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Super trawler triggers better conservation for Australian fishes

Tony Burke and Andrew Wilkie are happy with the super trawler wash-up. If fish could read, they’d be happy too. AAP Image/Penny Bradfield

The scientific and public debate around the super trawler FV Margiris, now reflagged as the Abel Tasman, has been significant, lively and at times, heated. The debate has been worth it: the outcome - an amendment to the EPBC Act, passed by the Senate yesterday - is good news for Australian marine life.

The discussion over the super trawler has explored whether we have sufficient scientific knowledge to make a decision, what the environmental and social impacts may be, whether greater efficiency (as represented by the FV Margiris) is socially, economically and ecologically desirable, and how and to what degree public concern should be addressed.

When I wrote my original article for The Conversation on the super trawler, I highlighted the significant uncertainty around the small pelagic fishery. I was troubled that the nature of the targeted animals was not well recognised: they have lower resilience to fishing than other “small pelagics”, such as sardines fished in South Australia.

I was concerned that we lacked estimates of the size of the populations (biomass) for a number of the species and that, where available, the estimates were imprecise. Indeed, the original analysis generating biomass estimates for jack mackerel has now been reviewed. The variation is more clearly acknowledged as is the recognition that the “best” estimates were uncertain.

Finally, the dearth of good information on population structure throughout much of the fishable area meant we were very uncertain about risks and recovery from localised depletions. My professional position was that the scientific uncertainty was sufficiently high that the case for a super trawler in Australia’s southern oceans was weak.

Fish - like this Redbait (Emmelichthys nitidus) - are now being recognised as valuable wildlife. Roger Swainston @Anima

Australia has now moved beyond the specific question of the FV Margiris super trawler by amending the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999). The amendment allows the Minister for the Environment, with agreement from the Minister for Fisheries, to identify a “declared” commercial fishery activity. They can do this where there is “uncertainty about the environmental impacts”, in terms of any or all of the following:

  • method of fishing
  • type of vessel used
  • method of processing/transshipping
  • location.

The declaration is only applicable to fishing not conducted before September 2012. On an interim basis, it allows the Minister for the Environment to establish an expert panel to assess the proposed commercial fishing activity.

Previously, the Minister for the Environment was largely able to intervene with respect to listed protected species such as Australian sea lions, or as part of assessments of existing Commonwealth fishing activities and state-managed export fisheries. Both of these are reactive responses. For instance, listed species are often already at high risk as a result of their depleted numbers.

The amendment is a very positive outcome for Australia’s oceans. It allows a proactive approach to the exploitation of our marine biodiversity. And it reflects the inherent uncertainty associated with fisheries management.

It is important as it comes at a time when approximately 30% of the world’s fisheries remain overexploited (this includes small pelagics), over-capitalised and over-subsidised. It recognises that significant economic value is derived from the ecological role of fishes retained in marine ecosystems. It also comes at a time when the existing “best management” practices and third party certification have demonstrably failed to halt over-exploitation.

The changes to the EPBC Act further confirm Australia’s reputation as a global leader in ocean management, building on the establishment of a network of marine reserves throughout Commonwealth waters earlier this year. The amendment also recognises that fish are not simply food and sport, but are wildlife worthy of proactive conservation under the EPBC Act.

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