In late 1992, the Waitangi Tribunal inquired into several claims concerning a September 1992 settlement between the Crown and Maori on fisheries, commonly known as the Sealords deal. Hearings took place at the end of September and the beginning of October, and the Tribunal, which consisted of Chief Judge Eddie Durie (presiding), Bishop Bennett, Hugh Kawharu, and Joanne Morris, released its report in November.
The fisheries settlement had been hailed as historic. While it was not the only national settlement, it was the first to extinguish claims (the forestry and State Enterprise settlements being steps along the way) and the first to affect all iwi. It was significant too in that, previously, 'first in, first served' applied, while this settlement proposed the allocation of benefits according to a regular plan.
None the less, there were objections. The complaint in this claim was that the Deed of Settlement, or the Crown policy that it proposed, was contrary to the Treaty and prejudicial to the claimants in that it would diminish their rangatiratanga and fishing rights and impose new arrangements that had not been adequately agreed on.
The Court of Appeal, referring to apparently conflicting provisions in the deed, said:
This weakness in the Deed and other aspects of it which are criticised by the appellants could be in part accounted for by input into it from different hands. Certainly it is a most unusual document and, perhaps, even designedly, obscure in some major respects.
The Tribunal considered that the Crown had done well in seeking to provide for Māori interests in commercial fisheries, but that the spirit had become lost in the small print, leading to complaints from Māori:
Most especially it needs to be appreciated that any settlement of this nature has two essential goals, not just to pay off for the past, but also to buy into the future. The Treaty, it must be understood, is primarily concerned with the latter. It is not the extinguishment of rights that is essential but the affirmation of them. Somehow the Deed does not capture this, apart from the preamble, and Māori anxieties were understandable.
The Tribunal concluded that the Crown's Treaty obligations to hapu required any allocation of benefits to be based on principles that were fair. As the Deed stood, these obligations were likely to be compromised; both inconsistently with Treaty principles and in a manner prejudicial to some Māori. The Tribunal therefore recommended that:
that the allocation scheme should not be based on Treaty principles alone, but according to what is tika, or fair, in all the circumstances. This may include Treaty principles but need not be exclusive to them;[and]
that objections should not be referred to this Tribunal, as our jurisdiction is constrained, but should be sent to some court or especially established body that is able to consider all relevant matters.
Despite its controversial aspects, the commercial sea-fisheries agreement was subsequently embodied in the Treaty of Waitangi (Fisheries Claims) Settlement Act 1992. Māori now own some 50 percent of New Zealand's commercial sea fisheries and, in return, have agreed to relinquish future Treaty claims in respect of commercial sea fisheries.