Super trawler gone, but is fisheries policy in trouble?

If science is excluded from fisheries policy, we’re headed back to the bad old days of overfishing. Greg Bishop

Last week, the “super trawler” Abel Tasman left Australia, with far less fanfare than you might have expected. Many hail this as good news for Australian fisheries, but we believe it could be a great step backward.

Its departure followed the banning of its use in the Commonwealth Small Pelagic Fishery (SPF) under recently proclaimed amendments to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act 1999).

The amendment of the EPBC Act, to deal with uncertainty surrounding the impacts of a new activity, can be seen as a positive step. However, the timing of the action was clearly reactionary, brought about specifically to bolster a political decision to stop the trawler.

The campaign commenced when Seafish Tasmania Pty Ltd announced that they intended to harvest their quota in the small pelagic fishery using a factory trawler so that the fish could be sold for human consumption. The size of this new factory-trawler, reputed to be the second largest in the world, triggered a well-orchestrated campaign by conservation and recreational fishing groups, intense political lobbying and social media campaigns (all predicting disastrous outcomes from industrial fishing). The campaign ultimately succeeded. It led to a political response that has over-ridden the underlying approach to fisheries management, reversing the positive trend of less political involvement in Australian fisheries management decisions over the last two decades.

We recently summarised over 50 scientific reports relevant to the small pelagics resource, almost two thirds of which are published in the peer reviewed literature. By any measure this is a well understood fishery compared to most, yet there have been many statements that the science was inadequate.

Criticisms from groups opposed to the trawler included a demand for more specific knowledge before the fishery was allowed to operate. More information was called for on the movement dynamics of fish schools and the potential for depletion and the level of interaction with marine mammals. This logic - that we should have a high level of understanding of all potential issues before we can design a safe harvest strategy - would mean many of our fisheries, including recreational fisheries, would not be permitted to operate.

There were good reasons to conclude that there would not be significant ecological consequences from localised depletion under the catch limits proposed, though some temporary and very localised effects could not be dismissed. The same could be said for marine mammal interactions – seals and dolphins were likely to be taken as by-catch, but without the fishery operating there was no way to assess at what level. This could only be determined by observers on the boat in active fishing operations.

Ongoing research is needed as part of responsible fisheries management. Biomass estimates for the key species need updating and the impacts on target and non-target species need to monitored, including interactions with marine mammals and other protected species.

Research to address these issues had been planned. A spawning biomass survey that would have helped set quotas for 2013-14 was cancelled with the decision to prohibit fishing. There was also to be observer coverage administered by AFMA (including biological catch sampling), underwater net cameras to monitor seal exclusion devices, and a monitoring regime to prevent the concentration of fishing activity in localised areas.

So has political interference in the fishery been appropriate, or has the action been an international embarrassment? The issue isn’t quite settled yet, with action still in the courts, but does the Abel Tasman’s departure mark a new era in fisheries management in Australia?

In the 1980s and 1990s fisheries in most developed countries were suffering from extensive overfishing and poor management systems. In Australia, fisheries for southern bluefin tuna and orange roughy collapsed. Political pressure from fishing companies led to maintenance of catches far above the scientific advice.

In the mid-1990s, a shift began. Political influence on fisheries decisions was diminished and policies were supported by good science. This transformation has been most thorough in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Iceland and Norway, all places where overfishing has been largely eliminated. In Australia, assessed fish stocks are rebuilding and our evidence based fishery management framework is internationally recognised.

“Decision rule” processes have been instrumental in removing political influence. Under these processes, scientific data is used to set catches by pre-agreed rules. Removing political interference has contributed to the independent third party certification for sustainability (MSC) for several large wild capture fisheries that supply imported seafood such as New Zealand blue grenadier, southern blue whiting, and Alaskan Pollock. Each of these coincidentally involves the use of factory trawlers.

Shifting politics out of fisheries decision-making did not mean the community lost control of their resources. Rather, political involvement occurred more appropriately at the level of policy across fisheries.

This distinction broke down in this debate. We interpret Greenpeace’s campaign against the trawler to be an argument against foreign investment in Australia or allowing non-Australian citizens to work in Australia. The Tasmanian Greens argued that trawling for small pelagics was unacceptable because they claimed it reduced employment. Regardless of the logic of these particular arguments, there is a need and a place for community and political involvement on fishery policy issues such as these. But this discussion should happen at the level of all fisheries rather than being used selectively to affect operations of individual fisheries and operators.

Minister Burke’s recent comments highlight the problem. He is reported to have responded to the departure of the super-trawler by saying “The message to everyone is clear – this Government won’t take risks with our ocean. And if the Liberals take charge it will be back by Christmas”. The fishery is being played for politics.

We suggest that Australia has taken a backward step by allowing political pressure to override established fisheries policies in the case of the factory-trawler. If political expediency dictates how fisheries are to be managed and if ministers have total discretion to override science-based management policies, what is to prevent a return to the bad old days of the 1990s?