Resource and recreation, Andrew Erueti

The Struggle for Māori Fishing Rights: Te Ika a Māori 
Brian Bargh
Huia, $45.00,
ISBN 9781775501961

Te Matau a Maui: Fish-hooks, Fishing and Fisheries in New Zealand
Chris Paulin with Mark Fenwick
fishHook Publications, $50.00,
ISBN 9780473328696

Māori have ownership rights to freshwater (particular lakes and rivers) according to the Waitangi Tribunal. That’s the tribunal’s finding in the freshwater report of 2012, but the tribunal has previously issued several reports saying much the same thing and based on a mountain of evidence of customary use of water by iwi. Water is not only significant spiritually; it was a major source of food, and means of travel.

The government response has always been that Māori do not own water because of its national interest. It has said much the same in relation to claims to petroleum, the foreshore and seabed, gold, radio spectrum and the conservation estate. Which is why the history of the fisheries settlement remains interesting – why and how is it that Māori managed to acquire a 50 per cent stake in New Zealand’s commercial fisheries and the right to customary reserves off their coastlines? Brian Bargh’s book, The Struggle for Māori Fishing Rights, provides an informative and interesting account of the history of the Sealord Deal, as it is known, from the legal moments that triggered negotiations, through to the tensions within iwi about how to distribute quota and other benefits fairly. The Sealord Deal is, of course, the agreement between iwi and government that provides tribes with the financial means to acquire a 50 per cent stake in Sealord Limited, which owned a significant stake of fishing quota.

This history, in effect, captures the core aspects of the reforms made by the Crown and courts to address historical grievances over the past four decades. There is (1) the initial litigation to secure customary rights when Justice Greig halted the privatisation of fishing on the basis that iwi possessed Treaty and customary rights to fishing; (2) the Waitangi Tribunal inquiries (Muriwhenua and Ngāi Tahu) which provided the evidence of the historical and contemporary significance of fishing to iwi; (3) the backroom deal negotiations by the boys over whiskey and cigars to secure the Sealord Deal; and (4) the legal challenges to the Deal including a petition to the United Nations Human Rights Committee; and (5) the divisions among iwi about the nature of the settlement – was it directed at reparations for tribes only, or Māori, including those disconnected from their turangawaewae in the cities? I could teach a contemporary Treaty issues course by focusing on fisheries alone.

So, what insights do we gain from Bargh’s account? Some of this ground has been covered before, in the form of legal reports and academic papers by the likes of Paul McHugh, and Richard Boast. But Bargh covers the full history and presents the story in a compelling and much more accessible way. Bargh uses his own personal interviews with key players, newspaper stories, biographies of the leading negotiators, excerpts from the Waitangi Tribunal and court decisions and academic writings, and large photos of Māori fishing activities and the key characters to keep the story rolling along and stimulating. Much is revealed about the significance of the relationships between tribal and government leaders, especially the National government of the 1990s, led by Jim Bolger.

This was the phase in which the Treaty settlement was formalised and ramped up by the executive. And it is clear that the Sealord Deal would not have eventuated had it not been for the determination of Māori leaders like Matiu Rata, Graham Latimer, Tipene O’Regan and Bob Mahuta, and politicians like Doug Graham and Doug Kidd, and Bolger.

It also reveals the important role of the Waitangi Tribunal under the leadership of Eddie Durie, in gathering the evidential basis for the negotiations. Work needed to be done to reject the idea that Māori had only a recreational, personal interest in fishing for subsistence and hospitality. The Waitangi Tribunal showed the complexity and intensity of Māori fishing and their dependence upon it to keep their families fed. With the growth of settlement and demands on the resource, from the 1860s the government began to regulate the taking of fisheries and so began the exclusion of Māori from the resource. This, of course, was also the time that Māori began to lose land through the Māori Land Court process, having lost significant areas following the Land Wars.

What is also striking is the level of opposition to the Deal by both Māori and Pākehā. The commercial fishing industry, in particular, was strongly opposed to the Sealord Deal (the Waitangi Tribunal was labelled a kangaroo court) and politicians (John Banks and John Carter, for example) used the issue to stoke public concerns about the Treaty settlement gravy train and separate treatment.  Many tribes were opposed to the Deal, too, arguing that they would rather have their claims litigated in the courts, than have them settled in the backroom without their effective participation. And it is interesting, in this context, that the Māori negotiators accepted a 50 per cent share of fishing – a demonstration of goodwill and compromise.

There are some gaps, though not significant, in that there’s little treatment of the international challenge to the Deal led by Ngāti Porou. And, in parts, it is clear that Bargh sees the Deal as a positive accomplishment. And no doubt it is. But the Deal also marked a new phase of the commercialisation of indigenous rights and the corporatisation of tribes. Tribes may possess quota and compensation, but the fisheries claim was initially motivated by the desire for tribes to fish, and that has not eventuated. Instead, iwi are shareholders in a massive corporate. Very few customary fishing reserves have been established to date, largely because of disagreement about tribal boundaries. There is also the issue of the focus on the tribe and the greater share of the spoils being directed at Ngāi Tahu. Urban Māori see little of the benefits of the Deal and, while Bargh notes the urban Māori claim of Eugene Rider, the Deal highlights the Crown’s focus on the tribe in Treaty settlements, and the neglect of many Māori who are not connected to iwi. The Treaty settlements, of course, including the Deal, are breathing life into the iwi and making them major political players. But over 70 per cent of Māori live in urban centres.

While Bargh’s work spans several decades and many momentous moments, Chris Paulin’s intelligent book drills down more into the specifics of matau, or Māori fish hooks and traditional fishing practices. Like Bargh, there is much at the beginning of the book about fishing practices themselves – including Māori specialist knowledge of fishing and intensity of use – but also interesting ideas about why a great deal of knowledge was lost due to the shift from fishing by Māori to agriculture following settlement and the lack of interest by settlers and early amateur anthropologists in Māori fishing practices and Māori preference for metal and the increased regulation of fishing. Paulin notes how “large communal efforts had virtually ceased by 1910”, which seems to account for the prominence of the idea that Māori only fished for personal subsistence purposes – this is what tribes were reduced to, due to settlement.

The book is really devoted to the many varieties of matau, how they were made and how they functioned and their ceremonial use. There is also a chapter devoted to their collection in European museums – collected by explorers like Cook – and concluding chapters on fisheries conservation and Māori claims to fisheries. Paulin’s book contains many colour photos of matau and related accounts of how they were made, and used. Occasionally, it feels like leafing through a beautiful informative art book.

Andrew Erueti is a senior lecturer in the Law Faculty, University of Auckland.

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