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This thing called life

The Minister has spoken: super trawler to stop fishing for one dolphin or three seals

How come the two of us are worth less than a dolphin? Michael Dawes

Our Federal Environmental Minister has stepped up to the plate. He has exercised every legal avenue open to him to regulate the super trawler currently known as the Margiris when it begins fishing in Australian waters.

Tony Burke said, “What I’ve signed off on today is effectively the big vessel will have to fish with the rules so that the impact that it has on the environment is no more than if it were fishing as a small vessel.” I wonder how small a vessel he has in mind. Did he read my recent post about the super trawler where I complained that the super trawler could take as many fish in a day as 56 traditional African fishing boats (canoes, really) can take in a year?

Or should we be concerned that a member of the Commonwealth Fisheries Association claims that smaller boats catch more by-catch than the big boats? If this is true, then Tony Burke has pulled a swift one and increased the by-catch for the big boat while making it sound reasonable to the concerned public.

In either case, I applaud the plan to put observers from the Australian Fisheries Management Authority on the super trawler, to place fully monitored cameras in the nets, and to bring in European experts to check the nets. One risk of super trawlers is their ability to do enormous damage to threatened species, both because they have the capacity and because they operate in the open ocean where their practices are not observed. Observers that submit daily reports, and will review the restrictions again in two weeks, are a really good idea.

In addition, whenever one dolphin or three seals are killed, the boat will have to suspend operation, pull in its huge nets, and move 50 nautical miles (over 90 km) to a new location. This will cost them a lot of money and time, so I am amazed to hear the director of the local company say in the Financial Review that he is happy with these restrictions. If it is true that we can get super trawlers to adhere to these rules, and if it actually does reduce by-catch to extremely low levels, then half of my concerns about its operation will be addressed.

Of course the thing that excites me is that not only will fewer seals and dophins die, but that we will be collecting data that could shed light on this debate. I hope the data will go beyond the mammalian bias shown here. We need to count the penguins, albatross, turtles and non-target fish that are affected. But as a scientist, I will be greatly relieved to see some actual figures about the impact of this boat in Australian waters.

Some people say that no by-catch is acceptable, and that if one mammal (or penguin or turtle) dies then the whole operation should be suspended. The leader of the Greens, Christine Milne, has criticised the regulations on this basis, but all this does is prove that Christine has never gone fishing. Some by-catch is unavoidable, and the only way to impose a no by-catch rule is for all of us to stop fishing right now. We might as well say that because road kill is unacceptable, nobody should drive cars anymore. It is an argument that does not hold water.

Given this madness, I am pleased to see that the Recreational fishers are joining forces with the Greens, at least down in Tasmania. I am hoping these groups can learn things from each other. Things like: a no by-catch rule is a pipe dream, and: not all greenies are completely mad.

Still, can we trust the observers that are going to be placed on the boat? The industry works so closely with the government that there is a risk of non-independence. The most recent allegations that the director of Seafish Tasmania, who brought the super trawler to Australia, was a member of the government advisory panel that set the quota for this fishery, is disturbing.

Because the other half of my concern about the super trawler is the risk of overfishing. The pelagic fishery that will be targeted by the super trawler in Australia is made up of species that are larger, longer lived, slower growing and higher on the food chain than many pelagic fisheries. Estimates of the biomass available for harvesting are based on old information, inference, and in some cases, no information at all. It is a guessing game that can be easily swayed by personalities, loyalties and economic arguments. But losing this game can have dire consequences for hundreds of species, including us.

It is exciting to read that in addition to all his efforts so far, Tony Burke still holds out hope that he can eventually ban the super trawler. To do this Labor will have to introduce a private members bill to change federal laws.

I, for one, am happy with the Minister’s response to the super trawler issue thus far. Although I signed the petition and donated money to the cause, I never thought we’d get this far. Well done, Australia.

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