Winning government was an expensive process for the ALP, with a stack of election promises now waiting for action on each new minister’s desk. But with a colossal tax package to deliver in next year’s budget, how is Team Kevin going to place maximum downward pressure on interest rates while flooding the economy with new money?

It’s all about savings, says Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner. He’s already brought $10 billion to the attention of his razor gang, but some analysts say he needs to find another $10 billion. He may care to turn his gaze to fisheries.

Tanner and new Fisheries Minister Tony Bourke could save nearly $500 million annually by negotiating joint management of northern waters with Indonesia, New Guinea and East Timor. This would enable their fishing fleets to fish their traditional grounds and our boats would share ports and market access.

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The States need to be given back the management of the fleets, but with fishing rights based on traditional fishing grounds as opposed to “catch by species” management, which results in the dumping of perfectly good fish that it always entails. All fisheries land only a few of the many species in their waters and previously these were all sent to market, given to hospitals, old people’s homes, retired fishermen and the like. In other words, they were not wasted.

Now, if the quota is not available, it if is set too low or being leased at extortionate rates at the end of the season, tonnes of fish are dumped because they cannot be brought to shore — environmental vandalism is a reasonable description. The AFMA solution is to expand the bureaucracy yet again for 24 hour video surveillance and on-board observers. It costs the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) more than $100,000 per boat per year to manage. Where’s the common sense — and fiscal conservatism — in that?

Gear regulations that limit catches along with weather, tides and markets have always applied to the fleets before quotas favouring industrial scale vessels. The gear can easily be checked at the wharf by local fisheries officers who act on AFMA’s behalf, shedding further unnecessary regulation.

Under existing Memorandum Of Understanding agreements, the conversion of quota units to fishing area licences would be almost seamless and prevent the kind of bureaucratic empire building that results from infinitely splitting management into species, fishery and so on. That’s a saving of $50-100 million annually right there.

Marine scientists will be mute when they and the Minister discover Orange Roughy are 26, not 100, years old, that the stock assessments used to cut catches have a mathematical error of more than 100%, and that catch data has been both “created” and “manipulated”.

An independent review of tenders, consultancies and management of pecuniary interests by AFMA would see past ministers and bureaucrats and other ‘beneficiaries” in a cold sweat, let alone shining a light on mismanagement and inefficiency.

Fish are not whales and the smallest fleet in the OECD will not be a threat to any species if it is allowed to keep its remaining boats (which numbers less than a third of what was fishing before the commonwealth intervened) to fish within the limits of its boats and gear again. The consultants, some scientists, the ABC Science Show and fishermen who have made a fortune out of AFMA’s “selective” largesse will howl — but they are the public’s fish and coastal fisheries face far greater threats than fishermen.

If the public want to eat fresh fish at reasonable prices then it has to be caught by an Australian commercial fisherman. With the world’s third largest fishing territory of 8,148,250 square kilometres it is just not believable that a fleet of 300 mostly small boats is the full potential of our fisheries.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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