Senator Joe Ludwig, former ALP Minister responsible for fisheries, has introduced a private member’s bill that will permit the Federal Government to require assessment of new fishing ventures such as large trawlers. The sunset clause in present legislation meant that such powers expired in September 2013.
In the years before 2012, the annual catch of the Small Pelagic Fishery (SPF), which includes small fish such as jack and blue mackerel and red bait, was less than 3,000 tonnes–just one tenth of the total annual fishing quota. Between three and twelve vessels were catching these types of fish. In 2012-13 the annual quota was substantially increased to 36,300 t, and Seafish Tasmania held almost half of this quota. The company decided to introduce a 143 metre factory trawler, the FV Abel Tasman (formerly the FV Margiris), with a freezer capacity of 6,200 t.
Both conservation and recreational fishing bodies raised concerns that potentially heavy fishing by the Abel Tasman in concentrated areas would deplete the small fish, which are prey for larger species such as tuna and billfish, and possibly damage the ecosystem in these areas.
In response to the proposal for the new ‘supertrawler’ to fish in the SPF, in September 2012 the Federal Government introduced the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Declared Commercial Fishing Activities) Bill 2012 to provide the Minister for the Environment with powers to suspend the activity of such a vessel for up to 24 months while its environmental impacts were assessed. The Bill passed the Parliament, although the Coalition parties voted against it. While the amendments permitted a temporary suspension of new commercial fishing activities, there was no permanent ban on supertrawlers such as the Abel Tasman.
Included in the legislation was a sunset clause whereby the potential for declaration was limited to one year, by which time the results of a review of fisheries management would be implemented. In March 2013 then Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Senator Ludwig, announced that the government would accept all 15 recommendations of the review of Commonwealth Fisheries.
In November 2012, then Minister for the Environment, Tony Burke, declared that the FV Abel Tasman could not fish in Australian waters for two years while its impact on fisheries and the environment was being assessed. The Expert Panel undertaking the assessment of the environmental impacts of the operation of large mid-water trawl freezer vessels in the Small Pelagic Fishery must report by 22 October 2014. Large vessels were defined as being greater than 130 m in length, with on-board processing facilities and with storage capacity for fish or fish products in excess of 2,000 tonnes. As this definition included the Abel Tasman (because its length exceeds the limit), Seafish Tasmania then proposed to use the boat as a floating freezer mothership for other smaller fishing vessels. Environment Minister Burke made a second declaration preventing this in February 2013.
On 4 February 2013, Seafish Tasmania filed judicial review proceedings against the Environment Minister, the Fisheries Minister and the Commonwealth of Australia in the first declaration. In June 2013, Seafish Tasmania submitted a claim disputing the declaration relating to use of the Abel Tasman as a freezer ship. The Federal Court dismissed the case with costs on 21 February 2014. Seafish Tasmania has lodged an appeal to this judgement and the (current) Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, said that the Australian Government will oppose the appeal.
Senator Joe Ludwig chose to introduce the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment Bill 2014 to remove the sunset clause in the EPBC so that the Minister’s powers to respond to new commercial fishing operations are restored. He said that there were no powers under the EPBC to make declarations about new fisheries operations such as supertrawlers and that the present Government had failed to create new powers or take any action to implement the fisheries management review.
Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson has moved an amendment to this Bill to prohibit fishing using an oversized vessel, which would be defined as one capable of processing or storing more than 2,000 t of fish.
The Stop the Trawler Alliance, which includes Game Fish Tasmania and Environment Tasmania, welcomed this Bill and noted that the Tasmanian ALP, Liberals and Greens all supported a permanent ban on supertrawlers.
It is unclear whether the Coalition parties will support this bill. In opposition they voted against the legislation allowing such a ban, yet Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in Parliament on 4 March this year that the supertrawler was “banned with the support of members on this side of the House. It was banned; it will stay banned.”