This thing called life

Fishing quotas for the super trawler - based on research, funding, and politics

The report in this morning’s paper about complaints to the Fisheries Minister by members of the group that set the quotas for the small pelagic fishery highlights the challenges of setting fishing quotas.

The conservation and recreational fishing representatives on the Small Pelagic Fishery Resource Assessment Group asked for an investigation of the decision to double the total allowable catch of jack mackerel back in June. Without this decision, there may not have been enough fish stock available to attract a super trawler to Australia.

As members of the group, it was part of their job to assess the science behind the decision, so they would have read the relevant research. Nevertheless, Senator Joe Ludwig declined to hold an inquiry. This raises the question: how do we assess the adequacy of scientific research in areas where society, politics, industry and emotions are involved?

This is not a new problem, but it does seem to come increasingly to the fore. Just yesterday, another article in The Conversation addressed the problem of which comes first: science’s assessment of data or society’s need for knowledge? The answer lies in the interface between. Society decides, through agitation, curiosity and approval of funding, which questions scientists will address at any given time. Science is not something that happens in a vacuum. The case of the super trawler and the fishing quotas is an excellent case in point.

The Australian Fisheries Management Authority has posted information about the decisions made by them about the super trawler on their website. It is very useful, providing a table showing the total allowable catch for various fish species in the small pelagic fishery that would be targeted by the super trawler. For the past five years, these quotas have either stayed the same or been reduced, with one notable exception. The eastern jack mackerel fishery had its allowable catch increased from 4,600 tonnes in 2011 to 10,100 tonnes in 2012. This is the dramatic change that upset two members of the resource assessment group.

Fisheries scientists have posted a paper on the AFMA website outlining the background to the scientific issues. They explain how the harvest strategy is more cautious when the available data are out of date. This is important because all of the data are several years old. This situation is probably unavoidable given the complexity and cost of assessing fish stocks.

Estimating the biomass of oceanic fish is not an easy task. The adjustment of the jack mackerel quota was based on a survey of fish eggs, which are drawn from the ocean in plankton nets across a wide area, followed by mathematical calculations designed to estimate the average egg production. The last survey of jack mackerel eggs took place in southern NSW in 2002, and rather than complaining about the applicability of 10 year old surveys to current fish stocks, the scientific debate revolves around which algorithm should be used.

Another helpful document on the AFMA website is a report on the small pelagic fishery in 2010. This provides a comparison of the total allowable catches with the actual catch, giving us an insight into how much of the quotas are actually fished. In 2008/2009 the combined allowable catch for redbait, blue mackerel, jack mackerel and sardines was 46400 tonnes, but fishers only caught 5130 tonnes. In 2009/2010 the combined allowable catch was 35600 tonnes, and fishers caught 2482 tonnes. So, in recent years in the southern pelagic fishery, the average catch was than 10% of the total allowable catch.

This is good news if you are worried about overfishing, because it means that none of these stocks have been over-exploited in the recent past. But it is bad news if you are thinking about these fish as a resource, because from an industry perspective these fish are not being fully utilised. No wonder somebody thought it was time to get a bigger boat.

The super trawler could be a game changer, providing an open ocean fishing method that actually harvests most of the total allowable catch. The increase in quota, combined with the prospect that it is finally achievable, concerns me.

It is an unfortunate aspect of the industry that fishing companies such as Seafish Tasmania are the ones who pay for and provide practical research support (such as collecting the egg counts) for the assessment of fish stocks. It would be better if our biomass estimates were based on regular, independent monitoring. If society is interested enough, perhaps they will find a way to ensure that there are funds to do this important research.

But the research is not the end of the story. How we represent it in committees that make the decisions, how our Minister responds to concerns, and how the community understands these issues are all critical to the implementation of fishery science.

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