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Property is Not Sovereignty: Barriers to Indigenous Economic Development in Aotearoa/New Zealand’s Fisheries


In 1986, the New Zealand government implemented one of the world’s first nationally comprehensive private fisheries management systems, or Individual Transferable Quota (ITQ) systems. However, complete implementation was only possible after Māori groups agreed to formally renegotiate their Treaty and Aboriginal Title rights to fisheries. These negotiations resulted in the internationally acclaimed 1992 Treaty of Waitangi (Fisheries Claims) Settlement Act. In the Settlement, Māori groups obtained commercial fishing rights in the form of Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs). They also received subsistence fishing rights, and later, customary governance rights. Today, Māori groups collectively own some 50% of the nation’s Individual Transferable Quota. This should give them unprecedented formal control over national fisheries and related fishing revenues. Yet, few Māori can make a living by fishing. Māori groups’ efforts to establish commercial fishing operations and to govern fisheries have been unsuccessful in addressing the uneven development seen in New Zealand’s fisheries and Māori communities. This puzzle—of how an indigenous group can hold rights to valuable commercial and subsistence resources, but be unable to fully benefit from them—is what underlies the histories told here.

In this dissertation, I identify the barriers blocking Māori fishery management and precluding Māori from realizing the benefits that ITQ ownership should bring them. Drawing on over two years of ethnographic research and extensive interviews in New Zealand’s South Island, with Māori and non-Māori fishers, processors, tribal leaders, scientists, and state regulators, I argue that conceptions of property and sovereignty are at the heart of these problems. In the Settlement, Māori groups were not granted sovereignty over natural resource access and trade arrangements. Rather, they have been expected to re-organize hundreds of years of practices to meet entirely new conditions in the current political economic regime. They must also adapt their management strategies to additional restrictions imposed by the government on their fisheries. While the Fisheries Settlement granted property and governance rights to Māori groups, the state retains authority over how, when, and where these property and governance rights can be implemented. While Māori are expected to comply with the “full and final” condition of the Settlement, the New Zealand government continues to change the physical, social, and legal environments within which Māori can operate their fishing rights.

Māori groups’ restricted control over their fishing practices and rights—the barrier to their development—is made visible in examining the effects of state regulations imposed after the 1992 Settlement. In this dissertation, I analyze three policy, ecological, and practical contexts within which the New Zealand government has created barriers that constrain Māori access to the benefits from the fisheries in which they hold legal rights. First, fish processing regulations have restricted Māori fishers’ access to markets, even though they hold the required quota rights needed to sell their fish. Second, government subsidies and programs supporting predominately non-Māori dairy farming operations upstream from Māori fisheries have intensified production and degraded water quality downstream, negatively impacting fishery sustainability and development. Third, the government’s establishment of new marine reserves in particular regions has legally excluded Māori from fisheries they previously managed and utilized for subsistence. These findings demonstrate that the creation and allocation of private property rights to indigenous groups, without granting them concurrent authority to amend the regulations affecting the broader economic and ecological contexts in which these rights are realized, is unlikely to redress the consequences of their dispossession from land and marine resources.

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