12 January 2016
Ms Michelle Grady
Save Our Marine Life
Dear Ms Grady
I understand Save Our Marine Life is currently running a campaign seeking a permanent ban on ‘supertrawlers’ in Australian waters. As the Assistant Minister responsible for fisheries matters, I am writing to assure you that the Australian Government is listening to community concerns about the use of large vessels in our fisheries. I invite you to post this response on your website.
In following the debate about using large fishing vessels, a part of the discussion that seems to me to be missing is the fact that regardless of the size of the vessel, all boats operating in Commonwealth fisheries, including the Small Pelagic Fishery (SPF), are subject to strict rules to protect fisheries and other marine resources. Regardless of vessel size, fisheries rules are applied to protect our natural resources and to make sure fish stocks are harvested sustainably so that Australians have access to sustainably sourced local seafood in the future. The question then becomes does a larger vessel operating in a quota managed fishery pose a greater risk to the marine environment than a number of smaller vessels whose combined catch is the same as the larger vessel?
The government recognises the importance of protecting key species, including seals, dolphins and seabirds and all Commonwealth fisheries undergo regular environmental assessment under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. That Act also requires all fishing operators to take all reasonable steps to ensure protected species are not killed, or injured during fishing operations.
On 26 October 2015 a delegate for the Minister for the Environment accredited the Small Pelagic Fishery Management Plan, being satisfied that the management regime does not, or is not likely to adversely affect the survival or recovery of any listed threatened species, or the conservation status of a listed migratory species, cetacean or listed marine species or a population of that species.
Australia has an independent regulator for fisheries, the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) and Australia’s fisheries management system is recognised as one of the best in the world. The SPF, along with many other Commonwealth fisheries, is managed by limiting the total amount of catch allowed to be harvested in the fishery each year. AFMA has applied precautionary regional catch limits to the SPF to distribute the fishing effort widely throughout the fishery to mitigate the already low risk of localised depletion.
Further, before any mid-water trawler operating in the SPF can start fishing, AFMA must approve a vessel management plan (VMP) for the vessel. A VMP is tailored to each vessel’s operations and equipment and is designed to ensure that the impact of the vessel on the marine environment is minimised as much as possible. Specific measures in the Geelong Star’s VMP include the use of equipment designed to help marine mammals avoid or escape fishing gear. Vessels must also carry independent on-board observers to conduct scientific sampling and monitor interactions with protected species. Any new information that becomes available about the fishing operation and interactions with marine species can result in the VMP being updated. Full details of the Geelong Star’s VMP can be found on the AFMA website at afma.gov.au.
AFMA continues to monitor the vessel using a global positioning tracking system to ensure the vessel continues to fish only where approved. The requirement for all mid-water trawl vessels in the SPF to use electronic monitoring will also continue–this includes the use of on board cameras to monitor fishing activity. I also understand the operator of the Geelong Star, Seafish Tasmania, is taking additional measures to reduce the risk of marine mammal interactions such as implementing a range of safe setting and hauling procedures and using underwater equipment that can detect dolphins near the vessel so that they can be avoided as much as possible. The vessel is one of the most heavily regulated and closely monitored vessels currently fishing in the Australian Fishing Zone.
The SPF has been the subject of recent scientific research projects including a review of the harvest strategy for the fishery and a review of potential broader ecosystem impacts from the fishery. Data on the size of Australian small pelagic fish stocks has also been updated. This work has been coordinated by the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation (FRDC) to help inform government decision making including the setting of total allowable catch limits for the fishery. More details on the research projects are available on the AFMA and FRDC websites at afma.gov.au and frdc.com.au respectively.
I share your concerns about dolphin and seal deaths in the fishery. In developing the Geelong Star’s VMP, a significant amount of effort went into finding ways to minimise interactions with seals and dolphins. This effort has continued and the FRDC has hosted two specific technical workshops since June 2015 to draw on expert knowledge on options for mitigating marine mammal interactions in the fishery.
The government takes seriously its responsibility to protect the environment, and to sustainably manage fisheries for the benefit of all Australians into the future. This is why the government places significant emphasis on scientific research, has a strong legislative and policy framework for managing fisheries and to ensure compliance, and has an independent regulator. I am satisfied that the current management arrangements for the fishery are close to correct, and can be improved over time to strike the right balance between environmental protection and supporting an operation that contribute to the economy, creates employment and harnesses a quality food resource for domestic and overseas consumption.
I appreciate your organisation’s engagement on this issue. Please note that this letter will be made available on the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources website at agriculture.gov.au. The government will not be responding individually to campaign correspondence from the Save Our Marine Life or related websites.