It is unbelievable! A Melbourne fish and chip shop was robbed last night by two adults and four minors. A family that could not afford fish and chips? This humble fare has been a cheap and nutritious staple for the workers of England and Australia for more than a century. But it’s not cheap anymore.

And as if we needed further proof, it’s just as good as eating at John and Janette’s according to Peter Costello.

The “Fish” is different in every state but in Victoria it is flake — the flesh of small numerous schooling sharks. The price of flake has gone from little more than $1.50 in the early 1980s to $4.50-$6.00 a piece now. So for a family of six, with two flake for dad, some chips and potato cakes, this meal could easily cost $50.

How did Fish ‘n Chips get so expensive?

“Bloody scientists and the AFMA,” (Australian Fisheries Management Authority) are to blame according to Pat Hutchings of the Apollo Fishermen’s Co-op, a former shark fisherman.

“The industry had been stable for 60 years and then the Commonwealth took over when its waters went to 200 mile in the ’80s,” he says.

“From day one they said that the industry was in danger of collapse and from the mid 1980s we were faced with a never ending stream of scientists with worse news and more restrictions, fleet and catch cuts. It is disgusting.”

And pointleess. Restricting the Victorian fishery does nothing to protect a group of shark species that range across the Tasman Sea and beyond.

In the early 1990s Pat landed a school shark that was tagged in New Zealand, proof of the sharks’ migratory instincts, but he was accused of having the tag posted over. This was the first of dozens of tags retrieved from either side of the Tasman — all but ignored by AFMA scientists. In contrast scientists studying Monarch Butterfly migration in the US mark the day when the first tagged butterfly was found in Mexico proving their migration theory.

In 2001 the fishery was considered to be in such a crisis that hard quotas were introduced to cap the catch of school shark to less than 2,300 tonnes per year while the NZ catch was around 1,500 tonnes annually.

Strict quotas for each shark species were introduced in 2001 as conservation groups and scientists sought to establish school shark as a threatened species. This forced many fishermen out of business and led others to borrow large amounts of money to buy what shark quota was available. The fishery was effectively privatised and capitalised. Now shark fishermen pay $30-50,000 per year to go to sea — compared to $500 for an annual licence in the early 1980s.

These costs cover farmed-out research and a massive bureaucracy that has grown in Canberra as the fleet has shrunk. The costs have been passed on to the consumer. With a high price ($5 for 100 gram piece of fish is equivalent to $50 per kilo), substitution of cheap shark species and even Nile perch for flake is rife in the absence of fish naming regulations and import controls.

A bit of “Googling” shows that school shark (aka tope, snapper shark, soupfin) is only commercially fished in a small part of its worldwide range and has an impressive travel record of 1,500 miles or more — so we do likely share stocks with New Zealand where much of the flake eaten in Melbourne now comes from.

A multi-million dollar research and fisheries management empire has been built on the back of this and other fisheries’ “unsustainablitity” while 200 boats and their employment and spending have been lost coastal port towns across Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia at the behest of Commonwealth managers.

We know who regulates the fishermen — but who regulates the scientists with such obvious “profits” from declaring fisheries “unsustainable”?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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