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Opposition to the Margiris ‘super trawler’ not evidence based

The Margiris “super-trawler” is heading for Australia to catch jack mackerel and associated small surface-dwelling species. It faces a lot of opposition, largely based on assertions that the vessel’s catches…

The Margiris is heading to Australia to catch jack mackerel, but there are plenty more fish in the sea. Richard Ling

The Margiris “super-trawler” is heading for Australia to catch jack mackerel and associated small surface-dwelling species. It faces a lot of opposition, largely based on assertions that the vessel’s catches will exceed sustainable levels or significantly reduce the quality of angling for larger predator species. These fears are not consistent with the available evidence.

Government should defend its fisheries success

Claiming that catches will be unsustainable is the same as saying existing quotas are excessive or that such quotas will be exceeded by the Margiris. Both imply the current Commonwealth Government does not have appropriate fisheries and environmental legislation or it is not capable of enforcing the legislation it has.

If these claims are true then they are expressions of no-confidence in the current government. They beg the question of what legislation the Australian government is capable of supporting.

Why has the government allowed the debate to become so far removed from science and logic? Why does it not publicly defend its impressive record in fisheries conservation? It appears there is electoral advantage in fostering the illusion that further restriction of fishing is good governance!

Australian governments, both Commonwealth and state, have repeatedly failed to defend their impressive recent records in fisheries conservation and their fisheries and environmental agencies. For the sake of the future of Australia’s seafood and environmental security they need to reverse this situation.

We want more seafood than we catch: let’s eat jack mackerel

Australians prefer Australian products. But we currently import more than 70% of the fish we consume. By 2020 we will need 800 000 tonnes more seafood per annum than we currently produce (approximately five times current commercial production) to meet the National Health and Medical Research Council’s recommended consumption targets.

Jack mackerel are currently under-exploited. cuio/Flickr

The world wants more seafood and international competition for the limited total supply is increasing. Under-exploited species - which include skipjack tuna and small pelagic species such as jack mackerel - are the most likely candidates to support expanded Australian fishing. Jack mackerel are in very low demand for human consumption: previous catches have been used almost exclusively for fish-meal or aquaculture feeds. This will remain their primary use unless the vessels used for their capture are big enough - like the Margiris - to process fish on board.

There is little doubt that the 18,000 tonnes per annum the Margiris will catch is a conservative estimate of the total sustainable catch of these species. As Professor Keith Sainsbury has said:

I have no doubt that this fishery is an example of world’s best practice and it meets or exceeds the most rigorous scientific requirements for an ecologically sustainable fishery on forage fish.

Eighteen thousand tonnes is less than half of the total allowable catch set by the Australian Fisheries Management Authority for the species in question, which is based on the extremely conservative strategy of taking less than 10% of the assessed biomass. It is considerably less than the catches of these species that have been taken in the past. Furthermore, catches and fishing strategy will be monitored and adapted if necessary.

Australia’s current fishery quotas are in total conservative or excessively restrictive. Australia has the world’s third-largest oceanic zone, and yet we rank 61st in fisheries production. (Australia’s waters are not the world’s most productive but the combination of area and productivity is much greater than our 61st ranking in catch.) Australian governments, both Commonwealth and state, have failed to counter the anti-fishing campaigns of numerous NGOs, that have biased public perception against appropriate development of our fisheries potential.

Anglers worry the trawler will affect their catch. mugley/Flickr

We are one of very few countries that do not effectively utilise our small tuna and other pelagic species such as jack mackerel, blue mackerel and red bait. Small pelagic species are relatively fast growing, highly mobile and very fertile. They have tremendous ability to respond opportunistically to shifts in food supply. They are extremely resilient to fishing and environmental change; when one species drops off, it is commonly compensated for by others.

The case against the Margiris, and why it doesn’t hold up

The public case against the Margiris is largely based on three issues:

  1. the size of the boat
  2. the record of “super-trawlers” in areas where they have not been controlled, particularly off Africa
  3. assertions that localised depletion of baitfish will significantly reduce species taken in recreational fisheries.

Boat size The amount of fish taken in Australia is governed by catch quota and not by the size of the boat. The effectiveness of management is the critical issue. In the last decade or so Australia has demonstrated that its fisheries management is effective in restricting catches. Furthermore, it is much easier to monitor and regulate the catch and operation of one boat than multiple boats. It requires perverse logic to manage against efficiency.

African overfishing Overfishing in numerous African countries is a direct result of inadequate management in specific countries. Those countries do not have quota management schemes like those in Australia and they frequently inadequately enforce what management principles they do have. The poor performance of fisheries management in some African countries is simply not relevant to Australia.

Effect on recreational fishers Localised depletion is usually only a significant issue if the species taken in one fishery is the same as that taken in another. Anglers worry that high take of mackerel will significantly affect the food source of fish they catch, such as southern bluefin tuna. Tunas are highly-migratory predators with a multi-species, opportunistic and catholic diet: they will eat the right-sized individuals of whatever species is available at the time. Distribution of both tuna and the small pelagics in question will be influenced more by environmental variability than localised depletion.

Bluefin eat many species other than jack mackerel. Nate Grey

Jack mackerel are not targeted by other commercial or recreational fisheries. While they are one of many food items for larger pelagic species, they are also competing for food with those species. If jack mackerel were significantly depleted in this fishery, the species they compete with, such as pilchards and anchovies, would likely increase. These species are common food for larger pelagics, such as kingfish and tuna.

Competition between commercial and recreational fishing is best resolved by deliberately allocating catches of the species in question. Such allocation is, in effect, between different categories of seafood consumers.

Recreational fishers would be best served if the future supply of seafood for the non-fishing public - the great majority of Australians - comes increasingly from species recreational fishers don’t target. Jack-mackerel and red-bait are two such species. If the increasing needs of Australia’s seafood consumers are not met from such species then there will be ever-increasing pressure from seafood consumers for a greater share of the limited total catches of traditionally marketed and popular recreational species, such as whiting, snapper, flathead and kingfish. It must be noted that recreational catches already exceed commercial catches of numerous species in several states.

Australia is far from self-sufficient in seafood. We need much greater consideration of the strategic issues affecting future uses and supply of seafood.

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35 Comments sorted by

  1. Blair Donaldson

    logged in via Facebook

    Why should we have any faith in the assessment of fisheries managers when they got it comprehensively wrong regarding tuna and the amount of catch the Japanese were taking in Australian waters? As I recall, the Japanese were exceeding the quota by 50% or more for many years.

    Fisheries assessments of the Western Australian rock lobster have also been shown to be seriously flawed, the same applies to shark fisheries. Shouldn't fisheries managers be demonstrating they can accurately measure and predict the effect of effort on fisheries before allowing large trawlers into new fisheries? For that matter, if trawlers are to be allowed, why not use Australian crews and Australian boats?

    1. Fred Pribac

      logged in via email

      In reply to Blair Donaldson

      " ... have also been shown to be seriously flawed, the same applies to shark fisheries."

      My belief is that many stock assessments are actually quite good but that problems have arisen where there have been long management lags in effective reduction of fishing pressure on vulnerable stocks.

    2. Wade Macdonald


      In reply to Fred Pribac

      Fred, as an environmentally aware recreational fisher I agree with your assessment here.

      The problem with this ship is it's sheer size and ability to cause a large localised detrimental effect in one drop of it's huge net. If the operators spread out the load across the whole southern EEZ of OZ and stick to their quota then all may be sustainable?

      If they reach the quota by just fishing the East coast of Tassie it will cause a massive localised detrimental effect.

      The AFMA board has ex board…

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    3. Fred Pribac

      logged in via email

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      I don't have quite as jaundiced a view of AFMA and the various protagonists as your last sentance suggests.

      My past experience has been overwhelmingly that stock assessment and quota evaluation process have always been scrupulous with genuine attempts made to balance competing environmental and economic objectives.

      However, there is significant inertia in the management process and actions can lag so far behind recommendations that stocks can be very poorly treated. In this case, watching from afar, I was left wondering what the logic was, as it seems to be a giant departure from previous practise and bound to raise a whole raft of predictable fisheries management concerns around good governance as well as giving new legs to the continuing issues around discarding, potential impacts on vulnerable predator species and potential depletions of regional sub-stocks.

      It will be very interesting to see what, if anything, is revealed by Wilkies scrutiny.

    4. Andy Saunders


      In reply to Blair Donaldson

      Japanese bluefin/bigeye overcatch wasn't an Australian fisheries-manager problem. Basically the (Japanese) fishing operators disguised/falsified data (possibly with the connivance of Japanese government officials).

      Wade, canned tuna is almost certainly skipjack (generally underfished), not yellowfin. Different species, and not really a recreational target.

      Wade, mackerel are "highly migratory". Localised depletion will quickly be replaced by other schools moving in. Not a real issue, just an assertion with no factual basis in the case of this species.

  2. Robert Tony Brklje
    Robert Tony Brklje is a Friend of The Conversation.


    Perhaps a review of the whole fishing licence operation and quota system is in order.
    On licence only per customer and smaller quota per licence, ensuring many smaller 'LOCAL' operators in the market which overall are better for their local and the national economy.
    Zero foreign operators in Australian waters should be the goal, the focus on conservation and future for the resource rather than the vain and empty attempt to sate insatiable greed now.
    The larger the trawl net, the far greater damage to fish in the net and the more likely by-catch thrown back in the sea is thrown back dead, really smart that idiotic idea.
    So allow the Margris in, but put a full time inspector on the boat a fine the operate for each and every non-target high value fish they kill and are not licensed to take, leave it up to the greed driven operators whether they will accept that condition, a condition that accurately reflects reality.

  3. Anthony Nolan

    logged in via email

    The author of this article shows a touching faith in the state's capacity to make good or even adequate policy when it comes to resource exploitation. For mine, as a conservationist, I'd be inclined towards very large protective margins for breeding stock of all those species in the nominated ecosystem. In other words we'd be best with very big margins for error.

    Besides this there is no rule of law or the state that says that any resource exploitation policy must be based on 'evidence' when the evidential base off which we are working is extremely low.

    1. Trevor S

      Jack of all Trades

      In reply to Anthony Nolan

      Then were are the fish we eat to come from ? We already rape the Seas of other nations, importing 70% of our fish. I would 'err on the side of not killing off the ecosystems of other nations and realise we need to UP the fishing quotas and re-open closed fisheries. Tricky to do ? welcome to the real world of an ever increasing population . It will get much worse with resource depletion yet.

    2. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Trevor S

      Australia also exports lots of seafood. Perhaps we could eat that, instead of exporting it. I'd appreciate getting a feed of coral trout from time to time.

      There would also be a lot less CO2 emissions if so much dead fish wasn't being shipped around the world.

  4. Fred Pribac

    logged in via email

    The author wrote: "They are extremely resilient to fishing and environmental change; when one species drops off, it is commonly compensated for by others."

    It is concerning that this comment was presented as evidence for good fisheries management practise. It implies a certain cowboy pillage mentality and undermines the rest of the thesis.

    It neglects the functional niche role of species within ecosystems and suggests an industry over environment bias. My recollection is that this bias also…

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    1. Anthony Nolan

      logged in via email

      In reply to Fred Pribac

      " industry over environment bias...". Got it in one. If resource exploiters were resource managers then there would be no need for the state to adopt a regulatory role at all. Corporate capture finishes off the picture. Off the top of my head here's a list of serious environmental mismanagement in Australia: the Murray-Darling, land clearing (NSW and Qld), logging in old growth forests, super phosphate rebates, woodchipping sound timber for paper pulp (NSW, Vic, Tas, WA). land salination ..oh, err, and the cane toad.

    1. Jane Rawson

      Editor, Energy & Environment at The Conversation

      In reply to Grendelus Malleolus

      Oops, I think that was my fault. There is now a more sensible link.

  5. Anthony Nolan

    logged in via email

    The issue is far broader than the science. The FV Margiris is already implicated in what amounts to criminal harvesting of West African fish stocks. We don't want these corporate sharks operating here:

    "The Margiris is 142 metres in length and weighs 9,600 tonnes and it has the capacity to process, freeze and carry 6,200 metric tonnes of fish before off loading. European ships like this 142-metre super trawler can haul such huge quantities of fish that they can no longer fish in European waters…

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  6. David Arthur

    resistance gnome

    Thanks for this, Prof Kearney. What you write is quite reassuring, but for one or two small points.

    You write: "They (small pelagic fish species) are extremely resilient to fishing and environmental change; when one species drops off, it is commonly compensated for by others." Now, this is all very well, assuming the "dropped-off" species recovers while fishers pursue these other species; is this assumption well-founded?

    My other point is, these small pelagic fish are prey for the larger…

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    1. Wade Macdonald


      In reply to David Arthur

      Post the last large baitfish trawler off Tassie, the local tuna dissappeared in 3 years of effort. The recreational tuna catch and release comps couldn't catch a fish by the last year.

      It's not that the tuna will be depleted directly by this Margiris super ship, they will just forage elsewhere in the ocean and avoid our offshore areas due to the baitfish absence.

    2. Katrina Witham

      Sustainability student

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      As I understand these super ships and their netting, they catch everything in their path. What happens about all those portions of 'unaccounted catch'. Who is responsible for watching over that. I don't believe they are so discriminatory as to only catch the 'jack mackerel' they have been allowed by our government to catch or am I mistaken.

    3. Bill Dodd

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      As I understand it the design may work for aquatic mammals such as dolphins however seals or diving sea birds are likely to drown before they find the escape hatch.

  7. David Godden


    The comments above about Australia depending on fish imports ignore the economics of Australian fisheries. Yes, we import a lot of fish. But, yes, we also export a lot of fish. see data in ABARES' Australian Fisheries Statistics 2010 available at

    Note also that Australia's exports have been falling over the last decade (principally because of the high Australian dollar) and imports have been rising (both because of the high Australian dollar and expansion of fishing in the Western Pacific and aquaculture in eastern Asia).

  8. Chris Strudwick


    The article ignores another perspective, namely whether this model of concentrating the harvest of fish (sustainable or not) into the take of one enormous trawler is good or desirable. I would suggest it is not. It is monopolistic, likely to be less valuable to the Tasmanian economy and against the 'green' image that Tasmania has been developing. It is the complete opposite of a vision of a diverse and sustainable fishery that will support the local fishing fleet into the future.

  9. Philip Harrington

    Principal Consultant - Climate Change

    Unfortunately this article illustrates why science generally is under attack these days - scientists can be their own worst enemies. "Trust us" is a very big call when fisheries around the world and Australia are collapsing. Anyone remember Orange Roughy? Blue Fin Tuna? And why, if the scientists are above all reproach here, did the AFMA lift the 'scientifically-established' quota in response to lobbying from the company involved here, as revealed through the Greens FOI request?

  10. David Leigh

    logged in via Facebook

    The main problem with the Margiris is that it is not Australian. If, as stated in this article, the resource is not used by Australian fisheries, it begs the question, why? I don't feel the lack of ships the size of the Margiris is as much a problem as the lack of competition in retail outlets. The Coles-Woolworths duopoly offers very little variety in seafood. As with Tesco in the UK, fish are targeted for supermarket convenience, rather than for flavour and nutrition. If there is a resource that…

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  11. Garry Baker


    The Elephant in the room question is - why are they here.? And the answers lies in the fact that much of the worlds oceans are now in effect, deserts. Thanks to their pursuits

    A farmer has to buy or lease his land, buy the seed, then pray to the weather gods.. Then and only then can he harvest the crop with a tractor.

    Whereas these free riders who savage the worlds oceans simply turn up with a tractor and reap the harvest. They plant nothing, pay off some cash hungry politicians, then move on to better pastures with their tractor.

  12. Marcel Vandergoot

    Factory Manager

    Like most fisheries "scientists" Bob Kearney seems to have been brainwashed into the commercial mindset that dead fish=good fish. Facts, figures, statistics and population modelling are no substitute for hours on the water.

    Although most of what is presented here seems factual I take issue with several points:-

    1) There is no significant human consumptional demand in Australia for Jack Mackerel (Trachurus declivis, Horse Mackerel, Chow, Scad) or any similar species. Recreational fishermen…

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  13. Andrew Robertson


    To Bob Kearney
    The FV Margiris has had 5 Name changes since 1991 and it was the LAGEST Trawler until 2000 when a slightly larger one was built.
    The Margiris was formerly know as ANNELIES ILENA 13th Jan 2006, ATLANTIC STAR 30th August 1999, SIBERIAN ENTERPRISE 17th February 1998, APOLLO TWO 31st May 1991.
    A Quick search of these names, specifically Atlantic Star Trawler brought up an article from the USA.
    Atlantic Star Factory Trawler Loses Battle to Fish U.S. Waters
    here is a direct quote…

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  14. Steve Erwin

    logged in via Facebook

    hi, Bob,
    You constantly iterate in your unbiased statement that Australians should eat more fish yet this is a bait fish that the Australian market would not consume in these volumes. This ship has stated that its catch is for the African market,
    My question is how then does Australia really benefit from allowing this ship to harvest our waters
    Regards Steve

  15. David Arthur

    resistance gnome

    To be fair to Prof Kearney, there's a lot to be said for harvesting the productivity of an ecosystem at the lowest possible level of the trophic pyramid ("food chain"); in the case of fisheries, this means harvesting small bait fish, rather than the higher order predators that also eat the smaller bait fish.

    This means that changes to fishing quotas at any level of the aforementioned pyramid ("chain") require review of fishing quotas at other levels.

    What also needs to be considered is intensity…

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    1. Fish4t

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to David Arthur

      I think its great that at least there is a halt until further study. However who will be out on the high seas to keep watch? I mean what is to stop the super trawler from just leaving port, get out of sight, then begin trawling.

      When the fish have gone from our seas, what will the people say "Oh we got it wrong, too bad, its done now, on with the show, never liked fish anyway."

      I wasn't born cynical,experience has made me like it.

      Anyway well done to at least bring it to the publics attention.


    2. Andy Saunders


      In reply to Fish4t

      Simple answer: VMS systems, plus they have to land the catch somewhere. Difficult to flog tonnes of frozen mackerel from a van in the carpark of a pub. Minimal risk.

  16. Aimee Maud

    Sustainability Education Facilitator

    Going on what was said in this article, I would've thought that the government not allowing the super trawler in is a prime example of the government protecting its fisheries successes.

    Also, I think the article misses the point. No one is arguing about whether jack mackerel is a suitable alternative species to fish, the argument is about weighing this against the detriment of the method of fishing involved with a supertrawler.

    1. Andy Saunders


      In reply to Aimee Maud

      Sorry, Aimee, completely disagree.

      It seems the government wants to completely review its fisheries management legislation and management. So hardly "protecting its success". Unless the review finds nothing particularly wrong, in which case, it was just a delaying tactic to avoid electoral unpopularity.

      "the argument is about weighing this against the detriment of the method of fishing" - you're arguing about whether there should be what is called "effort controls". The whole thrust of improved…

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