The Economist Magazine promotes the idea of privatising fisheries — but to most the idea of privatising fisheries does not seem to make any sense. How could a person or a company own fish? Fish are, or were, common property owned by all, like water and air. However, some years ago economists worked out a way of doing it. Instead of privatising individual fish they had scientists create models to estimate a “sustainable” catch where the ‘rights’ to catch particular volumes of fish — quotas — could be allocated and traded.

Fishermen who worked beyond the three mile limit suddenly found themselves under Commonwealth Management. They fought the quota system from day one. In fresh fish fisheries the catch was already limited by the market. Too many fish and the priced crashed and portion of the fleet changed fisheries — how in the hell will set catches work? Why should they pay extra levies/taxes per kilo to Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) before they caught the first fish?

The catch allocations were unfair and the bureaucracy involved in catching fish rapidly became a nightmare with every kilo of every fish seemingly having to be counted three times. The Commonwealth crushed the fishermen in court. In the media the fishermen fared worse with international condemnation of their profession from a growing number of marine scientists and conservation groups. The public even joined in and for a while it was not unusual for fishermen to get hassled in the pub or their kids to get hassled at school.

By the mid 90’s the AFMA was determined to privatise as many fisheries as possible. With “overfishing” as the “raison detre” for management the extreme expense of quota management, levies increasing from hundreds of dollars to ten of thousands annually per boat was justified. The fleets were cut by 60 to 80% and the youngest and brightest fishermen were lost to the industry.

The science was as dodgy as the management and miraculously continues to declare fisheries overfished regardless of fleet or catch reductions. Marine scientists were ignoring the fact that many stocks covered vast areas and were only fished in the accessible corners of their range — ignoring the evidence from tagging studies.

All the predicted pitfalls of quota management and privatised fisheries occurred. Dumping of fish is still rife across fisheries when scientist unsurprisingly miscalculate future fish abundance. Fishermen are busted if they bring “non quota fish” home — even to give away. Monitoring and enforcement costs continue to grow.

The costs of privatising fisheries are all passed onto the public. The five fold price increase for species like flathead, once common and cheap across southern Australia, now up to $24 per kilo is due to quota management. Fresh locally caught fish are expensive and hard to get or even distinguish from imports still with inconsistent fish naming laws.

Despite the world’s third largest fishing zone AFMA will not let Australians catch their own fish. Instead it pours public resources into “compliance”, arresting foreign fishing crews, sinking their boats and protecting these ‘privatised fish resources like a bouncer on steroids.

Federal Minister Tony Bourke should ask the public whether they want to keep paying for AFMA that has clearly failed to supply the public their own fresh fish at a reasonable price.

The States and Territories could better manage what remains of coastal fisheries without this ridiculous duplication if they took their responsibility to supply fresh fish to the public seriously — unlike AFMA.

Peter Fray

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