Monday, 7 December 2020
Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee; Reference
That the following matter be referred to the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee for inquiry and report by 24 June 2021:
The fisheries quota system and examining whether the current 'managed microeconomic system' established around a set of individual transferable quotas results in good fishing practice, with particular reference to:
(a) good fishing practice that is ecologically sustainable with an economic dynamic that produces good community outcomes;
(b) how the current quota system affects community fishers;
(c) whether the current system disempowers small fishers and benefits large interest groups;
(d) the enforceability of ecological value on the current system, and the current system's relationship to the health of the fisheries;
(e) whether the current system results in good fishing practice that is ecologically sustainable and economically dynamic, and produces good community outcomes; and
(f) any other related matters.
I put this reference to the Rural and Regional Affairs References Committee, although I was considering potentially putting it to the Environment and Communications References Committee. It's long overdue in this country that we look at a basic and important component of fisheries management. Commonwealth commercial fisheries are designed around transferable statutory fishing rights, or SFRs, and fishing permits. Rules and regulations are attached to each of these. The aim is to establish a managed microeconomic system that creates incentives and guarantees to achieve the ecological, social and economic objectives set out in the Fisheries Management Act 1991.
That's the first point I really wanted to highlight: 1991. The system we have in place for our fisheries management, for transferrable quotas, goes back nearly 30 years. Hopefully, the Senate supports inquiring into this. If so, it will be exactly 30 years since this system was put in place. And, senators, do you know what? It's never been reviewed. I've had the Parliamentary Library do a literature search. Some aspects of the fisheries quota management system have been reviewed, but what about looking at whether it's achieving its purpose? Is it still fit for purpose? Does it achieve the environmental benefits that are so often claimed? Does it achieve the economic and social benefits to communities and so on and so forth? It's a long time since it's been looked at, and I believe it's long overdue for us to scrutinise the system to see if it needs improving, tweaking, reforming and overhauling. What other international benchmarks and standards could we look at, and where do we go from here?
The reason I'm raising this is healthy oceans. Obviously, fisheries management is a critical component of healthy oceans. It's general accepted that Australia, using the fisheries management system, manages its fisheries better than most countries around the world, but that doesn't mean it's perfect. Indeed, there's always room for improvement. Our oceans are coming under more and more pressure as these cumulative impacts build up from ocean pollution like plastics—which we'll debate again tonight—and other sources of pollution as well as overfishing in other parts of the world. A lot of species that we fish, such as bluefin tuna, are migratory. As we see oceans acidify and, more critically, as our oceans warm, we lose important habitat and ecosystems. You would be very familiar with the giant kelp forests off Tasmania, Acting Deputy President Bilyk—an ancient ecosystem dating back millions of years. They stretched from Flinders Island in the north-east of Tasmania to the south-east cape. They have all but disappeared. They provided an immense ecological benefit to commercial fisheries and to all species in the ocean. They've gone. Up in the north, half of the coral cover of the Great Barrier Reef has gone in the last 12 years. And so on and so forth—sea grasses and reefs are under pressure.
My point is a simple one: as our oceans come under more pressure we need to be very careful with how we manage our fisheries. We need to incorporate those changes we are seeing in the broader ecosystems into our fisheries management. We've got to have an ecosystems based approach to fisheries management. But if you look at the terms of reference that I've put up here, this is primarily not about looking at whether we've got our fisheries management right in terms of the science underpinning the quotas and whether we're necessarily managing the environmental aspects of fisheries sustainably. This is looking at the economic benefits of the way that we manage our fisheries. I'm very pleased that my Tasmanian college Senator Duniam is in the chamber tonight. I know he is close to the fishing industry in Tasmania and this is a matter near and dear to his heart, as it is to many Tasmanians, whether they are working in the commercial fishing sector or whether they are one of the many tens of thousands of recreational fishers in the state. By the way, those groups sometimes don't see eye to eye, but they do all agree that we need to manage our fisheries as effectively as possible and we need to get it right. Otherwise, there won't be any fishing in the future like there is today. That's plainly obvious to me—if we don't get it right.
Senator Duniam understands that there is a big question in my home state hanging over whether the transferable quota system—for state fisheries or extending into Commonwealth fisheries—is delivering the economic and social benefits to our community. The Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies did a really interesting report. It was released in December 2019, over a year ago. Very politely—as often happens when a research institution like IMAS, with a lot of eminent scientists, put out a report that's well researched—they very clearly rang the bell that we need to do a lot more work on this. They questioned what benefits the average Tasmanian was getting from their fishery for a number of reasons and said that this needs to be looked at, that it certainly needs to be reviewed and that they didn't have the scope to do that in their report. They raised a number of issues with the quota based system; I'll go through some of those in a second. They said: 'The database is very limited. It's really hard to find information on this. There may be better ways to give benefits to our communities.' So in this inquiry I would like to pose a question to the Senate: has this managed microeconomic system, as I described it, established around this specific set of individual transferrable quotas and permits good fishing practice that is ecologically sustainable and produces good, dynamic economic and social community outcomes?
The terms of reference, as we've set out, are quite broad, deliberately so: Would this fishing quota practice result in good fishing practice, including that it is economically sustainable? How does the current quota system affect community fishers, and how do they feel it affects them? Does the current system disempower smaller fishers and benefit larger fishing groups? How does the quota system interact with the enforceability of ecological value of the current system and the current system's relationships to the health of the fisheries? Does the current system result in good fishing practice that is ecologically sustainable and economically dynamic? What of any other related matters?
Senator Duniam is probably aware that, very recently, the Tasmanian rock lobster industry had their AGM. Rock lobsters, like abalone, are under a lot of pressure in Tasmania. Things have radically changed in the ecosystem, and the industry understands and respects that. They want to put in place a long-term plan for their industry. They want to put in place a 10-year plan that looks at the future of their industry. It would look at a lot of things, like where their markets were going to be given the problems we've had with China recently. They're very aware of how reliant they've been on China. They want to look at environmental changes that they've seen, like the loss of habitat, the loss of reefs—not just the loss of giant kelp reefs but the loss of reefs to invasive sea urchins that are a very, very pervasive problem—and how they interact with other fisheries.
Obviously, Tasmanians in this chamber will understand we've been having to translocate rock lobsters from the south of Tasmania to the east coast so we have fish to catch. We're actually moving them. But that, I'm hearing, is creating problems from the places where they're moving them from, not to mention other aspects of that that I've heard about. The industry passed a motion at their last AGM wanting their representatives to do something about issues, particularly pertaining to ownership of quotas. Quotas can be owned because they're transferrable. They can be owned by corporations and they can be owned by investors, including super funds—how many of them, we don't know. But clearly many of the quotas are owned by foreign entities and foreign interests.
This issue came up—and this is a sensitive issue; I'll give you that—when Tasmanian rock lobsters were sitting on runways in China. The fishermen said to me, 'What we don't get is that we feel like we're being punished because of the trade war,' and the wine industry said the same thing. But their understanding is Chinese interests own a considerable amount of Tasmanian rock lobster quota. They're allowed to own our public resource, our fish, yet they're penalising us on the other hand. They don't quite get how it works. So I wanted to find out more about how much exactly is owned by foreign entities, corporate entities and investors—in short, not owner-operators in the industry—and the answer to that question is: nobody really knows. Talk about beneficial ownership problems within these corporate structures and holding companies; nobody really knows who owns these quotas.
There are some rules around maximum ownership, but this is not just a problem that Australians are grappling with. This transferable quota system that's been used in fisheries overseas has led to a concentration of ownership in fisheries, where we're seeing bigger scale operations push out smaller owners. If you believe in the free market, you can say, 'Well, that's fine; that's what the free market's dictating.' But it's having impacts. Where I have my house in Bicheno, there are only two rock lobster boats left. There used to be 40 or 50. The Sunday session there used to be the most swinging Sunday session in the state. The pub doesn't even exist anymore. We have penguin tours and other things now that are filling the gap. But my point is this: the fisheries quota system might have been successfully managing our fishery compared to other jurisdictions internationally, but there really aren't that many fishermen left. Other countries have looked at this and said that, if you want to own quota, if you want to own our fisheries, you need to be whatever the nationality is. You need to Australian; you need to be Tasmanian. Other countries, including European countries, have said that you don't necessarily have to be, for example, Norwegian, but you need to have operated here for eight years as an owner-operator. They say: 'We want to see that you've committed yourself. You've bought your boat, you're employing locals, and you're committed to the long term of this industry, to its sustainability and its future.'
The fishermen in Tasmania don't even know what their succession plan is. This is not just a problem with fisheries. I've seen it in the wine industry and others. They've invested their livelihoods; they've bought all this knowledge from fishing, but where do they go? Do they just sell their quota to a foreign superannuation company or a US pension fund? What happens then? Who do they bring in to operate? I think it's high time we at least explore these issues. I'm not going to pre-empt what the answers are; I don't know that. But I know there are a lot of people out there with very strong views that it's time for a review. They have very strong views that things need to change if we're going to better manage our fisheries.
To me, it comes back to the long-term sustainability of the industry, both ecologically and environmentally. Clearly, if quota holders are literally trying to squeeze every last dollar out of their ownership—for example, of Tasmanian abalone or Tasmanian rock lobster; they're very short term in their focus—that's not going to be good for the long-term ecological future of the industry. To give you an example: a quota was set in abalone last year on the east coast, but the abalone industry, at their AGM, for the first time ever, voted not to catch their quota. Even though the quota was given to them, they walked away from it that year and said, 'Things are pretty tough; we're not even going to catch our quota.' That's because they're invested in their industry; they understand it's under so much pressure.
This is also very much about community and economics: Is there a more sustainable way? Do we want smaller fishing operators who are more aligned with their community, who have long-term futures, who can actually train people, who can invest in new fishing practices and who can upgrade their technology? All these things are being asked by fishermen at the moment. I have no doubt at all that the genuine angst that I have seen will be something that we will take on board as a chamber. It's not just in my state of Tasmania; I've spoken to senators in here who know that this is an issue around the country. All I'm asking the Senate is: let's review it. It's been 30 years since the Howard government reformed fisheries and the Productivity Commission put in place the levy and the user-pays system and brought in transferable quotas. I accept that it was definitely better managed then than it was under licensing agreements previously, but that doesn't mean we've got it right. Let's have a look at it, let's see if we've got the settings right, and let's listen to the stakeholders and their concerns and see if we can improve the management of our fisheries and ultimately the health of our oceans.
This evening Labor supports this motion calling for an inquiry into the fisheries quota system. We note that Australia's federal fisheries regulatory framework is indeed world-leading in ecologically sustainable fisheries management practices. The current regulatory framework under the Commonwealth includes two acts, with additional and complementary requirements, as we know, under the EPBC Act.
Commonwealth fisheries are notably sustainably managed in accordance with the precautionary principle, a requirement that is legislated in the Fishery Management Act and the 2005 ministerial direction which required Commonwealth fisheries to be quota managed. We believe that quota management is generally considered good practice from both a conservation and an economic point of view. We hope this inquiry will assist industry and the regulator to better maintain key commercial stock at ecologically sustainable levels and grow the Australian fisheries industry.
I too am pleased to speak to the motion moved by Senator Whish-Wilson that is before the chamber around this reference to the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee. I am pleased with the acknowledgement that's been given to the fisheries sector tonight around how we do things here, perhaps better than most other parts of the world. But we also do acknowledge and accept the point that Senator Whish-Wilson made in his remarks, that there's always room for improvement, and I think anyone who doesn't agree with that is kidding themselves.
I do agree with the point that Australia does assume a position as a bit of a world leader when it comes to fisheries management, and that is something both successive governments and the industry have to be very proud of, given the work that's been done to bring the industry to its current standard. This is the seventh consecutive year that Commonwealth fisheries in this nation have been found to be not overfished, which is a big tick for those who operate in our fisheries and for those who manage them. Seven years in a row we have seen positive results from the management of fish stocks in solely Commonwealth managed fisheries. Outcomes like this have been supported by our quota management of fisheries and by the pursuit of ecologically sustainable development, principles which have underpinned Australia's management for almost three decades, since 1991, as Senator Whish-Wilson pointed out.
The principles of ecologically sustainable development are enshrined in Australian Fisheries Management Authority legislation, which incorporates three pillars—ecological, economic and social benefits. AFMA, the Australian Fishery Management Authority, takes a strong and practical approach to the management of fisheries, such as having robust frameworks, including total allowable catches, individual transferable quotas, harvest strategies and ecological risk assessments. I do want to take this opportunity to commend the team at AFMA. They do a fantastic job, especially in recent times. I acknowledge former fisheries minister Senator Ruston as well. They have done a fantastic job, particularly throughout the duration of the COVID pandemic and in trying to adhere to the international obligations that are put upon Australia that AFMA discharges, by being supportive and incredibly responsive to industry.
It's important to point out that quota management ensures that we have a very secure supply of seafood now and into the future. Management of fish stocks is incredibly important. This is not a matter of just setting and forgetting. It was a point that Senator Whish-Wilson made—industry is very adaptive, very responsive, to the conditions it operates in. The industry knows the waters better than anyone else and knows what's going on. We have heard of two examples in Tasmania where changes have been made by industry around industry conduct. And it is important to acknowledge that those in the industry are, as custodians of the resource and the environment it exists in, good managers, good custodians; hence the world-leader status.
AFMA continually improves these processes and our country's ability to maintain a healthy marine ecosystem, with the sustainable quota system forming a key component of its approach. This not only ensures access to our seafood, which for good reason is recognised globally for its quality, safety and, indeed, its tastiness but also supports a range of community benefits with economic gains, not only jobs but also recreational and Indigenous cultural fishing and tourism as well.
As I've already mentioned, we as a government are very proud, as I'm sure many in this chamber are—whatever political background they come from—of our fishing industry and, indeed, the management practices it employs. I do look forward to all of that being well on display and demonstrated through the inquiry at the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee.
Question agreed to.