A united front of environmentalists and recreational and small-scale fishermen has sprung up to oppose the supertrawler Margiris — the second largest fishing boat ever built — from being permitted to fish in Australian waters.

It is a political dynamic that is leading to some unusual bedfellows. In the Tasmanian Parliament, a motion against the Margiris received tripartisan support. Conservationists have even found themselves agreeing with an op-ed by Wilson “Iron Bar” Tuckey of all people, in which the former Howard government minister called for the Margiris to be barred from Australian waters.

Clearly, fish politics can be a bit weird.

Around the world, fish politics cuts across party lines. The reality is that local members with fishing constituencies — regardless of party allegiance — will generally fight the corner of their industry. On the other hand, the marine conservation constituency tends to be more geographically diffuse. The result is that it is common for the fishing industry to have a stranglehold on the politics, with the consequence that catch quotas are all too often set in accordance with the desires of the fishing industry, rather than what the scientists recommend.

Australian fisheries managers have a much better record than most countries, although even here mistakes have been made, leading to considerable overfishing. In the case of the Margiris, according to research professor Jessica Meeuwig, of the University of Western Australia’s Ocean Institute, “even at the most basic level, the scientific case is not strong enough” to justify the fishing level that is proposed. In any event, there is a negligible domestic constituency supporting the foreign-owned boat, and real anger and fear among local fishing communities, hence the unanimity of the Tasmanian Parliament.

Unusual alliances also emerge as dreamy sea-lovers and hard-headed free marketeers find themselves united in shared agitation at the sheer irrationality of the international political economy of fishing. The success of concentrated fishing industry lobbying means that very tasty subsidies are often made available in order to keep otherwise uneconomical boats afloat. And it is this rampant subsidisation that infuriates free marketeers. As World Bank group president Robert B. Zoellick told a conference in February, that the first step in reform of global oceans governance “is to stop doing dumb things” like paying out “subsidies that are used for fisheries that are net negatives to the system”.  The group that owns the Margiris is an example, having benefited from massive EU subsidies.

And the allocation of subsidies leads to a third point: in truth, there is no such thing as a singular “fishing industry” position. The actuality is that Big Fishing — with huge boats, influential connections, ample capital and operational portability — shares little in common with the lower impact local small-scale sector. The big end of the fishing industry is of course more than happy to deploy the iconography of the plucky fisherman in his weathered sou’wester heading out in his little boat — you won’t see an industrial trawler in any retail marketing any time soon — but the reality is that Big Fishing is a disaster for everyone else.

The difference is one of economics and mobility. Recreational and sports fishers have their favourite patches, and the more sustainable small scale local fishermen are based in particular ports, fishing grounds and communities, all complete with specific local cultural memories. As one fearful fisherman plaintively commented apropos of the Margiris:

“It’s so important to me that I can take my little boy out and catch a tuna, and a fish for that matter, for the rest of his life, and then he can pass that on to his children as it was passed down to me … If this super trawler comes into this country and starts fishing, as it has done all over the rest of the world, this will be taken away from that generation and I don’t think that should happen.”

But for the giants — the Margiris and her ilk — geography, community and generational continuity is no object. Based nowhere and owing allegiance to nobody except their owners who profit from our collective loss, when the stocks crash and the fish run out, the big boats just move on. To quote Wilson Tuckey on the Margiris: “European super trawlers have so reduced fish stocks of their more benevolent oceanic environment that they are prepared to sail halfway around the world for a minuscule quota of low-value fish.” Moving around the world, hoovering up all in their path, supertrawlers are like giant locusts of the ocean.

Growing awareness of these imbalances is causing significant political realignments all over the world within the fishing industry. Already, in Europe and Africa, small-scale fishermen are now working in concert with the organised environmental movement to break the hold of Big Fishing.  The arrival of the Margiris has seen the emergence of a similar dynamic in Australia.

As The Canberra Times observed earlier this week, logic and politics suggest that the federal government should prevent the Margiris from fishing in Australian waters. But on Q&A last night, a frustrated Tony Burke indicated that as federal Environment Minister he lacked the power to block the Margiris from fishing in Australia, though he could at least impose conditions on the ship’s operations. Given the alignment of forces opposed to the Margiris, this is not good enough: Burke’s inability to intervene actually makes the situation harder for the government, which needs to come up with a tougher response to satisfy the growing coalition of opposition to the supertrawler.

If the Margiris is allowed to fish, the political problem for the federal government will not go away, it will only fester.