Senate debates

Thursday, 24 June 2021

Auditor-General's Reports

Report No. 45 of 2020-21; Consideration

4:22 pm

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I'd like to take note of Auditor-General's Report No. 45 of 2020-21, Management of Commonwealth fisheries, Australian Fisheries Management Authority. Back in 2012-13, senators who were here would remember, we had the mother of all fights against two large industrial supertrawlers that were brought in by the Liberal Party to plunder Australia's waters. These trawlers had been dogged by controversy throughout their journeys around West Africa, especially, and other places, depleting the oceans' fisheries. We ended up banning those supertrawlers, which I think was a fantastic outcome. The Labor government at the time, under the then-fisheries minister, Mr Joe Ludwig, implemented a review of the Australian Fisheries Management Authority. That review was called the Borthwick review.

One of the key findings of the Borthwick review was that AFMA, as the authority that manages fisheries in this country, needed to put much more weighting on ecological risk assessments in its overall framework of fisheries management. What this basically meant was that they needed to consider the environmental implications of fishing activities. That makes sense because, if we don't have a healthy ocean, of course our fisheries aren't going to be healthy. So the two things go hand in glove. Unfortunately I was very disappointed to read this Auditor-General's report before us today saying exactly the same thing. The Borthwick review made a number of very clear recommendations of even the legislative changes we needed to make to our fisheries management framework. Yet here today, in the executive summary of this report, it's clearly said:

It is unclear whether AFMA's ecological risk framework is appropriate. AFMA has documented its ecological risk management framework in the 2017 Guide to AFMA's Ecological Risk Management. AFMA has not met its requirement to re-assess ecological risk every five years. A plan to implement fishery management strategies, which incorporate ecological risk management and are subject to a five-year review period, has not been implemented.

AFMA agreed that it hadn't met any of its own objectives in assessing the ecological risk of its management framework, and they agreed to do more work on this. It's certainly something that the Greens will be keeping a very close eye on.

There are a number of other recommendations in here. There are obviously some ticks of approval for AFMA, in certain areas, but I was also very interested in some of the economic objectives that AFMA set itself that haven't been met. For example:

Plans and strategies have not been reviewed in accordance with the relevant Commonwealth legislation and policy. Stakeholder engagement with recreational and Indigenous fishing stakeholders has been limited.

That is very disappointing, because the recreational fishing sector was one of the sectors that drove the need to have better consultation and have their considerations taken into account in commercial fisheries as well. It also says:

AFMA seeks to meet the requirement to maximise net economic returns by pursuing maximum economic yield for individual fisheries. Mechanisms to maximise economic yield are not mature and progress towards establishing maximum economic yield targets for individual fisheries has been slow.

I want to finish on this note. I'm pleased to say, and to remind the chamber, that the Greens initiated a Senate inquiry recently, through the rural and regional affairs committee, to review—it's been 30 years—the quota management system in this country. The system was brought in in the 1990s. We have had extensive feedback from commercial fishing stakeholders around the country, especially for smaller struggling fisheries operators in places like King Island, off Tasmania, and other states around the country, that this fisheries management approach is not fit for purpose any longer, 30 years later. It needs a thorough review.

Interestingly enough, the submissions to the committee have included a wide range of economists, scientists and experts all saying it's high time that this was reviewed. This goes hand in glove with some of the recommendations in this report from the Auditor-General. While it might be a little bit wonky to some, if we don't get fisheries management right in this country we're never going to have healthy oceans and we're never going to be able to sustain the fishing industry, the fishing operators all around this country.

I have got to know some of these fishers very well, over the years. For example, I've been working with them recently on seismic testing, which my colleague Senator Faruqi has just given an excellent five-minute speech on. The fishing industry is very concerned about these kinds of activities, and as I've got to know them I've got to understand that many of them see themselves as the custodians of some of their fisheries. They admit that a lot of their practices over previous years, going back many generations, have been archaic. Let me tell you, they know that the ocean is changing. They totally understand that their livelihoods are at stake if we don't change the way we operate, and not just in our fisheries but if we don't tackle climate change and the climate emergency we find ourselves in.

Charles Darwin, when he was on the voyage of the Beagle, had this love affair with giant kelp and he wrote extensively about it. I don't have the exact quote in front of me but he warned, in his writings, that if we were ever to lose giant kelp we would lose more biodiversity than in the richest terrestrial rainforests that he had encountered in Equatorial Guinea and up in Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and other places. Sadly, Tasmania has lost its giant kelp forests. Those habitats and ecosystems that were so important to fisheries have largely vanished from the east coast of Tasmania. Seagrasses around the nation are under pressure and vanishing. Thousands of kilometres of mangrove habitat has died back and vanished with warming oceans. And we've had some debate in this chamber today and during this week about the sad, tragic decline of the Great Barrier Reef.

Fishers right around the country know what's going on in the ocean. They're aware of this. They would like to see climate action. They understand that governments play a critical role in regulating their industry, in stepping in and taking climate action, doing what is necessary to ensure that we've all got a healthy ocean, doing what is necessary to ensure the future of their intergenerational families that have been in the fishing industry for many years.

So this Auditor-General report is welcome. It complements the work that we're about to do on the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee. I look forward to seeing some significant reform in fisheries management in this country.

Question agreed to.