Small Pelagic Fishery

The Department of Agriculture and Water Resources has made a submission to the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee Inquiry into the environmental, social and economic impacts of large-capacity fishing vessels operating in Australia’s marine jurisdiction​.

The Senate Committee is due to report by 30 April 2016 – more information can be found on the Parliament of Australia website.  

The Small Pelagic Fishery is managed by the Commonwealth Government, through the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA), and covers nearly 3 million square kilometres from Western Australia to Southern Queensland.

Comprehensive information on the fishery, including management arrangements, can be found at the AFMA website. Australian fisheries are strictly regulated and those who do not comply are prosecuted.

The map below shows the fishery area.

Map of the Small Pelagic Fishery including zones
Map of the Small Pelagic Fishery including zones (© Commonwealth of Australia 2009).

Commercial fishing can occur across the fishery but generally fishers operate close to ports and processing facilities.

Small pelagic fish are highly mobile. Fish sourced from the Small Pelagic Fishery include:
  • Australian sardine
  • blue mackerel
  • jack mackerel
  • redbait

The two fishing methods used in the Small Pelagic Fishery are mid-water trawl and purse-seine.

Management and Scientific Research

A quota management system is used for the Small Pelagic Fishery, limiting the amount of fish caught of each species. Each year the Australian Fisheries Management Authority Commission sets catch limits for the forward year-long fishing season using information provided by the fishery manager, industry members and scientists. Once the catch limit is set, it does not change regardless of the size or number of the fishing vessels used to catch the fish.

These catch limits are set at precautionary and sustainable levels, taking broader ecosystem impacts into consideration. At the moment the total catch limits for the 2015 – 16 fishing season leave more than 90 per cent of the combined estimated biomass of small pelagic fish stocks in the water. 

The Small Pelagic Fishery has been significantly under-fished in the past decade. For the 2013-14 fishing season, less than 0.05 per cent of the catch limit was actually taken.

Application of the Harvest Strategy Policy and Bycatch Policy in the Small Pelagic Fishery

Commercial fishing in the Small Pelagic Fishery is guided by the 'Small Pelagic Fishery Harvest Strategy 2008', which is based on the broader 'Commonwealth Harvest Strategy Policy and Guidelines 2007' originally developed by CSIRO.

The Australian Government also has a range of measures in place to avoid or minimise bycatch in all Commonwealth managed fisheries, guided by the Commonwealth Policy on Fisheries Bycatch and Small Pelagic Fishery Bycatch and Discarding Plan. This can include modifying fishing gear to exclude some species, closing fisheries for a period of time or in certain areas where there is an increased risk of bycatch and having observers on board fishing vessels.

Science is used to inform the managers of all Australian fisheries about fish stocks and the surrounding marine environment. AFMA manages and monitors commercial fishing to ensure Australian fish stocks and our fishing industry are viable now and into the future. The government continues to invest in research projects to ensure Australian fisheries continue to be global leaders in science and management, including for the Small Pelagic Fishery. The research will build on and update what is already known.

Prohibited activities

Commonwealth Government agencies, including AFMA, oversee a range of vessels operating in Australian waters. The Commonwealth recently altered guidelines regarding large commercial fishing vessels.

Two expert panels were established to assess the potential for any adverse environmental impacts from mid-water trawl vessels with storage capacity greater than 2,000 tonnes operating in the Small Pelagic Fishery. An independent panel gathered evidence and conducted extensive consultations with the community, including recreational and commercial fishers on this matter.

As a result, the Australian Government now banned vessels more than 130 metres in length from fishing in Australian waters.

The expert panels have provided their first and second reports to the Minister for the Environment; these reports are now publicly available on the Department of the Environment website.

More information

The AFMA website has more information about the management settings in the Small Pelagic Fishery and across Commonwealth managed fisheries:

The Fisheries Research and Development Corporation (FRDC) website has more information about research projects in the Small Pelagic Fishery.

Environmental conditions for the Small Pelagic Fishery and more information about the expert panel can be found on the Department of the Environment website.

ABARES Fishery Status Reports can be found at ABARES publications.​​

Last reviewed: 16 October 2020
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