Commonwealth legislating to ban large trawler

The Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Tony Burke, has moved amendments to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC) Act. This will give the Government the powers to prevent the trawler, Abel Tasman, from fishing in Australian waters for up to two years while a scientific study on its impacts is carried out. The major issues with the vessel are its large size and fishing capability, which far exceeds any other fishing vessel in Australian waters, and possible impacts on protected species.

The 142m long, 9,500 tonnes (t) mid-water trawler with freezer capacity of 6,200 t, previously registered as the Margiris in Lithuania, has been brought to Australia by Seafish Tasmania to fish in the Small Pelagic Fishery (SPF). It has now being registered as an Australian vessel in order to fish in Australian waters. It was expected to carry out fishing trips of 6-8 weeks duration. Recreational fishers, environment groups and some commercial fishers were concerned that the trawler’s size and ability to stay fishing for months at a time could have a significant impact on both target fish stocks and the marine ecosystem.

A similar event occurred in 2004 when concerns were raised over the Irish owners of the Veronica (a 106m trawler) who were reported to be planning to fish in Australian waters. At that time, the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) decided to freeze any applications for new entrants to the SPF and restricted existing licences to prevent expansion of the fishery pending development of the SPF Management Plan. No formal applications for fishing were ever received.

Powers under the EPBC Act
On 4 September 2012, using his powers under the EPBC Act, Minister Burke imposed new conditions on the management regime for the SPF to ensure that the Abel Tasman would have no more impact than that of a small vessel with the same size of fishing quota. This would "require the super trawler to adopt worlds-best practice methods to avoid listed species, particularly seals, dolphins and sea birds being killed or injured during its trawling operations." AFMA was reported as earlier stating "there is no evidence to suggest that larger boats pose any greater risk to either the target species or the ecosystem".
Minister Burke was still convinced there was significant uncertainty regarding the impact of such a large fishing vessel on the marine environment. He was concerned about the length of time the vessel could fish in the same area potentially creating a "localised major bycatch issue". He said:
If you have a large number of vessels taking different parts of the quota from different areas then you're not going to have any risk of a localised major by–catch issue. But when you have a vessel with a large freezer capacity that therefore is able to remain for extended periods of time in the same part of our oceans there are a different set of environmental considerations and that's the difference.
As the Minister was advised that the EPBC Act could not be used to prevent new vessels from fishing while further scientific assessments were undertaken, he decided to introduce new amendments to the EPBC Act. These would allow a full assessment of the impacts to take place before such a vessel is permitted to start fishing. The assessment will be carried out by an expert panel.

Registration requirements
In order for a foreign boat to fish Australian waters the vessel must be registered as an Australian flagged vessel so it can be declared an Australian vessel. It then needs appropriate fishing permits in the relevant fishery, i.e. the Commonwealth SPF managed by AFMA. The Abel Tasman will have Brisbane as its home port and is "awaiting final registration with Maritime Safety Queensland and transfer of Seafish Tasmania’s fishing quota." In order to start fishing the Seafish Tasmania quota must be assigned to the vessel.

After the vessel is registered by AMSA under the Shipping Registration Act 1981 the applicant is able to nominate the boat to an existing AFMA issued fishing concession. The legislative requirements for nomination specify that the concession holder must nominate the boat to a fishing concession before going fishing for the first time. In order to do this, the boat must:
  • be able to safely carry an observer; and all the observer’s safety and monitoring equipment for the duration of a trip
  • have a vessel monitoring system that is capable of being operational at all times.
  •  met any safety standards required by AFMA.
  • not be a nominated boat for another person under a fishing concession granted under the Fisheries Management Act 1991.
  •  be capable of meeting all other requirements imposed by or under the Fisheries Management Act 1991 and the Fisheries Management Regulations 1992.
SPF management and quotas
The SPF is managed through the allocation an annual quota of fish that can be caught by each boat in the fishery. Seafish Tasmania has a quota of 17,848 t for 2012-13. This comprises of 1930t of blue mackerel, 7885t of redbait and 8033t of jack mackerel. This is almost half of the total quota of 36,300t for the entire SPF in its two management zones (east and west).

There are 31 quota holders in the fishery. However, since 2003, only between three and 12 vessels have caught fish in any one year. The SPF catch has been very low since the introduction of the SPF Management Plan in 2009 (2,317t in 2009-10 and 120t in 2011-12) compared to the annual quotas of 27,300t to 29,300t. The highest catch levels in the past ten years were just over 12,000t in 2005-06.

There was a large increase in the 2012-13 quota for jack mackerel in the eastern zone from 5,000t to 10,000t on the recommendation of the SPF Resource Assessment Group (SPFRAG). This decision has been questioned. It was based on biomass estimates from data collected in 2002, the analysis of which was published in 2011. One member of the SPFRAG strongly opposed this increase of jack mackerel east harvest unless it was a part of a research project.

The increased catch would be approximately 7.5% of the updated mean biomass estimate of jack mackerel of 141,500t as provided for in the SPF Harvesting Strategy (which limits the maximum harvest rate at 20% of the spawning biomass).
The SPF Harvest Strategy uses a tiered approach that recognises the ecological importance of the small pelagic species and takes an explicitly conservative approach to setting harvest levels (i.e. proportion of spawning biomass) and hence TACs. The tiered approach recognises that harvest rates must be low when there is limited information available on the status of the stocks but can be increased as improved information becomes available.
AFMA has been criticised for using the spawning biomass analysis as a basis for estimating the population of jack mackerel saying that the results cannot be reproduced. However, the analysis was reviewed by the Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies which supported the analysis and found it to be repeatable.
Protecting the marine ecosystem
By-catch of other marine species is an important issue for the management of SPF. The 2012 assessment of the SPF found the most prevalent interactions (by-catch) are with seals in the mid-water trawl off the coast of Tasmania. "Since 2005, no dolphin interactions and ten seal interactions have been recorded in the SPF." There have been no recent seabird interactions recorded. AFMA recognised that the target species in the SPF are key prey species in the pelagic food web.
Understanding and reporting the protected species interactions for this fishery is therefore considered critical, particularly in light of the possible introduction of the FV Margiris. 
Concerns have been raised that heavy fishing by the Abel Tasman in small areas will deplete these prey species and impact on the ecosystem in that area. It has been argued that such local depletion is highly unlikely because these fish species are highly mobile and vary with the ocean fronts and currents. However there is no specific research on fish stock movements of the SPF species. AFMA is reported to have said that factory freezer ships may be less likely to cause local depletion of fish stocks because they could travel further to fish without the need return to load catch for local processing.
The role of small pelagic fish in the food chain is an issue of concern for recreational fishers who argue that fishing, at what AFMA calls sustainable levels, will impact on the top predators, e.g. tuna and billfish. AFMA indicated that the top predator fish are not as dependent on the fish species targeted by the SPF as they are on similar fish in other areas of the world. There are a wider variety of prey species in Australian waters. The 2011 paper Impacts of Fishing Low-Trophic Level Species on Marine Ecosystems studied several marine ecosystems in the California current, northern Humbolt current, North Sea, southern Benguela current and southeast Australia and found the impacts of fishing sardines (one of the SPF species) were low in the southeast Australian marine ecosystem.
The Stop the Trawler Alliance, made up of over 13 fishing and environment groups, welcomed the government decision. The Tasmanian Association for Recreational Fishing and the Australian National Sport Fishing Association thanked the government for the decision "which was what they asked for".
Commercial Fisheries executive director Brian Jeffries said the decision signalled the end of a "considered, science-driven, evidence-based approach to fisheries management". Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Neil MacKinnon said AFMA's "science is being sacrificed on the altar of populism".


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