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How are Australia’s fish stocks managed?

The management of wild catch fisheries in Australia is a responsibility shared between the Commonwealth, states and the Northern Territory.

In very general terms, the Australian Government is responsible for commercial fisheries beyond three nautical miles from the coast, while the states and the Northern Territory are responsible for fisheries resources within three nautical miles. However, under offshore constitutional settlement arrangements, many fisheries are defined differently, and in some cases management is shared through a joint authority between the Commonwealth and a state or the Northern Territory.

The state and the Northern Territory governments manage recreational fishing and aquaculture.

The Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) is the independent regulator that manages Commonwealth fisheries. AFMA’s functions include determining fisheries management settings and allocating fishing rights including quotas.

The Australian Government is committed to the sustainable use of fisheries resources and the conservation of marine ecosystems and biodiversity. Commonwealth fisheries management considers both the biological and economic consequences of fishing, including the effects on the broader marine environment.

Key commercial stocks in Commonwealth fisheries are managed under the Commonwealth Fisheries Harvest Strategy Policy and Guidelines. The policy applies an evidence-based, precautionary approach to setting catch levels, to ensure that fisheries provide maximum economic returns while maintaining stocks at sustainable levels.

Why is the harvest strategy policy needed?

In 2005, it was recognised the biological and economic status of a number of Commonwealth fisheries was poor and many stocks faced long recovery times. The then minister directed AFMA to take a more strategic, science-based approach to setting fisheries catch and effort levels through a ‘world’s best practice Commonwealth harvest strategy policy’. The aim was to manage fish stocks sustainably and profitably, end overfishing and ensure that already overfished stocks were rebuilt within reasonable timeframes.

In response, the government released the Commonwealth Fisheries Harvest Strategy Policy and Guidelines in 2007, and a revised policy and guidelines were released in 2018. This is the major government policy that guides management settings for commercially targeted species in Commonwealth fisheries.

The policy’s objective is the ecologically sustainable and profitable use of Australia’s Commonwealth commercial fisheries resources (where ecological sustainability takes priority)—through implementation of harvest strategies. The policy seeks to ensure acceptable scientific processes are used to set sustainable catch levels for target species. Harvest strategies developed under the policy are designed to maximise economic returns from fishing and avoid unacceptable risks to the stock from overfishing.

What is the current status of Australia’s fish stocks?

The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) annually assesses the status of Commonwealth wild fish stocks. The Fishery Status Reports provides an independent evaluation of the biological and economic status of fish stocks managed solely or jointly by the Australian Government. a copy of tThe latest Fishery Status Reports can be found on the ABARES website.

The Fisheries Research and Development Corporation manages the biennial development of the Status of Australian Fish Stocks Reports. These reports bring together available biological, catch and effort information to determine the status of the key wild catch fish stocks managed by all jurisdictions across Australia.

How does the harvest strategy policy work?

Harvest strategies developed under the policy set out the management actions to achieve the defined biological and economic outcomes for target species in a given fishery. The policy requires that harvest strategies contain:

  • processes for monitoring and assessing the biological and economic conditions of the fishery against pre-determined reference points
  • rules that control the levels of fishing in response to assessed biological and economic conditions in the fishery (known as ‘harvest control rules’ or ‘decision rules’).

Under the policy, key commercial fish stocks must be managed to the target required to produce maximum economic yield from the fishery as a whole.  All stocks must be maintained above a biomass limit beyond which the risk to the stock is considered unacceptably high (in all cases the limit reference point must be at least 0.2 times unfished biomass). The harvest control rules are pre-agreed management responses to particular biological or economic conditions. These rules are designed to move stocks towards the target reference point and away from the limit reference point.

Why target maximum economic yield?

A common fisheries management target applied outside Commonwealth fisheries is maximum sustainable yield. That is, the maximum average catch that can be taken over the long-term without reducing the stock below the level that can sustain those catches. Maximum sustainable yield has been widely established as an objective in fisheries management globally, including in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries.

However, while it is a widely applied concept, maximum sustainable yield is a biological measure and does not take account of the costs of fishing. In many cases, higher profits can be made by maintaining stocks at levels above maximum sustainable yield, to optimise catch rates and so reduce operating costs.

The Commonwealth Fisheries Harvest Strategy Policy and Guidelines sets a management target of maximum economic yield; that is the maximum average catch (or corresponding level of fishing effort) that allows the fishery’s net economic returns to be maximised.

Fishing costs generally increase as the size of fish stocks shrink, since fish become harder to find and catch rates slow. Maximising economic yield requires that stocks are maintained at higher levels, and fishing pressure is lower than would be needed to achieve maximum sustainable yield. This is demonstrated in the policy’s proxy target reference point for maximum economic yield, to maintain stocks at a level 1.2 times greater than that which achieves maximum sustainable yield.

This approach is consistent with the Fisheries Management Act 1991 of maximising economic returns from fishing to the Australian community. Importantly, this is also a more conservative management target in that it ‘leaves more fish in the water’. This leads to higher catch rates for commercial fishers and other users, requires less capitalisation by fishers, protects against unfavourable environmental fluctuations, reduces the likelihood of overfishing and has less impact on the ecosystem.

What are the harvest strategy guidelines?

The Guidelines for the Implementation of the Commonwealth Fisheries Harvest Strategy Policy explain the biological and economic principles for implementing the policy, provide practical assistance for developing fishery-specific harvest strategies and illustrate how the policy can be applied.

The guidelines are designed to support harvest strategy development across the full range of Commonwealth fisheries, including input and output managed fisheries; single and multi-species fisheries; large and small fisheries; and data-rich to data-poor situations. They seek to ensure a common approach and framework is applied across Commonwealth fisheries, to the extent possible for such a diverse set of fisheries.

Why was the harvest strategy policy reviewed?

In 2007, the Australian Government introduced the harvest strategy policy to guide the commercial catch of target species in Commonwealth fisheries. There was provision in the policy that a review be conducted within five years of commencement.
Having implemented a new and technical policy across a diverse range of fisheries, it is important to review the policy and guidelines to determine if they should be further refined and to incorporate feedback from stakeholders, lessons learnt from implementation and relevant advances in fisheries science.

Overall the review found the harvest strategy policy is widely regarded as having been a very successful initiative for improving the management of Commonwealth fisheries and remained a strong foundation for Commonwealth fisheries management. The review also found the policy and guidelines met or exceeded the standards of relevant international obligations and continued to represent best practice in most aspects. However, fisheries management and science continues to develop. As such the review found that some aspects of the policy and guidelines could be further refined and updated to capture new developments and address any weaknesses, in order to ensure their settings continue to allow the government to pursue fisheries management objectives in a way that represents world’s best practice.

More information on the review is available online, including the technical reviews that informed the review and the review report.

Last reviewed: 4 November 2019
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