Senate debates

Monday, 17 September 2012


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

1:43 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

We heard the scare campaign there at the end of Senator Abetz's speech: 'We are coming for you next, Recreational Fishers!' which is really a slap in the face for those recreational fishers who have run a very strong campaign. They are very rightly concerned about the impact that this supertrawler will have on the marine environment and on fish stocks. We have seen globally the impact that supertrawlers have had on our marine environment and that is why people are so worried about the impact that these supertrawlers will have on the Australian marine environment.

I have said in this place many times that Australia can be proud of its approach to fisheries management. But I have never said it is perfect. In fact I have been very clear to say that it is not perfect, because we have significant problems with sustainable management of fisheries in this country. In my home state of Western Australia you do not need to look any further than the rock lobster fishery which has gone through some very difficult times because we do not know all the science. When we were talking a decade ago about sustainable management of fisheries, we were told we knew everything about it. Well, we did not know everything about it, because now we have seen a significant crash in the stocks of that fishery, with some significant social and economic impacts.

So nobody can say that we are perfect in this country. Yes, we are leading the world, but we are not perfect.

One of the reasons that we are doing so well is that we do not have and have not had supertrawlers in our fisheries. We have not been subjected to those fishing practices carried out by supertrawlers, as has been the case in European fisheries and in other fisheries. This very supertrawler has been operating off the west coast of Africa, to the point where it got banned, for example, from Senegal—the very continent that it is claimed that this supertrawler is going to sell fish back to. They have been in there fishing those waters, taking fishing out of those waters, and basically saying, 'That's okay; we'll sell them somewhere else and we'll make a profit out of that and then we'll go and fish in Australian waters and flog them back to you at a much higher price than you can fish those waters yourselves.' That is not learning from the mistakes of the past.

Yes, the Greens are pleased that we are seeing a bill to deal with this, because it has been mishandled, because mistakes have been made in the past, and because we do not know the science. Those opposite can claim all they like about having known the science and that all these fisheries scientists said that this was a well-managed fishery or the quota was sustainable. People will remember that just over three weeks ago we had a debate about the disallowance of the quota—and we voted a week ago—where we Greens clearly pointed out that the science was not there for doubling the quote and we raised very serious concerns about the process. And guess what? In fact, there are serious concerns about the quota and we are now hearing that the science is not there. Fortunately the government has discovered it in time and is acting—at, I will agree, one minute to midnight; but at least the government is acting—to ensure that this supertrawler cannot operate in the rapacious manner that it planned to in our Australian marine environment.

It has been made to sound as if all the marine scientists all agreed that the science was in to show the quota was okay, when in fact that is not the case. For example, Jessica Meeuwig, of the Oceans Institute at the University of Western Australia was very clearly saying that there were concerns there—and she is not the only one. The science on the fish stocks, the ecosystem function and the bycatch was not there. We need recent data, not old data. We need regional and species specific data. We need that data over a period of time—for at least two years, the scientists say. We need movement studies. We need to understand the role of the target species in the ecosystems and to understand the dynamics of those ecosystems—and we need new data, not old data. And that is just on the fish stocks.

Then of course we need the data on the bycatch species. We need robust data on those bycatch species. We need expert advice around those species that are going to be taken as bycatch—for example, the mammals. We need expert advice on their migration, on how effective mid-water trawl nets are and how they affect and interact with bycatch. We need to understand the comprehensive population dynamics and assess that. And we need to be looking not only at mammals but also at seabirds. The seabird management plans that have been put in place have not been proven yet. So we were about to sign off on this trawler when we did not know any of that—none of it.

I will say that it is unfortunate that we got to this point and that our motion to disallow the quota was not supported. Of course, since then, we have had the findings from the Ombudsman, which found that there were problems with the setting of the quota and the administrative process in setting the total allowable catch in the fishery. It was also found that the management advisory committee had failed to exclude the committee member, Mr Gerry Gene, from its meeting in February, where that total allowable catch was being discussed. They found that the committee did not follow the processes for excluding Mr Gene from that decision-making process. I will not read out the whole letter, but the letter does go on to say:

Other matters have come up in the course of our investigation. We are in the process of giving further consideration to these matters before we will be in a position to conclude our investigation.

In other words, there are other issues hanging over the decision on this quota. That is the decision-making process and then of course, as I have said, we need to come back to the science. So, clearly, this quota should not have been doubled. Clearly, there have been problems in the way that the decision-making process occurred and also about the information that was considered.

Then we get to the issue around the oft quoted small pelagic fishery harvest plan and the fact that the last dot point in the background says:

There are considerable economies of scale in the fishery and the most efficient way to fish may—

and I underline the word 'may'—

include large scale factory freezer vessels.

I agree that it was a stupid thing to put in the harvest plan and I do not think it is appropriate for Australian waters—but it does say 'may'. So then the company goes, 'Oh, you beauty; we can bring in a factory ship. Don't worry about the science; we'll just try and use the political process.'

The fact is that the community knew nothing about this. The claim is that it has been on the books for seven years. How are those concerned recreational fishers, commercial fishers, the environmental movement, the broader community and local communities supposed to know that this is happening? They found out only a couple of months ago. If I had come into this place three or four years ago and said, 'Guess what? There's this huge 22,000 tonne vessel that is going to be coming to and trawling in our waters and it is going to take 18,000 tonnes of fish,' I would have been laughed out of this place. I would have been told that I was scaremongering. Nobody would have paid any attention.

It is only now that people are actually focused on what is happening. Public concern has been growing very substantially around the coast of Australia. It is a minute to midnight—as I said, it is very, very late—but at least we are taking action to protect the Australian marine environment. Having said that, the government should have put in place a much better, more robust, scientific process around the harvest management plan. But, just because the government got it wrong in the first place, does not justify them continuing to double the impact by going along with it without questioning that process.

AFMA has the precautionary principle built into its operating guidelines, and this would have probably given some people confidence that the government was taking the necessary care with this fishery. But it has become increasingly clear that the economic rather than the precautionary principle has been prevailing in the decision-making process.

I have just been talking about how the quota setting has been poorly managed. The doubling of the jack mackerel quota, which we understand was called for by Seafish Tasmania, happened while Seafish Tasmania sat on the fisheries management advisory committee. Of course, as I said, this has now attracted the interest of the Ombudsman. The minister for fisheries has publicly declared that he no longer has faith in AFMA to do its job in managing our fisheries and has announced a review, which I will come to in a minute.

I have touched on the science and the fact that we do not know a lot of things about this particular fishery and the oft quoted reports from the opposition around the science—and the government was quoting some of it too during the debate on the disallowance motion. A new report released today has further questioned the science behind the quota setting, and this report, Re-analysis of mean daily egg production in jack mackerel, is from the Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies, which Senator Colbeck not long ago was also talking about.

In the case of the small pelagic fishery, the harvest strategy dictates that the recommended biological catch or the RBC should not exceed a prescribed percentage of the best available spawning biomass estimate. The background of the report reads:

Given the level of interest in the jack mackerel … daily egg production method …

the institute

have undertaken a re-analysis of the reported egg density data using a range of alternative model fitting methods suggested in the literature.

And guess what? They found some serious differences arise from the choice of the egg model—differences that present seriously different end results about what constitutes a sustainable total catch.

While we have heard over and over again that the doubling of the jack mackerel quota on old egg data is within the precautionary principle of the harvest strategy, we now have clear proof that there is plenty of wriggle room within these facts—in other words, it casts serious doubt over what is the sustainable total catch. I have had scientists say to me that it could be as much as a third or even a fifth less than what they say. The bottom line has significant question marks around the sustainable total catch.

I quote again from the report:

A shortcoming of the current harvest strategy is that it does not explicitly consider the effect of differing uncertainties between studies and analytical methods.

Unfortunately, these results do not surprise me at all. If the minister had not already announced a serious review of the fisheries management legislation and its operation through AFMA, I think the broader community, including us, would have been calling for such a review. This review is going to be very important and it needs to be on the record that it will be independent, transparent and have opportunities for public submissions. The fact that the harvest strategy does not specifically and explicitly consider the effect of the different uncertainties between studies and analytical methods highlights the flaws in the harvest strategy yet again.

If the company had been in serious negotiation and thought about how it was going to bring that trawler to Australia, surely it would have been going through the harvest strategy and looking at the other scientists' comments. This is a case of picking out the science that you want and running with it.

Scientists have been raising serious concerns about the setting of the sustainable total catch and they have also been pointing out that the science of the life cycle of these species has not been agreed upon. As I said before, Dr Jessica Meeuwig, who is a renowned marine scientist from Western Australia, voiced her concerns during the public debate by explaining that the live-hard, dying-fast explanation of the life cycle of these fish and comparing it to the South American anchovy is simply wrong. The jack mackerel is significantly different to those particular fish and it lives up to 30 years. We simply cannot anticipate that it will rapidly repopulate without further scientific analysis—in other words, the assumptions that were made in some of the science, she very strongly questioned. She is one of Australia's leading marine scientists and has a much different opinion on some of the science underpinning the setting of the quota.

Dr Meeuwig and others have emphasised that, before we can allow a fishing activity on this scale to occur, we need to examine the population structures as well as finally conducting proper independent estimates of the biomass. We also need to review the dynamics of species recruitment and particularly understand how a warming ocean will impact on these species.

These species have almost been fished out in the past. They used to be so abundant in the waters around Tasmania, yet stocks have been decimated. We are now being told that efficiencies in this fishery can only be achieved through massive factory ships. We reject that claim. That sort of fishing is not appropriate in Australian waters. If we are to retain our leading status in terms of the quality of the way we manage our fisheries, we need to be looking at this science. We need to be reassessing how we manage our fish stocks.

This is not the first time there have been outrageous claims made around fishing and sustainable total catch in this country. We need to be getting this right. We need to be looking at the science a lot better and not just making decisions based on gross assumptions. We need to be giving real teeth to the precautionary principle and enacting it: what does it mean?

We believe that the onus of proof needs to be on proving something is sustainable rather than assuming that it is and fishing until there is no more left. We are deeply concerned with the approach that was taken during this harvest strategy and believe that we need to be relooking at the way we approach the setting. I will not go into a lot of detail around the amendments that the Greens propose, because I will discuss those in committee as a whole. But the Greens believe that there should not be supertrawlers in Australian waters—

Debate interrupted.


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