. But because had emphasized assistance to farming, other industries had suffered. Sutch described the New Zealand’s economy as “over-specialised and over-sensitive” (a euphemism of the day for over-vulnerable), calling the New Zealand economy “immature”.

The last part of the Sutch lecture would have been to advocate the development of a robust fishing industry, as “a major export industry”. The audience would have been enthused, not just by much more historical detail than can be given here, but because of the vision of New Zealand as a mature diversified economy. That was what those who remembered told me.
Sutch died in 1975. What might he think today? He would certainly have been intrigued by the subsequent history, critical of our initially allowing foreigners to fish so much of the New Zealand waters, and astonished that the government was not more supporting to the industry. Sutch came from that tradition of the nation building state, where active government involvement developed New Zealand, as it had the pastoral industry. Having been told of the complex story of the reactivation of Maori involvement in fishing, he would have commended their plans to reindigenize the industry. The Maori are nation builders, and Sutch had little time for those with a colonial mentality who depend on foreigners for their technology, their capital, their initiative, and their ideas. (He would have been fascinated by the methods to conserve the fish stock, and proud of our world leadership in this area, plus our not insignificant efforts in protecting whales.) Most of all Sutch would have been delighted that fish exports were over 5 percent of commodity exports, with a the diversity of products and destinations. He would have add in the fish we export by feeding quality meals to tourists.

Yet, he would have said we were still not a mature economy. Diversified, yes, but we were still an exporter of primary products, albeit usually with further processing. I imagine he would have reminded his audience that primary products are often relatively easy to make, so that the markets of efficient producers like New Zealand may nonetheless be under pressure from inefficient but assisted foreign producers. In all probability Sutch would tell a contemporary audience, that we had not gone far enough. We should be exporting fishing boats – he would cite our success in building racing yachts – and fishing equipment, even fishing technology and services. Excluding primary processing, manufacturing remained immature. Dr Bill Sutch would have argued our economic structure was still largely colonial, and finished his 1997 lecture by reaffirm his faith in the nation building state.