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Brand reputation put above people

We are not always who you think we are. Some of us get seasick, don’t like the taste of fishy fish, and can’t tell our hake from our hoki. .

Jacqueline “Rocky” Bublitz

We might only ever see snapper served on a plate, and possess a rudimentary knowledge of the tides. But we are connected to your community, whether through family, emotional or intellectual ties, and we see the passion you bring to your industry. We know your stories, and role you play in bringing kaimoana to our tables. We are the people standing in the background, supporting you, and shaking our heads when the media try to tell a different story about the work you do.

And sometimes, when the seas get rough, we are compelled to stand up and speak with you.

I am a Taranaki woman, and I moved back to my beloved west coast nine months ago to help look after my ailing father. Somewhere between the hospital stays and sleepless nights, the latest Maui and Hector’s Dolphin Threat Management Plan was released, and with it came the predictable headlines and social media posts framing commercial fishers as the biggest threat to New Zealand’s dolphins.

As I learned more about the science behind the plan, it became apparent that statistically higher risks, such as toxoplasmosis, were deemed less translatable to the general public—and, dare I say, less palatable to any eNGO trying to drum up support. As the TMP gained momentum in the media, I witnessed politicians skirt around the financial impacts to communities reliant on inshore fishing, shifting the narrative away from our people to the promotion of that political, ubiquitous, concept: “Brand New Zealand”.

I’m a writer, I’ve worked in media, and I suppose it should not have surprised me when that machine so quickly went into spin drive, with prominent party members, environmental groups and hyperbolic celebrities reducing the nuance of the proposed plan to soundbites. That’s the world we live in these days, one where we’d sooner feel something than understand it, react rather than learn. Who amongst us wouldn’t want to save our dolphins, after-all! You’d be crazy not to capitalise on public sentiment to get what you want, even if it means the more complicated aspects of the story remain untold.

Perhaps you have less tolerance for distortion when a beloved family member is dying. Perhaps it is simply that your world narrows down to a fine point, and your senses heighten. Over the past few months I’ve watched my brother-in-law, owner of New Plymouth’s Egmont Seafoods, fight to exhaustion for the company he has run since he was 24 years old.

I’ve seen elderly, salt-crusted fishers cry over the way their craft has been misrepresented. I’ve listened to young Maori protest the chipping away of their Treaty rights, and I’ve heard scientists and policy-makers lament the lack of traction when it comes to getting the public to understand the genuine and immediate threat of toxoplasmosis.

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