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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.