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Picture: Greenpeace

First, as background, the Small Pelagic Fishery (SPF) quotas are currently based on a combination of guess work and inadequate science. There are inadequate safeguards and monitoring on the bycatch / incidental kill issue, and there are almost no zoning arrangements to protect key foraging areas of SPF predators, even the ones that are endangered (proposals to place off limits areas around Australian Sea Lion colonies are disingenuous - they are largely benthic feeders and are not at risk in the way fur seals are).

These are the three key “management” problems.  The supertrawler didn’t create these problems – they reflect directly on bad management within the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA).

Let’s go back to the Government’s initial response to rising pubic concern over the supertrawler. Joe Ludwig went straight to AFMA senior managers who said: “we’ve got the science sewn up, we are the world’s best fishery managers. And we didn’t raise the Jack Mackerel quota specially for Mr Geen - we would have done that anyway even if he hadn’t written to us” (can you believe that?). So Ludwig went back to the protestors and told them “Don’t worry, the supertrawler isn’t going to do any damage; AFMA have it all checked out.”

However the protests continued, and the Government, low in the opinion polls at that time, started to get worried. The were not worried that the protestors might actually be right, they were just worried about Julia’s sliding popularity. So they looked back over old episodes of the BBC’s “Yes Minister” and came up with a way to get some breathing space.  “We will hold an inquiry!” they said. “No, two inquiries!”

So they amended the EPBC Act to put a temporary stay on the Margiris. The amendments went through parliament - with every intention that they would be repealed in the immediate future. In fact the terms of reference for the second inquiry, that is the one by David Borthwick into the fisheries legislation, which is meant to report in something over three months time, specifically states that the changes to the EPBC Act will be repealed.  So the Government never saw these changes as anything but a quick political fix. As for the first inquiry - into SPF fish stocks, this is to be done apparently by an “expert panel”.

Last week I wrote to and later phoned both Joe Ludwig’s office and Tony Burke’s office, trying to find out:

- how is the “expert panel” going to operate, and who is going to be on it?

- is the Borthwick inquiry going to receive submissions or hold public discussions?

These are pretty basic questions, but I did not get any answers. My emails were not even acknowledged, and the response to my phone calls was “someone will phone you back”.  My guess is that, in true “Yes Minister” style, the expert panel will be carefully picked to not rock the boat, and we can probably expect the same from the Borthwick inquiry.

If my fears are born out, at some point in the near future, the government will announce some extra science is needed on the stock question, but not much. This will be done and the door will again be open for the supertrawler - which will of course be required to operate “under the most stringent environmental conditions”. 

As Abraham Lincoln once said: “you can fool all of the people some of the time….”

The Borthwick inquiry will conclude that Australia’s fishery legislation, and in fact AFMA’s management program, is “first class by world standards”.  It will also conclude that only tiny changes are required to the legislation and to operating procedures.  These insignificant amendments will be made and the Government will congratulate itself for a job well done, and all promises to the public kept.

But in fact almost nothing will have changed, and the real problem, which is not the supertrawler, and is not the EPBC Act, but is in fact AFMA’s organisational culture which is subservient to the commercial fishing industry, will continue unscathed. 

More information relating to management problems at AFMA can be found in documents 1.11 and 2.34a at http://www.onlyoneplanet.com/marine.htm. Only RADICAL change will change the culture which is the problem - see the detailed discussion in both of these papers.

Dr Jonathan Nevill is a Hobart-based policy consultant with a particular interest in aquatic ecosystem conservation.  His recent book “Overfishing under regulation” is critical of Australian fisheries management. More about Jon, here

• All about the Australian Fisheries Management Authority: here

• Earlier on Tasmanian Times: Failures of Australian fisheries management

• SENATOR THE HON RICHARD COLBECK

Senator for Tasmania

Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Fisheries and Forestry
Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Innovation, Industry and Science

M E D I A R E L E A S E

3 October 2012
Guarantees to Recreational Fishers

The Coalition guarantees it will not cut funding to the recreational fishing sector – it’s not possible to cut any further - Labor has already reduced funding to Recfish to zero, effectively spelling the end for the organisation.

The Coalition welcomes the recent emergence of representative voices for the recreational sector mostly in response to the dismissive treatment of the sector by the Labor government through the Marine Planning process.

“The recreational sector has demonstrated its capacity to raise significant amounts of money for specific campaigns – that capacity also needs to be harnessed to help support a rational representative organisation.”

The Coalition looks forward to continuing discussions with recreational fishers to support the development and implementation of a national representative structure.

“The Coalition understands the very important role this sector plays in many local and regional economies and in supporting tourism.  That is why we also hope that the States will play their role in supporting the development of a truly representative rec fishing organisation.”

Senator Colbeck said, “The Coalition can also guarantee that it will not rely on marine protected areas as a blunt tool to manage fish stocks.” 

“We do not believe in locking Australians out of their own oceans. We have some of the best managed fisheries in the world, which local fishers should be able to enjoy.”

The Coalition looks forward to working cooperatively with the recreational fishing sector to ensure that enjoyment continues.