A Coromandel school that rejected a $2500 scholarship tied to a game fishing tournament says it made the decision in order to avoid embroiling students in controversy.
But that decision has turned into a public
spat over the merits of the sport – and how much influence teachers with strong views should have when a school makes decisions.
The cash scholarship was to be awarded to the Mercury Bay Area School student who designed the best T-shirt logo for the Kubota Billfish Classic tournament, which is run by the Mercury Bay Game Fishing Club. The money was intended to be spent on university or apprenticeship costs, with hopes of turning it into an annual scholarship.
But after initially supporting the idea, the school’s principal says he turned it down due to diverging views over game fishing.
The club posted to the local Facebook page earlier this month, calling that decision “cancel culture gone mad”.
In the post, tournament organiser Tom Maxwell said he and some school staff had worked very hard on the scholarship but it was “cancelled thanks to a few staff members that have protested due to their strong personal opinions condemning recreational fishing”.
Students could still pursue the scholarship directly through the club, but Maxwell encouraged people to tell the school if they were disappointed with its stance.
Many of those commenting on Facebook expressed anger at the “woke” and “radical” opposition to the scholarship, while one said people who didn’t like recreational fishing “have come to the wrong town”.
Singled out for criticism was Mercury Bay teacher Thomas Everth, a well-known environmental activist who runs the Coromandel Ocean Protection page.
He teaches part-time at the school, running a class on environmental sustainability while completing a PhD on the experience of climate activist teachers in New Zealand.
Everth confirmed to the Herald he opposed the scholarship for ethical reasons and had made his views known to the school.
Stressing that he was speaking in a personal capacity, Everth said he could not in good conscience endorse the competition to his pupils. He believed game fishing was akin to torture, comparing it to rodeo or big game hunting in Africa.
Research had shown fish felt pain, a view backed up by the SPCA, he said.
While the billfish – mostly marlin – being caught in the tournament would be tagged and released, he understood some could still die afterward, whether from injury or exhaustion.
“They are top predators and wonderful creatures – to torture them for entertainment purposes is just not right with me,” Everth said.
But Everth’s critics were wrong when they accused him of being against all fishing, he said. He originally sailed to New Zealand with his wife and two young children and often fished for their dinner on the journey – “but we stopped fishing when we had enough”.
“Recreationally fishing for the purpose of feeding your family is totally fine; it’s a part of the indigenous culture of New Zealand. However if we don’t look after our oceans much better than we have, the ability to do that will be pulled from underneath us.”
The school’s principal had requested input from teachers and Everth had responded to say he believed it was ethically questionable, he said.
Everth said he wasn’t personally opposed to the club or the existence of the scholarship – but as a teacher he would have difficulty with his own school endorsing the competition directly, or asking him as a teacher to promote it.
That was no longer an issue, he said.
“The money’s not been taken away from the kids, it’s just not officially going through our school.”
Recreational fishing ‘the basis of the economy’
Mercury Bay’s game fishing club is one of the biggest in the country with more than 3000 members, and the tournament is described as “the biggest fishing event in the Southern Hemisphere”.
It brings in some 1000 competitors from as far away as Hawaii, tournament organiser Maxwell said. The club had estimates showing it injected $1m into the local economy, while this year more than $236,000 was given out in prize money.
While he accepted that Everth had a right to his views, Maxwell didn’t believe the school should be bowing to them as it was impossible to keep everyone happy.
“What if, for example, Fonterra wanted to offer a scholarship for an agricultural course – you’re going to cancel that because of [Everth’s] strong views against dairy farming?” Maxwell said.
While the scholarship would still be made available to students in the area, the change had sent them “back to square one”. Once eligibility and other details are sorted they would be made available on the club’s website.
Meanwhile Maxwell had decided to go public because he wanted to make parents aware their kids were missing out on an opportunity.
Since his July 4 Facebook post, donations had flooded in, bumping this year’s prize money up to $5000 from “people who are disgusted at the school’s stance”.
Maxwell – who runs fishing charter Mad Max Sportfishing NZ – said he disagreed with Everth’s opinion that game fishing was torture.
“The science isn’t my area so I don’t want to comment. But… if you took recreational fishing away [from Whitianga], it’s basically the basis of the economy.”
He understood satellite tagging studies had shown the vast majority of marlin recovered fine after being released.
The Kubota tournament was a world leader in conservation, he said, with an “unheard of” 92 per cent of fish at this year’s competition tagged and released. Just four out of 76 billfish had been killed and weighed, and everything that was killed was eaten.
But ultimately, he said, it was frustrating that the debate had become about the tournament instead of the scholarship.
“It was a T-shirt design competition, it’s nothing to do with fishing… We’re not asking kids to go fishing,” Maxwell said.
‘My decision alone’, principal says
Mercury Bay school principal John Wright told the Herald he was approached about the scholarship several weeks ago.
“I considered this opportunity and approached our business and design staff as an educational development and enterprise opportunity,” Wright said in a statement.
He hadn’t considered the possible controversy that could arise, which he regretted. It was clear there was a “significant divergency of view” on such matters, and he didn’t want students to get caught up in it.
“I decided against the project in that it would be school-led and would, in all probability, lead to significant controversy – it was my decision alone.” Staff views were not canvassed, Wright said.
Students could still participate independently of the school, he said.