Senate debates

Monday, 17 September 2012


Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Declared Commercial Fishing Activities) Bill 2012; Second Reading

9:10 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Declared Commercial Fishing Activities) Bill 2012. The amendments to the bill have been rushed through to this place. Over four days, Minister Tony Burke has issued four amendments. This is a knee-jerk reaction from the Labor government. This legislation is seriously flawed, undermines rigorous science and is another tool for the Greens and environmental groups to campaign against our fishing industry. Labor have spent three years trying to attract the supertrawler to Australian waters. When he was Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Tony Burke invited these types of vessels as part of his 2009 Small Pelagic Fishery Harvest Strategy, which said:

there are considerable economies of scale in the fishery and the most efficient way to fish may include large scale factory freezer vessels—

Now, 50 Australians are out of a job. Seafish Tasmania also intended on filling jobs in cold storage and freight, to let contracts for pallets and to provide places for students from the Australian Maritime College. The Labor government again appear chaotic and dysfunctional, all because the minister is uncertain. Yet he did not attempt to find answers to the problems for which he was uncertain. Instead he chose to just shut down the business.

I want to briefly mention some history, because when we consider these issues they need to be seen in context. Prime Minister Bruce invited the states and the CSIRO to attend a national fisheries conference in 1927, organised by the commission to discuss the development of Australian fisheries and the implication of the health report. Herbert Gepp chaired the meeting and the secretary was Stanley Fowler, and the aim was to provide a plan to foster development of a fishing industry in Australia. It found:

… investigations in Britain led … to the conclusion that the high cost of living in Australia was the principal impediment to the development of 'a great fishing industry.' Thus it would be necessary to adopt the most up to date fishing but with labour saving devices - such as the 'new super trawler'—

which back in 1927 did not look like the current one we are discussing today.

The main issue I have with the minister's decision or backdown or backflip is that he turned his back on the very good scientific evidence, which is the basis for the way our fisheries are managed in this country and underpins the way we construct all the regulations around these fisheries, and he threw it out the window. The Nationals understand and appreciate the importance of science. Earl Page, one of our early leaders, set up the CSIRO—a Country Party initiative. So we believe in the science on this one.

All fishers need to be concerned, even with the amendments made to exclude recreational fishers and charter vessels. If the minister's concern was based on the capacity of the supertrawler to fish in one place for a considerable amount of time then why not amend the legislation to address these issues, to deal with the fact that the boat would be in one place for a long period of time and to include some geographic mechanism, if you like, to regulate how long it could stay and in what places for its catch?

Now we have seen another backflip from an increasingly limber Labor government—again, further proof the government do not have a grip on their own legislative agenda. Rather, all it really wants to do is please the Greens with votes in mind. This policy is policy on the run if ever we saw it, and the decision can be added to a long list of government U-turns. In late August and earlier this month, Labor performed two carbon tax backflips in as many weeks. First, it removed a $15 a tonne floor price, and then it decided not to compensate big polluters under the contracts for closure scheme.

I must admit, though, it seems a number of issues for the Rudd and Gillard-Greens government can be traced to their decision to not consult with industry and to reject science. What about last year's abrupt decision to cancel live cattle exports? It did not help the animal welfare cause, and it placed unnecessary pressures on cattle producers, businesses and communities, particularly in the Top End, that are still being played out to this day. One month later, the decision was overturned. The government did not seek advice from industry when it shut the cattle export trade down and it has not sought advice in this matter either.

But there was a similarity in both these examples that I have mentioned—that is, a highly effective email campaign from urban Australia to Labor politicians, particularly in this instance to Minister Joe Ludwig. It is judgements like these that have and will continue to weaken confidence in overseas investment in Australia. When people cannot invest with certainty, they simply will not. The Dutch government are demanding answers from Australia, and I do not blame them. The coalition has issued a policy paper around ensuring that when foreign businesses seek to invest in our nation we encourage that investment and we make it a place that they can invest in with confidence.

We want Australians to be properly informed when it comes to how our fisheries are regulated so that they can see with confidence that we are world-class in the way we regulate our fishing industry. I agree with Seafish Tasmania's director, Gerry Geen. He told the Australian that the situation had become embarrassing. I have an email from fisherman Ross Haldane in Port Lincoln, South Australia, which says:

… this is the worst piece of fisheries management I have seen in 40 years.

The Haldanes have been fishing down South Australia way for going on three generations, so they know what they are talking about.

As I have said, Tony Burke spent three years trying to bring the supertrawler here, only to turn it around. When will this government's indecision end? Seafish Tasmania did all that it was required to do to ensure it met every condition placed on it to catch these fish that live near the surface of the water or in a water column, not at the bottom of the ocean. We hear concerns about the supertrawler, for want of a better word, taking fish from the middle of the ocean. That is because that is where the fish they are seeking, that they are allowed to catch under our regulations, actually are. They are nomadic, swimming continuously through open water.

The supertrawler intended on catching the small pelagic fish: two species of jack mackerel, blue mackerel and redbait—all high protein fish bound for the coast of Africa to feed their people and assist with their protein issues. Australia expects to increase support to Africa and the Middle East food programs from $465 million in 2012-13 to $625 million in 2015. Had the supertrawler been able to complete its catch and deliver its protein to that market, maybe that cost to the Australian government could have been spent elsewhere on the African continent. What about Africa's protein intake? What will happen to those people, who are depending on that food being delivered to them? Now it is just being turned into fertiliser or pig food, hardly what we want coming from our highly sustainable fisheries in Australia.

Commonwealth fisheries catch about 52,000 tonnes of product, generating $300 million. Australia's commercial fishing and aquaculture ventures inject more than $2 billion a year into the economy. As a result, 9,7000 people are employed directly and 6,200 people are employed indirectly in the industry. Meanwhile, the ABS suggests fisheries products are ranked as the sixth most valuable rural product to our nation. Like farming, fishing is historically a generational industry. It is something that families do. They have a licence and they pass the skill and the business through the generations, so it has to be, by definition, a sustainable industry. Fishers understand, like farmers, that there is no use trashing the very resource that generates your family's wealth, something that I think policy makers around both farming and fishing need to understand.

It is difficult to narrow down how many small businesses are involved in the fishing industry, but they mostly consist of small operators, averaging about 1.5 people per boat. Fishermen want to look after their own industry by ensuring they do not overfish it. Otherwise, their very jobs and the jobs of the next generation of their family are at risk. The total allowable catch for each species in each zone of the fishery is set annually by AFMA, the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, in accordance with the Small Pelagic Fishery Harvest Strategy.

Mr Acting Deputy President, you would not believe where I have just been. I have just come into the chamber from a delightful event, Science Meets Parliament, and you will not believe who I was sitting next to: the scientist who actually helped develop the strategy. I could not believe it. I went around the room, as a good host of the table, asking what everyone did. There was the battery scientist, there was a young woman working on research on child cancer, and Beth, who worked on ensuring that there is evidence based science in how we regulate our Australian fisheries. I asked her from a scientific perspective, with no politicisation at all, what she thought. She said, from a scientific perspective, that our fisheries are world leading:

The science behind fisheries and the process of making decisions is world leading. This is a place where such a vessel can be sustainable. Models of the whole system have addressed bycatch. It is sustainable on those fronts too. It has been considered.

Straight from the scientist's mouth, not half an hour ago—actually, she wrote it out; Minister Evans was speaking at the time.

When we go to the science of how our fisheries are managed, we are talking about a catch of 7½ per cent of the available biomass. That is under the 20 per cent that Australia actually regulates it at, compared with elsewhere in the world. I have heard all evening other senators telling us how this boat has stripped other nations of their fish; that is because other nations do not regulate their fisheries like we do. It is as simple as that. It does not have a personality; it is a boat. It operates within the law on the seas in which it fishes. It is as simple as that. I thought that was interesting and worth sharing with the chamber.

This is a safe, sustainable, highly regulated fishery informed by science. I think that is important to note. AFMA must be informed of all catch landed. They verify this information, as strict penalties apply to people who are found to have caught more than their quota. I am not a fan of overregulation but maybe—just maybe—we have got it right? Not according to the government.

Furthermore, the harvest strategy is more precautionary than the Marine Stewardship Council's global best practice and compares favourably with the recommendations of the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force. Also, keep in mind that the Abel Tasman'scatch will be within the quota already set by Seafish Tasmania. They have already made the decision on what is a sustainable catch. That is all that this boat is allowed to catch. There are so many checks and balances in our system—they have somebody on the boat watching—to ensure the sustainability of our fishery. It is ridiculous that we have made this decision. The coalition has great confidence in these practices, but the government's decision highlights that it has lost faith with the industry—and, it seems, with the science.

There is extensive control of the fishery industry through licensing, ensuring that it is not overfished. Just briefly on licensing: the supertrawler purchased the licence from locals because the locals could not make a buck out of it—again, like farming. If they could make a buck, they would. The better investment for the people who held these licences was for them to be used by somebody else in a more efficient way—and I refer to my earlier quote from 1927 about needing a highly innovative and efficient fishing industry for it to actually be sustainable, because we are not going to catch everything and fish it out; this is not Newfoundland.

A commercial fishing licence is a valuable commodity. People invest in such licences, the same way they might invest in a family home or run a business. People mortgage their homes for an opportunity to purchase a commercial licence, because it is a licence to fish in a sustainable, regulated environment. They know that if they buy an Australian commercial fishing licence it will deliver fish and fortune to their family over decades, over generations; it is worth something.

Despite these amendments, sovereign risk concerns remain, especially for existing fishers who hold licences to fish in Australian waters, because the government has just rendered it useless with the stroke of a pen. That somebody can email somebody a lot and that will make your investment and your family's investment worthless is an absolutely ridiculous state of affairs for our communities.

Australia's commercial fishing industry will not have the confidence to invest in any quota or licence, because they can be overturned on a whim. What about a boat that someone puts a bigger motor on, making it potentially able to catch more than it could before? Will it be affected by this legislation? There is too much uncertainty when there should not be.

On 26 July this year, fisheries minister, Joe Ludwig said:

To be clear about this, the government does not make decisions about our fisheries.

Okay, good. So far, so good.

It is a sensible place to leave it to the science-based decision making of an independent regulator.

Fantastic so far. Sounds good.

Otherwise you get yourself into a place of where politicians would be making decisions, not based on science, not based on what the facts demonstrate but on political decisions.

Those three or four sentences lay it out. That is exactly how we should be managing our fisheries. Absolutely. The minister thought it in July. The scientist who designed it thought it tonight. Our industry thinks it. In fact the world looks to us on what is the best practice in how to manage fisheries sustainably. But what happened? Now it is a political decision, because Labor is in crisis in urban areas. They are concerned about losing votes to people who do not appreciate science and do not understand fishing and farming.

In this instance, reliable science has been thrown overboard by a misinformed government. The harvest strategy I spoke of earlier is based around science, and it is sound. It requires that research be undertaken into the stock biomass, and that is achieved through conducting egg surveys. There is additional continual monitoring of fishery dependent data to support this egg survey data. Commonwealth fishery observers are to be on the vessel to ensure these operations are monitored and carried out. It is expensive. It is highly regulated. But it works. It delivers a sustainable industry, which this government through this amendment is trashing. As for diminished stock numbers, the harvest strategy restricts the total catch of each species to a maximum of 20 per cent, which in this case was going to be a lot less. Independent observers checking have also found the amount of bycatch by this vessel to be less than one per cent of the total catch.

These amendments will rush through the House of Representatives in an effort to fix a legislative stuff-up as highlighted by the coalition. The science stacks up. The Greens are simply running a scare campaign about fish stocks. Minister Burke failed to consult anyone when developing this bill; hardly surprising when we consider his track record on consultation—talk to the Murray-Darling Basin communities. This is disappointing leadership from a government that has let the Australian public down at every turn, proving it cannot be trusted on its word. It cannot be trusted to follow the science. It cannot be trusted.


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