Monday, 17 September 2012
Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Declared Commercial Fishing Activities) Bill 2012; Second Reading
I rise speak on Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Declared Commercial Fishing Activities) Bill 2012 as a Queensland senator concerned that the Margiris, now insultingly renamed the Abel Tasman although I will continue to call it the Margiris, is now licensed and flagged in my home port of Brisbane. Queenslanders, like many Australians, have been outraged at the potential for the Margiris to denude Australian waters of fish. My inbox has been overflowing with such concern and with good reason. The massive 9,500 tonne, 142-metre supertrawler is twice the size of the largest trawler that has ever fished in Australian waters. This boat has the capacity to catch more than 90,000 tonnes of fish every single year. Australia's oceans have never been subjected to an onslaught like this.
Supertrawlers around the world have trashed the local marine environments, destroyed vital food chains by clearing the local environment of tonnes of baitfish and left a wake of dead dolphins, seals and turtles in addition to untold volumes of other bycatch species. Fishing communities, some marine scientists and a whole host of community organisations have asked to see more work done on the science backing supertrawlers, especially in the area of potential local depletion of fish stocks from this huge fish vacuum cleaner. So in the view of the Greens, the onus of proof must be reversed—supertrawlers must be banned until the best possible science has proven that supertrawlers are not causing the untold damage the community is so concerned about.
The Australian Greens put forward amendments to this bill in the House which sadly did not get up. These amendments would have made it an offence for ships capable of processing and storing more than 2,000 tonnes of biomass to fish in Australian waters. As the Magiris is the only ship with a storage capacity of 2,000 tonne or more this was an effective permanent ban on the supertrawler. All other fishing vessels currently operating in Australian waters would not have been affected by this ban. The minister's bill before the Senate allows a ban of up to two years, but sadly this means that our oceans only get a brief relief from the Margiriswhereas the solution put forward by the Greens would give our oceans permanent protection from mammoth fishing operations like this.
I want to talk now about the selective application of the precautionary principle by this government. Our national environmental laws say that major decisions which involve a high risk of causing irreversible harm to our precious species and wild places should be made in accordance with the precautionary principle. It is commendable that in this instance this principle seems to be guiding the government's approach. In announcing these changes last Tuesday, Minister Burke said he was seeking to amend the national environmental laws to give him the powers he had hoped to have to 'be able to apply a much more precautionary approach to the supertrawler'. He set out that the purpose of this amendment was to ensure that the federal government could intervene to better protect our fisheries when there is uncertainty about the impact of a particular fishing activity. When this uncertainty is identified, the process allows the environment and fisheries departments to jointly undertake the scientific work and seek out the expert advice which the government believes is lacking. Most importantly, while that work is being undertaken the relevant fishing activity cannot take place within Australian waters for a period of up to two years. That is, you press pause while you do the science. You do not let the activity roll out and you do not issue any new approvals while you are doing the science. Yet unfortunately this is the exception rather than the rule.
Coal seam gas is a perfect example. Today the House has debated setting up an advisory committee on coal seam gas to do the science on coal seam gas as regards groundwater impacts. But approvals will not cease while that five-year research program is being done. This is despite the science that we do have around the impacts of coal seam gas saying that we lack understanding of long-term impacts on groundwater. For example, the National Water Commission says:
… potential impacts of Coal Seam Gas developments, particularly the cumulative effects of multiple projects, are not well understood.
The commission goes on to say:
… the Commission strongly argues for the careful, transparent and integrated consideration of water-related impacts in all approval processes.
Likewise CSIRO says:
Predicting long-term impacts of CSG production can be difficult due to potential cumulative and region-specific impacts of multiple developments.
CSIRO also says:
Prediction of specific impacts of CSG developments requires ongoing research because groundwater responses may take decades or even centuries to move through aquifers, especially when groundwater flow velocities are slow.
Yet, despite 68 per cent of Australians wanting a moratorium until we have a better understanding of the long-term impacts of coal seam gas, the government has continually failed to take a precautionary approach, which I have moved for in several motions in this place as well as in my amendments to that bill, which unfortunately got no support. It appears a precautionary approach is a political tool to be used when pushed, rather than a principle to guide good, sensible decision making in the face of huge threats to land and water.
Unfortunately, it is the same with the Great Barrier Reef. UNESCO expressed grave concern for the survival of the reef given the plans for six new and expanded coal and coal seam gas ports, and have said that unless we change direction—