Senate debates

Tuesday, 18 September 2012


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

1:17 pm

Photo of Nigel ScullionNigel Scullion (NT, Country Liberal Party, Deputy Leader of the Nationals) Share this | Hansard source

I rise as others have this morning to make a contribution to the debate on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Declared Commercial Fishing Activities) Bill 2012. I have to say that it has been a very positive debate for me. Personally, I think it has been great to see so many people delving into the intestines of fisheries management. I think as a consequence of this debate everybody will be far more informed about the process of establishing sustainability. This will get us across the whole range of new acronyms that exist in almost every area of our endeavours.

But rather than going over what are quite clearly the failings of this government in their consideration of the science, their consideration of people's investments and their consideration of due process—everybody has already very, very successfully done that in this place—I would like to remind us of exactly what the investment is that we have made in science. I would also like to remind us that, despite all the darts that have been thrown at our scientists and our scientific institutions, most people around the world would say our scientists are second to very few. They are respected around the world.

Perhaps it would be useful to have a look at the science behind the research of the small pelagic fish stock. It is not as if we started this research yesterday or when the trawler arrived over the horizon. We actually started this research 76 years ago. That is right, 76 years ago we started having a close look at the small pelagic fishery. But, late in the day, the government have had a 'knee-jerk Tuesday'. On Monday it was one thing—they were absolutely behind it—but on Tuesday it was: 'Oh, that's all over. We're terribly sorry. We're just going to have do a 180-degree turnaround.' Of course that has thrown into doubt and also certainly put a spotlight on the level of confidence that the government have in our scientific institutions and the good work that they produce.

I think this decision will really throw a spanner in the works of our research organisations. There will be plenty of meetings to look at where they go from here. It is without precedent that a government would throw up so much doubt about their own institution—an institution that we have taken for granted, along with the science it provides us, the efficacy under which that science and advice is provided and the history and the acknowledged quality of that advice internationally.

The science on the fisheries started back in 1936. CSIRO did aerial surveys of small pelagic to get a handle on the relative spatial impact of these fish and how many of them there were. In 1938 there was a big investigation into the pelagics off Victoria, Tasmania and New South Wales. This occurred up until the fifties, when there were pursing trials in New South Wales and Tasmania. Research has been undertaken all the way up until to today. It was probably in 2002 when the small pelagic advisory council was formed and we rolled out management policies. There was a big cessation in the fishery, principally because of economics. There were very low prices for these fish. If you have a fluctuation like that in the market, clearly the fishery will cease. Because of this, we had an opportunity to roll out a management plan to formulate a process to ensure that everybody knew what was going on. As a consequence of the small pelagic advisory council being formed in 2002—that is a decade ago—we have had organisations like the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation, the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, Tasmanian Aquaculture and Fisheries Institute, SARDI, the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies—and the list goes on and on.

One should feel pretty confident: it is not as if it is one organisation. Let's face it: we have one individual making a decision or an assessment and the risk is higher than if two or three do it. It is the same with organisations. A large number of organisations—highly credible organisations—have assisted in making the decisions in terms of the total allowable catch and the issues associated with that.

We changed the way we did business some time ago. Instead of just deciding in Australia that we needed to work out how many sardines we could catch so that there would always be enough sardines in the future, we also decided that it was important to ascertain if any other species would be impacted by a decline in sardines: penguins, whales and all the other exotic and sexy megafauna that sneak around the oceans. We need to make sure that they have enough sardines. We have put in place a very sophisticated biomarine plan. I have to say: around the world, Australia is seen as visionary in this area—that we are not looking directly at one species; we are looking across the board at a whole range of species. We have set those standards and a management plan has been determined.

We have the Commonwealth Small Pelagic Fishery. There are a number of papers and they have been quoted variously over this period of time. I quote a line in terms of the quality of the science:

The latest and most comprehensive study and guidance comes from the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force … supported by the Lenfest Ocean Program, a US conservation foundation, and brought together 13 eminent marine scientists including world experts in marine science … specialists in penguins, seabirds, marine mammals and marine conservation) and fisheries science.

That is not the task force that compiled this particular management plan but they oversaw it. They said there are three points:

- the fishing mortality is no more than half of the level that is usually considered to maximise the sustainable yield for an individual species;

- the average abundance of the forage fish is more than double the level usually considered to maximise the sustainable yield for an individual species, and

‐ fishing should be spread out so as to avoid localised depletions, especially in relation to any local ecological ‘hotspots’—

seabird rookeries and the like. Those are the three principles. I have had the management plan and I can tell you that the plan adheres to these principles absolutely perfectly.

Two issues have been brought up about questioning the science and there have been a number of individuals around the place who seem to be able to, at a whim, dive in and question the science. I think the two issues are agreed to. One is localised depletion and the other is the way we go about assessing the biomass. In terms of the localised depletion, this is a fishery that stretches from New South Wales to Western Australia. Currently, it is fished by trawlers with exactly the same size gear on the back—in fact, some of the trawlers use slightly larger gear than the gear that was to be used by the Abel Tasmanand they only work out of Triabunna. They go out of a port and they can only go 100 nautical miles out to sea and that is the area that they fish. They cannot fish anywhere else; they do not go anywhere else.

There are wet fish boats. That means that the vessel only keeps the fish wet. The fish is not frozen. The fish is kept on ice for a particular market and there is quite a low level of impact on the stock. It is not unmeasurable, but there are very low levels of take. If you put a vessel out that is not tied to a port, it can go right across the fishery and it uses the same nets that are on the back of the trawlers that can leave tonight and catch exactly the same fish out of Triabunna. Anyone who has some issues about local depletion just needs to think about what that provides from a common sense point of view. That means there will be no tying effort into one area of Tasmania. The effort will be spread out and exactly the same number of fish, in terms of the quota, will be caught—not more sustainability, but there is no question of affecting the biomass.

The other process that is important to note is how we go about finding out how many fish there are in a fishery. Generally, for sardines, anchovies and jack mackerel—some may not be familiar with those but we are all familiar with sardines, I suppose—you can imagine a big net of sardines coming up, you put a bucket into them, scoop them out and put them aside. You take 20 or 30 representative sardines, remove the juveniles and then cut each fish open. You look at how many eggs they have. You do what is called a daily egg production method. You cut them open and you know that that amount of spawn in a spawning time in a fishery is going to be, in a spatial dynamics model, equal to a certain amount of fish over a certain period of time. But, of course, to actually monitor the daily egg production method, you need someone at sea with a net, catching the fish. There is no question that the group of people I referred to earlier in international science say that the very best mechanism of knowing how many fish you can catch is by the daily production method.

I will be asking the government at some stage—so that is almost on notice—exactly what they are going to do about this new science. Does it mean that they are going to pay a boat to go out, not just out from Triabunna, to look at the spatial dynamics of the stock, all the way from Western Australia to New South Wales? The only way you are going to do that is by having a boat in the fishery that goes more than 100 kilometres out from the coast. It is now said: 'There is a question about this daily productivity method and there was some difficulty around that.' There is no doubt there was, because the last daily egg production method that was taken was in 2002. For those who are opposed to it, I can understand that is the case, but, again, you just cannot leave out the fine print. The scientists who were looking at this were saying, 'It is 2002'—and nobody could afford to actually publish it. Well, how long ago was 2002? It was a while ago, but this only related to much smaller areas of the fishery. They did their sampling over a very small area and said it would be negatively biased. In other words, it is at the most conservative end, to say, 'We've looked here, so that is the multiplier on the fish stocks, but we did not look anywhere else.' As to our knowledge of the fish stocks, the scientists that sat around the room said, 'It might have been 2002 but we are taking into consideration the rest of the science we have from other species, and we have a very high level of confidence that we would be able to take more than that particular indicator because we sample in a very small area.' This is not a notion. This is how we do business in terms of stock assessment, whether it is for kangaroos, flathead, wallabies or elephants. These are spatial dynamic models under which you have to take all these things into consideration.

Quite clearly, I think there are people around the world now who are quite frightened by this and who have said: 'This is the best fisheries management we've got. I put my hand on my heart.' So many people in this place have said, 'We've got the best fisheries management here,' but, suddenly, overnight it changed. It was amazing: go to bed on Monday night—I do not often agree with those opposite but they were belting on, saying: 'Look, we just need to leave it to the science. Don't get emotionally involved. Don't get driven by politics.' If you get driven by politics, particularly in the history of fisheries, those who are interested in doing a bit of research might go back to the orange roughy days. People are saying, 'Orange roughy: we blew that, didn't we?' Orange roughy was the classic case of not listening to the science and listening to the politics and the emotion at the time. Again, we have to be very careful about how we treat the science.

Basically, the notion of size has been constantly remarked upon over a period of time, and it seems to be the vessel size. Of course, when the fishery sat down seven years ago they said: 'Look, one of the problems with the fishery is—'. It is okay because we have got a fishmeal factory, and those were the days when fishmeal was a really good commodity, and it is an important commodity now. That is how we stuff protein into animals like pigs. Pigs love fishmeal. We put it into their feed every day and we grow bacon. There is nothing wrong with that. It is fantastic. But what we are doing is taking a very high protein quality product and we are feeding it to pigs. All Australians would probably say, 'I'm not really sure if that is, at the end of the day, a sustainable or moral thing to do to a beautiful product like fish.' But if you have a wet boat and you can only go 100 miles away, that is the quality of the product. It is not fit for human consumption because it is wet, and by the time it comes back it is not suitable for those things. What you really need is a freezer on your boat. Because of the economics, for the high-protein low-value fish—low value because not a lot of Australians come down and demand redfish and jack mackerel—what we actually need to change this is a freezer boat. Just park a big freezer boat out there, and then the trawlers can unload to the freezer boat and the freezer boat can produce fish that is now fit for human consumption. Innovative Australians. Isn't that great? Instead of feeding it to pigs, we will feed it to people. I know what we will do: we will feed it into the Horn of Africa, where people are starving for protein. Double trouble; it is value adding. We actually have people who can now eat the fish that we are catching. The fishermen get a better deal and a better price and, surprise, surprise: they only use a fraction of the fuel. Those people on the other side, particularly in the Greens corner, are only interested in a carbon footprint. Of course the carbon footprint is smaller, because it is more efficient.

Someone said: 'You can have a boat out there, but how are we going to unload it in the high seas? That seems a bit dodgy.' They are probably right. I have spent a fair bit of time in dodgy circumstances at sea myself and it is not something to be highly recommended. So the innovative Australians looked around and found, with the support of government, a freezer trawler so that they could catch and freeze the fish instead of having to unload at sea, using gear no bigger than any one of the trawlers uses there now.

There is, I think, a moral question. If we go back we see there is complete hypocrisy, because it is unpopular. It is unpopular because people do not know. As soon as the talkback radio starts—I really think that the Australian public had stopped listening by the time the debate started here, which was the great problem for all of us. The great challenge on the other side—and, again, I feel particularly sorry for my good mate Senator Ludwig, but only sorry in a sense. I have a great deal of respect for my friend. I know him well and he does believe in science. I know that he is not as lithe as he was, but there are probably only so many of these nimble backflips in you, mate. It is a pretty sorry occasion.

It is interesting that we have now had some people just jump out of the wilderness in the last few days, claiming to be particular experts in this field. I know there is a mathematician from Western Australia who we see at about this point in time and who is a regular offender. He is a mathematician. You know mathematicians: they know 100 ways to make love but just do not know any women. He has come out now and said: 'No. I'm a person who knows better than the Australian Fisheries Management Authority. I know better than CSIRO. I know better than SARDI. I know better than the Antarctic Institute and I've only been here three days.' Why? He said, 'Because the model you picked was not the most conservative model. It wasn't the most conservative model, so here's a spectrum.' The least conservative because we know a lot about the fishery; the most conservative because we know absolutely nothing about the fishery. So the NAARI model, the one they selected to run this, and all the science in world said to go and run this down the middle. We said, 'Why is it there?' It is because we have other indicators in the fishery, other management plans in the fishery, other indicators about biota, marine mammals and all sorts of other things that are indicators. So we in the scientific community—'we' being those on our side because we support good science—said: 'Okay, this is something that we have to support. This is something that we need. We just can't listen to people who jump into the issue at the last minute and say that this is the case and I know more than them.'

People in the media say, 'We've got to give them an even balance.' No worries. We have one bloke here, a mathematician, and the entire scientific community down the other side and they have said, 'Well, there's an even balance.' I do not think that is the case. Sadly, we are in a circumstance here where, as my old mate 'Whisho' from the Greens on the other side said, 'This is a matter of leadership.' Fair enough. The leadership is not about the Greens; it is about the government. There are tough decisions to make in parliamentary life, Minister, and I know you have had a few tough ones, but you cannot go back on decisions and say: 'We really didn't mean that.' We really think science is important. We really think that fisheries management is important. We really think that a statutory fishing right for fishermen in Tasmania and right across the Commonwealth fisheries in Australia is important.' They have banked that against their house. The banks take that, because nobody can interfere with it, because there is a process that keeps politicians right out of it, as they should. I am not sure what sort of Olympic backflip you are going to have to do on the other side to send the message to the Australian people more generally and those people in this country and others who wish to invest in our country that somehow we still appreciate good science and we appreciate those institutions. Those on this side, Minister, want to make it absolutely clear: we support good science and the institutions that provide it.


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