Thursday, 25 February 2010
Fisheries Legislation Amendment Bill 2009
Debate resumed from 25 November, on motion by Mr Burke:
That this bill be now read a second time.
I rise to speak on the Fisheries Legislation Amendment Bill 2009. The bill ensures that Australia’s fisheries are adequately protected through the Australian Fisheries Management Authority. It will reduce red tape in fisheries licensing and improve provisions for fish receiver licences and the quota system in the Torres Strait Protected Zone. The Fisheries Legislation Amendment Bill 2009 will amend the Fisheries Management Act 1991 and the Torres Strait Fisheries Act 1984. The amendments provide for three main outcomes: firstly, to improve the ability of the Australian Fisheries Management Authority to provide an efficient and cost-effective fisheries management service through changes to the administration of fisheries licensing and the introduction of electronic decision making; secondly, to ensure that fisheries officers engaged in investigating suspected illegal fishing can be properly equipped to safely perform that function; and, thirdly, to provide for consolidated arrangements regarding fish receiver licences in the Torres Strait.
E-licensing was developed in consultation with the fishing industry. Industry members across the major fisheries, including the Commonwealth Fisheries Association, brokers, companies and individual operators, have tested the functionality and design and they support the use of e-licensing. Electronic decision making will create greater business and administrative efficiencies. Transactions using the electronic system will cost less than applications made using the paper based system, which require processing by individual AFMA officers.
Amendments to the Fisheries Management Act will explicitly allow some routine, high-volume processes to be undertaken electronically, although it will not preclude manual decision making. As a result, two systems will be available for use by AFMA stakeholders—that is, the continuation of the current paper based system and the new e-licensing system. Associated with e-licensing, the bill removes restrictions on the trading of fishing concessions. Restrictions on the transfer of concessions have been removed by redefining the role of AFMA to that of registering, rather than approving, the transfer of concessions. It also limits AFMA’s discretion to refuse to register a transfer to certain prescribed circumstances, such as the suspension of a fishing permit, the levy on the fishing permit being unpaid and the holder being investigated for a fisheries offence or having been convicted of a fisheries offence.
On the defensive equipment side, AFMA has the responsibility of ensuring compliance with the provisions of the Fisheries Management Act through the investigation and detection of illegal activities by both domestic and foreign fishers in the AFZ and Commonwealth managed fisheries. Under a revised arrangement with the states which came into force on 1 July 2009, AFMA officers are undertaking front-line fishery inspections and patrol activities previously undertaken by state and territory officers. While the ability of AFMA to issue officers involved in such work with the necessary defensive equipment is implicit in the act, the bill provides express authority for AFMA fisheries officers to be issued with, and carry, prescribed defensive equipment in the course of their duties. In order to carry out front-line duties, AFMA now needs the capacity to ensure that officers are issued with, and trained in the use of, defensive equipment. Amendments to the act will expressly provide the authority for officers to carry defensive equipment including, for example, bulletproof vests, extendable batons and handcuffs. Any other equipment would need to be prescribed under the regulations.
The bill seeks to clarify and support the operation of the fish receiver licence and a quota monitoring system in the Torres Strait Protected Zone. Previous amendments to the TSF Act done under the Fisheries Legislation Amendment Act 2007 were intended to provide that all individuals who receive fish directly from Torres Strait commercial fishers require a fish receiver licence. Upon implementation it became apparent that these provisions had created an overly cumbersome regulatory system. The amendments actually required all people in the supply chain who handle fish caught in the Torres Strait by a licensed commercial fisher to hold a current fish receiver licence—including home consumers, which was not the original intent of the provision. In addition to rectifying the error in the legislation the amendments will support implementation of an effective quota monitoring system in Torres Strait fisheries by increasing reporting requirements, on catch, in the fisheries. A quota monitoring system allows AFMA to quantify the commercial take for stock assessment purposes and for the determination of sustainable harvest levels. It will provide the capacity to verify fishers’ catch records against records detailing information about product landed at a port.
The government has undertaken extensive consultation with Torres Strait fisheries stakeholders. In addition the Protected Zone Joint Authority agencies—the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry; AFMA; the Queensland Primary Industries and Fisheries; and, the Torres Strait Regional Authority—have been continuously consulted throughout the development process. We support this legislation.
The Fisheries Legislation Amendment Bill 2009 makes amendments to Australia’s fishing legislation that will reduce the administrative burden on the Commonwealth’s fishing industries, protect Australian waters from illegal fishing and better protect fisheries officers. Our fishing industry is worth over $2 billion annually. Fishing and aquaculture is the fifth most valuable primary industry after wool, beef, wheat and dairy. Australia’s fishing zone is the third largest in the world, so it is pretty big. It is probably a bit bigger than the member for Barker’s electorate.
The Australian Fisheries Management Authority is responsible for the effective management and sustainable use of Commonwealth fish resources on behalf of the Australian community. The Australian Fisheries Management Authority manages fisheries within the 200 nautical mile Australian fishing zone outside state coastal waters—for example, beyond three nautical miles, on the high seas and in some cases, by agreement with the states, to the low-water mark. The Australian Fisheries Management Authority’s domestic activities operate under a cost recovery framework. That took a while to agree to over the years, but I think that is a pretty well accepted process now.
This bill amends the Fisheries Management Act 1991, the FM Act, and the Torres Strait Fisheries Act 1984, the TSF Act. A core part of AFMA’s business is the daily administration of the management arrangements in Commonwealth fisheries, including fishing concessions and entitlement administration. Fishing concessions, fishing permits, statutory fishing rights and entitlements may be bought, sold, transferred and leased. In the past these types of routine high-volume transactions have been undertaken by AFMA’s officers individually and manually. The bill will enable an electronic decision-making process, e-licensing. The E word is becoming a big part of our administration through government agencies and of course through industry, and with the Rudd government’s rollout of broadband we will be able to do these things better and more efficiently in our country. It will lead to an enormous amount of upgrading, advances and gains in productivity. So e-licensing is to be implemented by the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, AFMA, to improve the cost efficiency of the management of Commonwealth fisheries and to improve the capacity of industry to manage routine business processes via the internet—a modern process.
The amendments will clarify AFMA’s role as a licensing and registration body rather than an approval body. This means that when a person wishes to transfer a fishing concession AFMA must register the transfer, unless specified circumstances detailed in the legislation have occurred. Electronic decision making, e-licensing, will create greater business and administrative efficiencies. Transactions using the electronic system will cost less than applications made using the paper based system, which will require processing by individual AFMA officers. Amendments to the FM Act will explicitly allow some routine high-volume processes to be undertaken electronically, although it will not preclude manual decision making as a result. Two systems will be available for the use of AFMA stakeholders—the continuation of the current paper based system and the new e-licensing system.
Associated with e-licensing, the bill removes restrictions on the trading of fishing concessions. Restrictions on the transfer of concessions have been removed by redefining AFMA’s role as one of registering rather than approving the transfer of concessions. It also limits AFMA’s discretion to refuse to register a transfer in certain prescribed circumstances such as the suspension of a fishing permit, the levy on the fishing permit being unpaid and the holder being investigated for a fisheries offence or having been convicted of a fisheries offence.
E-licensing has been developed in consultation with the fishing industry. Members across the major fisheries, including the Commonwealth Fisheries Association, brokers, companies and individual operators, have tested the functionality and the design and support the use of e-licensing. The industry has become more and more reliant on IT to help it speed up approvals and streamline the processes, so this initiative really makes a lot of sense.
The bill also supports the investigation and detection of illegal fishing activities, while the ability of AFMA to issue its officers involved in this type of work with the necessary defensive equipment is implied in the FM Act. The bill will ensure that the FM Act provides express authority for the issuing of certain types of defensive equipment. AFMA has the responsibility of ensuring compliance with provisions of the FM Act through the investigation and detection of illegal activities by both domestic and foreign fishers in the Australian fishing zone and the Commonwealth managed fisheries.
Under revised arrangements with the states which came into force on 1 July 2009, AFMA officers are undertaking front-line fishery inspections and patrol activities previously undertaken by state and territory officers, while the ability of AFMA to issue officers involved in such work with the necessary defensive equipment is implied in the FM Act. The bill provides express authority for AFMA fisheries officers to be issued with and carry prescribed defensive equipment in the course of their duties. In order to carry out front-line duties, AFMA now needs the capacity to ensure that officers are issued with and trained in the use of defensive equipment. Amendments to the Fisheries Management Act will explicitly provide the authority for officers to carry defensive equipment—including, for instance, bulletproof vests, extendible batons and handcuffs. Any other equipment would need to be prescribed under the regulations. I have always considered that those in the fishing industry are also the eyes and the ears of other maritime activities and are often well-placed to pass on information not only related to their industry, so there is a need to ensure the safety of these officers undertaking this type of work.
The bill will implement a treaty between the government of Australia and the government of the French Republic to cooperate in the maritime areas adjacent to the French Southern and Antarctic Territories—the TAAF, Heard Island and McDonald Islands—which entered into force on 1 February 2005 as a cooperative treaty. From my work on the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, I can remember these sorts of treaties well. An agreement on cooperative enforcement of fisheries laws between the government of Australia and the government of the French Republic in the maritime areas adjacent to the French Southern and Antarctic Territories, Heard Island and McDonald Islands—the ‘enforcement agreement’—was signed in January 2007 and builds on the cooperative treaty.
Australia must incorporate the cooperative treaty and enforcement agreement into its legislation for cooperative enforcement activities to occur between Australia and France. The bill will grant French officers immunity from Australia’s civil and criminal administrative jurisdiction as provided for under the enforcement agreement. This is consistent with the enforcement agreement, where French officers acting consistently with the enforcement agreement are indemnified under Australian law, and it complements the FM Act, which indemnifies Australian officers in the exercise of powers under the FM Act. Australian officers are afforded similar indemnity under French law.
Illegal, unreported and unregulated—IUU—fishing is a major concern for the Australian government. IUU fishing on the high seas is a highly organised, mobile and elusive activity that undermines the efforts of responsible countries to sustainably manage their fish resources. International cooperation is vital to effectively combat this serious problem. Australia must incorporate the cooperative treaty and enforcement agreement into its legislation.
The bill will give Australian officers statutory authority to assist French officers to undertake cooperative enforcement activities and will grant French officers immunity from Australia’s civil and criminal jurisdiction when they are undertaking cooperative enforcement activities pursuant to the enforcement agreement. France has implemented the enforcement agreement into French law to the effect that Australian officers and vessels acting consistently with the enforcement agreement can assist French controllers in enforcing French fisheries law. Similarly, Australian officers acting consistently with the enforcement agreement are indemnified under French law. The Australian fishing industry and conservation non-government organisations were consulted during the negotiation and conclusion of the enforcement agreement and are supportive of the amendments.
The bill will also clarify the TSF Act to refine overly burdensome legislation and support the implementation of an effective quota monitoring system in Torres Strait fisheries by increasing reporting requirements on catch in the fishery. Previous amendments to the TSF Act, done under the Fisheries Legislation Amendment Act 2007, were intended to provide that all individuals who received fish directly from Torres Strait commercial fishers required a fish receiver licence. Upon implementation it became apparent that those provisions had created an overly cumbersome regulatory system. The amendments required all people in the supply chain who receive fish caught in the Torres Strait by a licensed commercial fisher to hold a current fish receiver licence, including home consumers, which was not the original intention of the provision.
In addition to rectifying the error in the legislation, the amendments will support the implementation of an effective quota monitoring scheme in the Torres Strait fisheries by increasing reporting requirements on catch in the fishery. A quota monitoring scheme allows AFMA to qualify the commercial take for stock assessment purposes and the determination of sustainable harvest levels. It will provide the capacity to verify fishers’ catch records against records detailing information about product landed at a port.
Extensive consultation has been undertaken with Torres Strait Island fishery stakeholders. In addition, the Protected Zone Joint Authority agencies—the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, AFMA, Queensland Primary Industries and Fisheries and the Torres Strait Regional Authority—have been continually consulted throughout that process.
I remember the report of a committee of which I was deputy chair back in 1997 entitled Managing Commonwealth fisheries: the last frontier. Some of its recommendations were implemented, including to modernise AFMA. There has been movement forward on some of the committee’s recommendations. One recommendation was to upgrade the processes being used in those days. Another recommendation was to work more with the states, and I see that becoming more evident in agreements with the states. I can see that, over the years, we have been getting there with a lot of those recommendations.
We know that fish do not recognise three-mile nautical lines and nor do they recognise 200-mile zones in international waters—a difficulty! In 1997 a recommendation was made that the CSIRO vessel Southern Surveyor was needed for research in this area. In the last budget, allocations were made for the upgrading of the vessel. This came about as a result of a report initiated by the member for Calwell—who is just leaving the chamber. It was a very good report and has led to some very good money going into research. Part of that money was for the upgrade of the Southern Surveyor and for research into climate change in the Southern Ocean and sustainable fishing by the fishing industry. The ship is stationed in Tasmania, at Hobart Harbour on the Derwent River.
I believe this bill takes the industry forward and is needed to improve the overall safety and efficiency of our industry. I recommended it to the House. I will be supporting the bill. (Time expired)
Thank you, member for Fisher. In amending the Fisheries Management Act 1991 and the Torres Strait Fisheries Act 1984, theFisheries Legislation Amendment Bill 2009 deals with three key matters. The bill aims: (1) to ensure that fisheries officers engaged in investigating suspected illegal fishing can be properly equipped to safely perform that function; (2) to improve the ability of the Australian Fisheries Management Authority to provide an efficient and cost-effective fisheries management service through changes to the administration of fisheries licensing and the introduction of electronic decision making; and (3) provide for consolidated arrangements regarding holders of fish receiver licences in the Torres Strait.
The Australian Fisheries Management Authority is responsible for managing Australia’s commercial fishing from three nautical miles off the coast to 200 nautical miles out—the boundary of the Australian Fishing Zone. The authority also has a foreign compliance role to deter illegal, unregulated, unreported foreign fishing within Australian waters and also on the high seas. Amendments to the Fisheries Management Act which came into effect on 25 June 2009 extended management beyond the Australian Fishing Zone, giving effect to Australia’s obligations under international agreements.
The Commonwealth has sovereignty over the Territorial Sea under international law. The Territorial Sea extends from the low water mark out to 12 nautical miles. The offshore constitutional settlement arrangement between the Commonwealth and the states and the Northern Territory overrides this existing jurisdictional boundary so that the states and the Northern Territory can manage coastal or inshore species such as rock lobster and abalone while the Commonwealth manages offshore or migratory species such as tuna or species subject to international agreements such as orange roughy. This arrangement provides for state and Northern Territory laws to apply within three nautical miles.
The Australian Fishing Zone as defined in the Fisheries Management Act covers the same area as the Exclusive Economic Zone; however, it only relates to the management and protection of fisheries. Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Australia has sovereign rights to explore, exploit, conserve and manage all natural resources of the waters adjacent to the seabed and of the seabed and its subsoil, together with other activities such as the production of energy from water, currents and wind within the Exclusive Economic Zone. Covering approximately nine million square kilometres, the Australian Fishing Zone is the third largest in the world. The Australian Fisheries Management Authority manages more than 20 Commonwealth commercial fisheries within that area.
There are no reliable statistics about illegal fishing by foreign vessels in Australian waters. In northern Australia, illegal fisheries target shark, reef fish, rock lobster and trepang. In the Southern Ocean around Heard and McDonald islands, Patagonian toothfish and mackerel icefish are the target. It is thought that increased joint Australian and French patrols in the Southern Ocean has significantly reduced the level of illegal fishing in the French and Australian exclusive zones respectively.
However, illegal fishing still occurs on the high seas. It is estimated that illegal fishing in the area of the Southern Ocean managed under the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources was 1,169 tonnes in 2007-08 compared with 3,615 tonnes in 2006-07. The number of illegal foreign fishing apprehensions in the Australia Fishing Zone has progressively declined over recent years from 367 in 2005-06 to 216 in 2006-07 to 156 in 2007-08 to 27 in the last financial year. So we are having some success. These apprehensions occurred in the extremities of the zone, and patrols and surveillance adjacent to the zone reveals that illegal fishing remains an ongoing threat.
Illegal fishing has a major impact on our commercial fisheries, even when it occurs outside the zone. Southern bluefin tuna is a highly migratory species and it is widely distributed throughout waters of the Southern Ocean, including the Australian Fishing Zone. The key areas where southern bluefin tuna are caught are the Great Australian Bight and waters off south-eastern Australia. In the period between 1985 and 2005 Japanese fishers were found to have illegally caught 178,000 tonnes of southern bluefin tuna, worth around $6 billion to $8 billion. As a result, the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna cut Japan’s quota from 6,065 tonnes to 3,000 tonnes. To help conserve migratory fish stocks, in May 2007 Australia adopted the Regional plan of action to promote responsible fishing practices including combating illegal unreported and unregulated fishing in the region, along with 10 other countries from South-East Asia that have either highly migratory or straddling stocks with Australia.
Small 10- to 15-metre wooden hulled vessels from Indonesia make up 97 per cent of illegal fishing vessels in Australian waters. These illegal fishers take a variety of finned fish and species such as turtles, dolphins and crayfish. However, there is a specific interest in shark products. As there is limited storage space on these small vessels, only the most valuable part of the shark, the dorsal fin, is kept. Peter Venslovus, the authority’s regional director for foreign compliance operations, commented that you can get up to $100 a kilo for the dried shark fin and they have apprehended boats with up to 30 kilograms of fins on board. The sheer number of these small fishing boats means that collectively they can devastate shark populations very quickly.
The authority’s fisheries officers are responsible for investigating and detecting illegal activities carried out by foreign and domestic fishers in the Australian fishing zone and on the high seas. Since 1 July 2009 they are also undertaking frontline fishing inspections and patrol activities previously undertaken by state and territory officers. Due to the significant financial incentive of illegal fishing, this work is obviously potentially dangerous. Illegal fishing by Indonesian fishers is not village subsistence fishing but a lucrative business with businessmen financing the boats, fishing gear and GPS systems. It is essential that those officers are adequately trained and equipped. General operation manager of the authority Paul Murphy has stated that there can be violent resistance on boarding and searching of boats. Crews not only arm boats with side spikes to prevent boarding but may also hurl lumps of concrete and arm themselves with machetes. The explanatory memorandum provides that defensive equipment, including bulletproof vests, extendable batons and handcuffs, would be required. Other equipment would need to be prescribed under the regulations.
The total Australian legal fisheries production for 2007-08 was 236,000 tonnes, with an estimated value of $2.16 billion. It is encouraging to see that aquaculture fisheries production in Australia, which also includes southern bluefin tuna wild catch input to the southern Australian tuna ranching sector, was 62,500 tonnes, 26 per cent of the total volume and valued at $868 million, or 40 per cent of the total value. The most valuable Commonwealth managed fisheries are the northern prawn fisheries, valued at $74 million, the Commonwealth trawl sector of the southern and eastern scale fish and shark fishery at a value of $46 million, and the southern bluefin tuna fisheries valued at $45 million.
The authority has developed a range of electronic devices to improve the cost of protecting these fisheries, the cornerstone being the e-licensing system. This system enables a range of high-volume routine licensing decisions which do not require the exercise of judgment by an officer to be made electronically. In 2008-09 there were 4,562 transactions and it is estimated that 80 per cent of these will be completed by e-licensing by 2011. The amendments are expected to result in a reduction in the authority’s administrative costs and subsequently the cost passed on to industry through fees and levies. Also the ability of concession holders to engage in real-time transactions will enable the market to operate more efficiently.
The Australian Fisheries Management Authority also provides fisheries management services in the Torres Strait on behalf of the Torres Strait Protected Zone Joint Authority, which was established under the Torres Strait Fisheries Act 1984. This joint authority consists of the Commonwealth minister for fisheries, the Queensland minister for fisheries and the chair of the Torres Strait Regional Authority and is responsible for commercial and traditional fishing in the Torres Strait and designated adjacent waters. Previous amendments to this act provided that all individuals who receive fish from Torres Strait commercial fishers require a fish receiver’s licence. This bill amends this requirement by making it an offence if a person does not hold a fish receiver’s licence but receives fish directly from a person required to hold a specified licence and they intend to process or sell the fish. It is also an offence if they do have a licence but they receive fish from a person who does not have a commercial fisher licence. It is not an offence if they intend to process the fish for personal consumption or use.
It is vital that the Torres Strait Protected Zone Joint Authority has systems in place to regulate and monitor the amount of fish being caught for commercial purposes. These requirements support the implementation of an effective quota monitoring system as it provides the capacity to verify catch records and product landed at port.
Overall, world fish stocks are declining and excessive overfishing continues. Fish around the world will venture further, risking crossing marine boundaries in pursuit of declining stocks. Amendments which better equip our fisheries officers to deal with this ongoing concern are to be commended. Amendments which support the Australian Fisheries Management Authority’s ability to offer a high standard of service and reduce industry costs for our lucrative commercial fisheries are also to be commended. I commend this bill to the House.
My contribution will be necessarily brief as I have to be Deputy Speaker in the main chamber at 11.30 am. I just want to place on record that the Fisheries Legislation Amendment Bill 2009 is an important bill which does not have any opposition in the House. The aim of the bill is to ensure Australia’s fisheries are adequately protected through the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, to reduce red tape in fisheries licensing and to improve provisions for fish receiver licences and the quota system in the Torres Strait protected zone.
In the couple of minutes available to me I want to say just how important the fishing industry is on the Sunshine Coast; in particular, a large number of trawlers bring catches into Mooloolaba. Many of those catches are chilled and exported to Japan and they make a wonderful contribution towards Australia’s export performance. Over the years I have been approached by trawler owners on the Sunshine Coast who have been concerned about changing government regulation, which, in many cases, makes it difficult for them to win catches and to make a living. Also, concerns have been expressed to me that boats have been coming from other fishing areas to the traditional fishing areas of the boats on the Sunshine Coast, with consequences of a financial nature which are not particularly good for the local fishermen. Further, the fishing industry has been adversely affected by the increase in fuel costs, and if fuel costs once again go to the high level they have previously been then many of the fishing operators who have made such a wonderful contribution to the Sunshine Coast economy for so long will find it difficult to continue.
I want to place on record that I greatly admire the fishing industry on the Sunshine Coast for the highly professional way in which they carry out their operations and for the tremendous amount of employment which is generated locally. It is important that governments do not lose sight of the importance of local fishing and local fishing industries.
In conclusion, I would like to congratulate the Deputy Clerk, Mr David Elder, on his elevation to this office. Mention of this was made in the main chamber. I have known David for a very long time. He has held just about every position one could hold in the parliament and he has carried out all of the responsibilities of those positions with great diligence, great competence and great impartiality. I know that by having David Elder as the Deputy Clerk we will continue in this place to have quality clerks in whom everyone can have a great sense of confidence and respect. I commend the bill to the House.
I, too, would like to congratulate David Elder. I think it is a privilege to serve in this parliament with the speakers, clerks and deputy clerks that we have in this parliament. We are certainly pleased with this appointment, which I think all members of the chamber would be in furious agreement with. It is a job well done and it will no doubt continue to be done.
I note that the minister made many comments in the second reading speech to this legislation, but I am sure those comments and other comments will be backed up by the member for Gippsland, who I believe is just about ready to make his contribution to the chamber.
I thank the previous speaker for his very thoughtful contribution in relation to the Fisheries Legislation Amendment Bill 2009! This is regarded by the opposition as non-controversial legislation, as it provides for three main outcomes: improving the ability of the Australian Fisheries Management Authority to provide an efficient management service through the introduction of electronic decision making; ensuring that fisheries officers are properly equipped to perform their role while investigating suspected illegal fishing activities; and consolidating arrangements regarding holders of fish receiver licences in the Torres Strait. I note the presence of the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry in the chamber and also his second reading speech, where he concluded:
… the bill supports AFMA’s obligations to reduce industry costs while continuing to offer a high standard of service and ensures that AFMA’s officers possess the requisite defensive equipment in order to conduct their duties in a safe and effective manner.
In supporting the bill, I would like to take the opportunity to brief the House on the commercial fishing industry in the electorate of Gippsland and the importance of continued government investment in infrastructure to meet the industry’s long-term and short-term needs. I thank the minister for his visit to the Gippsland electorate to meet with the local fishing industry, and the government’s commitment to the development of a deepwater jetty off Bullock Island. It has been very well received by the local community.
Lakes Entrance has a very long and proud tradition as a commercial fishing port, dating back to the 19th century. Generations of Lakes Entrance, particularly the men and sometimes women, have gone to sea or fished the lake system. It is a very proud tradition that our community has. The Lakes Entrance Fishermen’s Co-operative Society Ltd is the largest supplier of fresh fish to the Melbourne Wholesale Fish Market and a major supplier to the Sydney Fish Market. Just as a bit of history, while I was not around in the days of the formation of the co-op—I am relying on the information provided by their website—it was created in 1964 in response to a period of very low prices, an ‘uncertain and unreliable ice supply’ and a lack of cool room storage facilities in Lakes Entrance. As a result, several trawler owners got together and decided that these problems could be overcome by providing a cool storage facility in the town, assuring an ice supply and developing a co-ordinated and orderly marketing system. A new plant was built on Bullock Island and officially opened by Sir Henry Bolte in 1968. As their website says:
The commencement of operations at Bullock Island ushered in a new era in the handling and marketing of fish—
in East Gippsland, and the co-op went from strength to strength in subsequent years.
Various improvements have been made over the past few decades, and Lakes Entrance remains a critical part of the commercial fishing industry in Australia. The co-op handles over 80 different species of fish, the most predominant including flathead, school whiting, trevally, morwong and shark. If you are in Lakes Entrance at the right time of year, like now, there are always some fresh prawns on offer, and the scallop industry is also doing well again after some very difficult years. The co-op itself employs about 20 permanent staff and up to 40 or 50 casual staff. If you add the co-op employees to the fishermen, the owners of the vessels and those working as deckies, it is easy to see why the commercial fishing industry is such a vital part of the East Gippsland regional economy and the state of Victoria more generally.
I provided that history in the context of some of the challenges facing this important industry and the role of governments at both state and federal level in the future. One of the greatest challenges to the future of the commercial fishing industry in Lakes Entrance is the ability to maintain safe and reliable ocean access. For a bit of background, I am relying on a study paper done by Mr Peter Wheeler, who outlines the history of ocean access at Lakes Entrance, which is quite remarkable. There was actually a natural entrance to the Gippsland Lakes, dating back to the early 1830s, which was used by the shipping industry at that time. Due to the fact that it was quite unreliable, being subject to seasonal closures, the townspeople decided that it was important to develop an artificial entrance. That was first considered in the 1850s. It was quite a remarkable engineering idea for the times, considering we are talking about developing an artificial entrance into a lake system 160 years ago. The works began in 1870 but they were never actually completed. As is the nature of the Victorian climate, they relied on a large storm to come and burst the entrance through. So a storm did the final job for the engineers of the day.
What we have now is an artificial entrance into what was previously a freshwater lake system. I am relying on log reports of the early seafarers, which indicate the challenge faced by our modern-day seafarers. For example, in 1855 WT Dawson reported:
… the water rises to a great height in the lakes and the country for a distance of 100 miles back is flooded … the rush of waters very quickly cleared a channel through which even larger vessels could sail in.
Another report, by Sir John Coode in 1879, says:
During heavy land-floods the stream runs continuously seawards [through the natural entrance] for weeks; this fact was communicated to me both by Captain Limesechow and Captain McAlpine who appear to have had greater experience of the navigation through the entrance than any other persons. The former mentioned an instance which occurred about six years since, when his schooner was anchored about half a mile to seaward of the entrance; he stated that on this occasion his vessel lay for eight days and nights with her head to the outgoing current, and that the water running past, being quite fresh, was taken up daily for ship’s use.
The point is that the conditions at Lakes Entrance are subject to some very severe natural forces, and nature has often helped to clear the way for that artificial entrance to remain open.
Over the hundred years or so since the entrance has been open, there have been a lot of changes in the catchment of the Gippsland Lakes, which has had a major impact on the commercial fishing industry. The construction of the Thomson Dam ended up reducing flows into the Gippsland Lakes system, which has contributed to the build-up of sediment at the artificial entrance of the Gippsland Lakes. Regular dredging has been required over the past 40 or 50 years, and in the mid-1970s a side-casting dredge known as the April Hamer was commissioned. Its role was to keep sweeping clear the channels so the commercial fishing fleet could access the sea. As a side-casting dredge it can only throw the sand and the sediment about 30 metres, which really does not achieve the endgame that is required by the fishermen. So the bar at Lakes Entrance where the lake meets the sea has had a notorious reputation over many years. A lot of seafarers, both recreational and commercial, have come to grief there, and its reputation has discouraged passing recreational vessels from entering the port at Lakes Entrance.
The build-up of sand reached a crisis point in the late 1990s. So much sand was building up in the entrance that new islands were being formed in the channels to the Gippsland Lakes. Jeff Kennett was the Premier of Victoria at the time. A local real estate agent, Ross Bennett, may know something about the naming of one island which we call Kennett Island. He may know how the sign got there. Anyway, all the sand that had built up was credited to Jeff, and no-one was prepared to remove it. It created enormous problems for the community in terms of safe navigation in the area. At that time there were community protests, petitions and rallies to highlight the fact that the commercial fishing fleet was in jeopardy of being shut down completely. There was a threat to the tourism industry because it was more dangerous for recreational vessels to access the entrance, and it was only the major flood of 1998, a fortuitous event as it turned out, that served to blast away a lot of the sediment. While the flood caused damage in other parts of the electorate, what it did at the entrance to the Gippsland Lakes was much appreciated by the commercial fishermen.
But we cannot rely on those sorts of events to keep the entrance clear. Gippsland Ports has a primary responsibility to maintain a safe and navigable entrance. They have developed over a period of years a sand transfer system which has been able to pump sand away from the entrance, and they have been able to tinker at the edges to reduce the amount of sand that has built up there. Unfortunately for Gippsland Ports, conditions have deteriorated again over a period of years. About five years ago there was another community campaign, as the entrance was threatening to close once again. At that time I was the president of the Lakes Entrance Business and Tourism Association and I worked with several state MPs to raise awareness of the issue. As the minister knows, I am always prepared to give credit where it is due, and I give great credit to the state government for coming to the party and providing $31.5 million to develop what was called at the time a ‘trial’ to see what could be done to maintain a safe and navigable entrance. I reflect on the media release at the time from the minister John Thwaites. He pointed out:
This project will create clear navigable channels to Lakes Entrance and ensure that they’re kept open over coming years.
The trial involved bringing in a suction hopper dredge, a replacement of the sandpiper dredge, monitoring of the sand movements inside and outside the entrance, improvements and repairs to the existing sand management system and installation of sand pumps. That trial has been very successful. The Premier of Victoria himself, as recorded in Hansard in October 2008, said that the trial had removed:
… 290 000 cubic metres of sand … in four months and a further 300 000 cubic metres from inside the entrance.
So it has been successful. I appreciate the indulgence of the House as I build the case for the main point I am trying to make regarding the future of the commercial fishing industry in Lakes Entrance. From the work that has occurred over many years—and in my own personal observations over the last 18 months—the entrance now is in the best condition it has been in for decades. The commercial fishing fleet particularly welcome the opportunity to access their port more safely. For them to come and go safely from their place of work on a daily basis has been a godsend for our community. There is a lot less stress involved in accessing the harbour now than there was as little as five years ago. It has certainly been welcomed. The funding from the state government has been welcomed. As I said, since the commencement of that trial about half a million cubic metres of sand have been removed from inside the channels. Under a range of permits—that is, sea-dumping permits and that type of thing—from federal and state authorities it has been done under strict environmental conditions and there is support in the broader community to maintain the entrance in a safe and navigable state going forward.
The point I am trying to make today is that the state government has clearly acknowledged its responsibility now, and the challenge is to make sure that we are committed to a long-term solution. Letting the sand build up and close the entrance, as is suggested occasionally by some people who are concerned about the cost, is simply not an option. It is not an option for the commercial fishing fleet, which is so important to the future of our region. It is also simply not possible with the infrastructure that is already in place in Lakes Entrance. You cannot move that fishing fleet to another port. The establishment costs would be enormous. It is often said that perhaps you could move the fishing fleet to another port. That just would not work. You have the infrastructure in place. You have families in place who are ready to work in the industry. It just would not work. It just would not be viable. Also, closing the entrance or allowing the entrance to naturally close would result in an inundation of towns such as Metung, Paynesville and Loch Sport around the Gippsland Lakes. You would have a situation where the water would build up, those towns would be inundated, a natural storm would occur and the entrance would bust out again—as it did in the 1830s and the 1840s. It is simply not a plausible option to allow the entrance to close.
Maintaining the safe and navigable channels is the only option for us. Funding will be required to secure the future for both the fishing industry and the tourism industry in the region. I note that the state minister, Gavin Jennings, visited Lakes Entrances as recently as eight or nine months ago and inspected the work that was done. I understand there is an application being put to the state government from Gippsland Ports for possible options to secure the future of the fishing industry. There are a few options on the table for governments to consider. There is the possibility of developing our own purpose-built trailer-hopper suction dredge for use in Lakes Entrance and then to be contracted around Australia, but I am not sure that that is necessarily going to be the option that governments will commit to. There are a lot of questions about whether it is the prime role of governments to build, maintain and operate their own dredges. There perhaps will be a commitment to funding for an annual visit by a contract vessel, such as the Pelican, on the occasion that is required.
Such options will naturally come at a considerable price, but the stakes are very high for our community. I am certain that the state government is aware of its responsibilities. I am certain that the federal minister is conscious of the need to make sure that this $200 million fishing industry is maintained in the longer term. The value to the tourism industry of a safe and navigable entrance is estimated to be about $200 million a year as well. The stakes are very high for the local community, but I am confident that Gippsland Ports, in cooperation with the state government, is heading in the right direction. There is a lot of interest in what is going to come about in the next few months, but I am very confident that we are moving in the right direction. I urge the state government to continue the work it is doing with Gippsland Ports, the fishing industry and the wider community and to commit funding to the long-term dredging program. That will ensure the good work in recent years is continued into the future.
There are some broader issues of concern to the fishing industry that directly concern the federal government. I know the Minister Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry has been made aware of them, and I use the opportunity now, while the minister is at the table, to remind him of some correspondence from the General Manager of LEFCOL, Mr Dale Sumner. He sent me an email two months ago indicating his concern about the closure of the Australian Seafood Hotline. Mr Sumner wrote:
I have found out with surprise and disappointment that DAFF dropped the above hotline in June of 2009 …
The ability for consumers to quickly report suspected mislabelling of seafood is critical in times when seafood imports exceed our production.
Our industry is being placed on an unfair playing field against imports and consumers are consistently being urged to report issues and now find that the Government has dropped this critical tool.
I do not want to cause great embarrassment to the minister by any stretch, but it is an issue that Mr Sumner has raised in good faith. He is asking questions about it as he is a man who is very passionate about the labelling of seafood. Australian seafood, naturally, has a reputation as being of high quality and fresh, and coming from a sustainably managed fishery. That is a competitive advantage we have and he is concerned that, if consumers are not aware of where seafood has come from, they will not be able to make complaints in a swift and efficient manner, such as through the Australian Seafood Hotline.
I have no idea how popular the hotline was in the past and I have sought information from the minister in that regard. As I have said, this is not intended as a point-scoring exercise; it is a genuine inquiry from the general manager who is just wondering what other opportunities are available for consumers to have confidence in the Australian product and also to have the capacity to make complaints if they feel they are being ripped off. That is an issue that the seafood industry has had to deal with over many years. It is very hard for the layman to tell whether the snapper advertised in the fridge at a retail outlet really is snapper. It is hard to tell if you are not aware of how individual fish fillets will look. There is a concern within the industry that the labelling is sometimes misleading, and they are very conscious of the need to keep promoting the Australia product. It is a great product that we have here in our country.
The other area of concern to the industry, and I think it is one that the minister has been made aware of as well, is the competing interests of the oil and gas sector in Bass Strait. I fear this matter will be very difficult to resolve. It is difficult to manage and the potential for future conflict between the industries will take some careful negotiation. Everyone in the fishing industry recognises the critical role of the oil and gas industry in Bass Strait, and in fact the Gippsland region would not be as successful and vibrant as it is without the oil and gas industry. The two industries have seemed to be able to cooperate and operate quite amenably over the 40 years that oil and gas exploration has occurred in Bass Strait, but with increased activity there is an increased requirement from the oil and gas industry for exclusion zones around their operations. That is making life difficult for individual fishermen.
I am not sure that there are easy resolutions. I know the fishermen are talking in good faith with the oil and gas industry. I have written to the oil and gas industry and urged them to come to Lakes Entrance and to be up-front with the fishermen. These men going out to sea are smart operators. They know how to handle their vessels, they know how to navigate close to other structures, and I think there will need to be some flexibility in terms of where these exclusion zones are. When you start taking these shots away from the fishermen, you start directly affecting their livelihood. How we get the balance right is a real challenge for us. There is certainly goodwill on both sides and it is something I think we need to manage at the industry level, but we also need to make sure that state and federal governments, when they are issuing licences and allowing these competing interests to operate in the same environment, are respectful of the rights of both industries. Again, this is not intended as a criticism of anyone; it is just a reflection of the fact that the commercial fishing industry has a legitimate right to access fishing grounds as much as the oil and gas industry has a right to exercise their licences. We just have to make sure there is a way that we can get the two industries working together so that both can operate successfully into the future.
In conclusion, I thank the House for this opportunity to provide an update on some of the issues facing the commercial fishing industry in Gippsland, and express my support for the bill.
I appreciate the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry sitting here for just a brief time while I follow a very comprehensive contribution from the member for Gippsland, who clearly knows very much about the fishing industry in his patch. He does come from a very beautiful part of our country with some excellent fishing, but of course it is not quite as good as along the south coast of Adelaide and out around Kangaroo Island. Fishing is a vital industry to my electors, particularly those along the south coast and around Kangaroo Island, both for commercial fishing and probably more importantly for recreational fishing.
Kangaroo Island is a great tourism asset for South Australia. Sixty per cent of international visitors who visit South Australia do so to visit Kangaroo Island, and the fishing industry is a vital and important part of its economy and the economy of Mayo. I take a personal interest and make sure I occasionally get out there to make sure the fisherman are going well on KI. I can say that just before Christmas they were doing very well when we ensured that the whiting stocks were still there.
On a more serious note, one of the great reforms that we have made in this country is to ensure that we have a sustainable fishing industry with correct bag limits and so forth. I think that is something we need to ensure we continue to keep an eye on. It is a vital component of our economy with the tourism aspect and both commercial and recreational fishing. However, increasingly we are facing a worldwide challenge with fish. There were some interesting articles over the summer period that I am sure the minister saw about world fish stocks and the challenge we will have in the next 20 years as the population throughout the world grows so quickly, particularly in countries that are reliant on seafood as one of their mainstay foods.
I note that the minister is addressing these issues about protection of our fish stocks in this bill. Increasingly we will see concerning reports about other countries accessing fish stocks that have traditionally not been fished and putting increased pressure on the world food supply, which I think is a major challenge for our nation and for the world in the next 20 years. This is going to be an increasingly important issue for our country. I am sure the minister is very aware of that. I note that this bill does address some of those issues in relation to protections and I think they are very important issues for us to be looking at.
Fishing is a vital industry to my part of the world around Kangaroo Island off the south coast of South Australia. It is less vital these days in the Lower Lakes because of the environmental situation; however, it is also important for many recreational fisherman. It is a large passion for many people and we do need the right governance. We have an ongoing issue with marine parks in South Australia and I know the minister will be working very closely with the state government on those issues. They can be contentious issues and getting the balance right between sustainability and allowing the recreational industry to continue is important. I appreciate the indulgence of the minister for allowing those short remarks.
May I thank all members who have contributed to this debate on the Fisheries Legislation Amendment Bill 2009. It has been a productive and positive discussion, not simply because the amendments we are dealing with are non-controversial, but also because there is a common theme of wanting to support regional jobs and helping to build regional economies. That is precisely what the different elements of the fishing industry do. That actually applies whether you are talking about commercial fishing or recreational fishing. Just as commercial fishing in the most obvious way underpins regional economies, in many ways so too does recreational fishing. The commercial outcomes of recreational fishing—whether it be anything from the more obvious elements of the charter businesses, tackle shops or tourism that comes along with it—have an important economic role, which all too often does not get included in debates when we are dealing with the economic outcomes of fishing. I think that has been an important part of the debate that we have had on this bill. There are a number of issues that have been raised. I was not able to be in the chamber for the entirety of the debate, but there have been a number of issues raised while I have been here or raised in good faith, some of which I will follow up on subsequently.
I will refer to concerns raised by the member for Gippsland with respect to the seafood hotline. I will reply directly to his correspondence, but, given that it has been raised in the House, I will also reply here. My understanding is that that role, while not being performed by my department at the moment, is being performed by Seafood Experience Australia. Whether that is being performed to the complete satisfaction of people who had previously dealt with the hotline through my department is something I am very open to receiving information on. But Seafood Experience Australia is performing that role.
On the issue of fish names, for many years, in both Australia and the rest of the world, fish names have been a mess. There can be seven different descriptions for the exact same species, and some of those descriptions will come down to completely different species as well. There has been some good work done. I have previously referred, by media release, to some websites that confine and come to an agreement on what particular species will be called. I think that takes us a long way to resolving some of the issues that were raised by the member for Gippsland.
The area where he said there is no easy answer—and I agree wholeheartedly with him—is with respect to oil and gas and exclusion zones. We often deal with conflicts between primary industries and the resources industries about access to land. We have had a very public discussion, largely involving the New South Wales government but which has come up in the federal parliament as well, with respect to the Liverpool Plains. The challenges in the ocean are actually no different from the challenges on the land. That is something which will be in part resolved through the involvement of different levels of government but largely will be resolved through sensible negotiation between the industry players themselves.
You can absolutely kill any level of interest in a speech in parliament by describing amendments as technical, so I will dodge that—even though it is probably true. The amendments that are before us hit three key themes which determine the future of the fishing industry in Australia. It is an industry that needs to be sustainable, needs to eliminate red tape and needs to combat illegal fishing. The amendments before us touch on all three themes. The amendments with respect to quotas in the Torres Strait are there to ensure that the industry remains sustainable. The amendments on e-licensing and doing something about some of the current overly burdensome rules on fish receivers licences are there to find a way towards eliminating red tape. Also, the amendments in the bill which deal particularly with defensive equipment are there to make sure that those involved on the front line, in incredibly difficult circumstances, combating illegal fishing, are able to get ready access to the defensive equipment that they require.
All of this is important in an industry which, as I say, plays a critical role in supporting regional jobs and helping to build regional economies. I am grateful for the bipartisan nature of the debate which has taken place. Before he walks out the door, I add my voice to those who participated in the debate in congratulating David Elder on the opportunities which are given as opportunities to him but are in fact opportunities for us. Congratulations, David. I commend the bill to the House.
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.
Ordered that this bill be reported to the House without amendment.