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Something fishy going on with supertrawler brawl

The imminent arrival of one of the world’s largest fishing trawlers in Australian waters has set off howls of protest from conservation groups — but they may only have themselves to blame.

The supertrawler Margiris, at 140 metres the largest fishing vessel ever to work in Australian waters, is expected to arrive in Tasmania within weeks. Opponents warn the factory ship will deplete fish stocks, damage the environment and squeeze out smaller fishing operators (including recreational fishermen).

The public has every right to be concerned that this factory ship will drag an unimaginably huge net across the seafloor, possibly catching and drowning seals and dolphins, while perhaps dumping tonnes of fish for which there is no quota. It’s a type of vessel more suitable for trips of months in remote waters when there is no access to shore-based processing — not for coastal fishing.

But the supertrawler’s arrival is the logical and direct result of 20 years of fisheries reform that has been heartily backed by many of the green groups now protesting so loudly.

Authorities used to conserve fish stocks by “boat management” — restrictions on gear used, and the areas and seasons in which people could fish. The system has been reformed towards “catch management” (also called “quota management”), where total allowable catch is capped and transferable, with operators free to accumulate quotas and fill their quotas however they like. This has encouraged large operators to buy up quotas and dominate the market — and led to one massive supertrawler wending its way towards Tasmanian fish stocks.

The writing was on the wall for smaller fishing operators once this policy reform process was put in place. Economists might like it, and see the dominance of big players and big vessels as more efficient, but it has wreaked significant damage on the industry.

Gerry Geen, the director of SeaFish Tasmania, was a fisheries economist who played a key role in the introduction of quota management in Australian fisheries and is now part of the industry he helped establish. His company is bringing the Margiris to Devonport, Tasmania, in a joint venture with the ship’s Dutch owners, to fish for redbait and jack mackerel.

Setting fishing quotas and strictly limiting catches to prevent overfishing was sold to the Australian public and conservationists by scientists, economists and bureaucrats. For scientists it promised a massive increase in research dollars for a huge variety of species. The management bureaucracy expanded too, with all costs recovered from the industry and passed through to the price of fish.

Recreational fisheries have also been identified for future quota management. Now the recreational fishing sector is leading the protests against trawler.

Improving the economic efficiency in fisheries, replacing small so-called “inefficient” owner-operators with corporate owners and large boats, has been the aim from the outset. But was the small-fry nature of the industry ever really a problem?

Just one trawler can land 5% of the total allocated catch for a given species, but that it is apparently sustainable in the view of SeaFish Tasmania, the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, and marine scientists who have the job of estimating how many fish are in the sea — estimates we “should have faith in” according to Geen.

Extraordinarily, the implementation of quota management does not include habitat associated with the marine environment.

And in a bizarre twist, as the amount of fish caught declines under quota, the actual value of fish increases by more than that decline — making local fish very expensive to the public while also limiting their choice.

The underlying issue for the public, however, is the massive loss of jobs that fisheries reform has caused. It was not long ago that there was a multimillion dollar buyout of hundreds of licences, itself representing many hundreds of jobs lost. But the total quota was not reduced.

Fisheries economists only value the landed catch, not the jobs in crewing, building and maintaining boats or transporting, processing and retailing fish. Then there is the additional value of local fresh-caught fish in retail, so obvious in Hobart. The economic impact and job losses from Australian fisheries management reform has been grossly underestimated.

We the public, especially marine green groups, surely must share some of the blame. We have been quick to demonise the small-boat trawl industry for its apparent unsustainability, while lauding fish farming. Yet the environmental cost of the modification of seabed to make trawl grounds for small boats should be compared to that of factory farming. Even organic farming needs all the native vegetation cleared, while conventional farming uses a wide range of agricultural chemicals and fertilisers — pollutants at sea.

The arrival of this trawler perhaps highlights too the state of Australian fisheries management. Fishermen can neither land nor confess to dumping perfectly good fish, even when dead, that they have no quota for, for fear of being fined, losing their licence or even having their fishery closed.

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  • 1
    methley
    Posted Thursday, 26 July 2012 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the info.

    As if Tassie needs LESS jobs!

  • 2
    Microseris
    Posted Thursday, 26 July 2012 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    Don’t see how “conservation groups” are to blame.

    To paraphrase “green groups” press for fishery to be sustainable. Bureaucrats implement process to restrict take and corporations exploit loophoole to introduce supertrawler to drag seafloor
    clean.

    Sounds like bureaucrats have put in place the wrong process. Fix it!

  • 3
    exasperated77
    Posted Thursday, 26 July 2012 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    The Margiris is a pelagic trawler, that means it’s net does not touch the seafloor-demersal trawlers do that. The fishery it will be participating in has struggled for years to make the use of small purse-seiners economic. Using the Margiris will mean they have a vessel unlimited by weather, unrestricted in operational range, able to catch the quota in a shorter space of time with less crewing, maintenance and fuel costs associated with the present fleet of smaller vessels. The species targeted are used primarily for conversion to fishmeal to feed farmed fish like the Tasmanian Atlantic salmon industry. Many green critics are pointing out the damage such vessels have done to places like west Africa where they gain access under corrupt deals with local governments which care nothing for the damage done to there own citizens livelihoods. Preventing the Margiris from participating in a scientifically managed fishery in the first world will mean it’s inevitable return to devasting third world fisheries in which case we will hear nothing from the sanctimonious opponents of this vessel

  • 4
    mattsui
    Posted Thursday, 26 July 2012 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    This is becoming a real theme of late. Blame Conservationists/progressive political groups for the failed policy of state and federal governments whose interests (either short-term political or financial) or complete lack thereof, simply do not extend to practical long term sustainable outcomes.
    The fact is that science is being done and new things are being tried in the search for a way to feed the world without destroying it. No one interest group will ever be truly satisfied but you can rest assured that “conservation groups” are in for the long haul - they wont chuck it in and go home just because their efforts occasionally result in potentially negative outcomes.

  • 5
    Gerry Hatrick, OAP
    Posted Thursday, 26 July 2012 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    So which sentence do we read why this monstrosity is coming to fish, so we have some evidence to look at, rather than meaningless fluff?

  • 6
    Nat P
    Posted Friday, 27 July 2012 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    Whoah… for starters, this is not a bottom trawling vessel - it’s a midwater trawler. You won’t find a single conservation group that got that bit wrong.

    Second, there are quotas for a fishery (or total allowable catch - TAC) in other words a limit on how much fish can be taken out of an entire fishery in a year and there are individual transferable quotas (ITQs) or tradeable portions of that TAC. You have conflated the two. No serious environmental group advocates for ITQs - but every serious one advocates for catch limits.

    And rightly so, there is percentage of biomass of a species that can be taken out of that population without fundamental damage to the population and more importantly the eco-system that population is a part of. That figure is very hard to come up with without very good, recent scientific data and an ecosystem-based approach. In this case we have neither.

    As for sharing the fishing around, how we manage access to portions of the quota is the hard part - and as you say, gear types and vessel sizes as well as historic footprints and a range of factors should be considered - allowing a free market in quota portions is very clearly a recipe for monopoly and large destructive factory vessels.

  • 7
    methley
    Posted Friday, 27 July 2012 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    RE exasperated

    So, using less crew is ‘good’?

    Jobs don’t matter?

  • 8
    exasperated77
    Posted Friday, 27 July 2012 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    Methley, the Tasmanian Jack Mackeral fishery has existed since the 1980’s but has teeter’d on the edge of viability for much of that time. The problem is the boasts used in the fishery have a limited range and capacity. Operating from Triabunna on the west coast of Tasmania they are unable to follow the fish very far from home and concentrate their efforts within a roughly 1-200 mile range, some years very little catch is recorded simply because the fish are swimming to far from port. The advantage the Margiris will have is the ability to follow what is a very mobile pelagic species to wherever ocean currents, sea temperatures and plankton abundance are causing the fish to aggregate. My point is that the Margiris will provide a reliable steady income to whoever crews her ( hopefully Australian) as opposed to unreliable, erratic incomes and some years no income at all. I’ve seen what happens in fisheries when managers try to maximize licences and jobs, it’s better to have fewer, better paying jobs with less incentive to overexploit a fishery due to trying to share too few fish between too many especially when fish populations fluctuate. Less boats means less greenhouse gases burnt as well

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