One of the tragic things about environmental policy is that it tends to follow the principle of factor sparsity, or what is more generally known as the 80-20 rule — 80% is for show, 20% for go. Put another way, 80% of policy is designed to do nothing more than send political signals to the electorate or make voters feel better about themselves. The remaining 20% is actually intended to change environmental outcomes.

There is no better example of the 80% in action than the government’s treatment of the Abel Tasman supertrawler issue.

Since the early 1990s, Commonwealth fisheries policy has largely been based on three simple principles. First, overfishing is addressed by placing caps (or quotas) on how many fish can be taken in each fishery. Second, government policy should encourage the caps to be filled at least cost — that is, the fish should be caught in the cheapest way possible to free up resources for other uses. Third, the use of fishing gear is regulated in order to reduce by-catch, or the unintentional capture of non-commercial species.

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Sitting above the fisheries regime are environmental protection laws. Under federal environmental law, all Commonwealth-managed fisheries are strategically assessed on a rolling basis. These assessments look at the environmental impacts of the management arrangements for each fishery and determine whether they are sustainable. After the completion of the assessment, if the environment minister is satisfied with the arrangements, the fishery is approved for the purpose of export and an exemption is granted to ensure individual fishers do not have to comply with project-based environmental approval requirements.

Despite the noise in the media, the proposed operations of the Abel Tasman tick all the boxes of the fisheries and environmental regime. The fishing will occur within the quota set for the Small Pelagic Fishery. The fisheries management arrangements for this fishery have been strategically assessed by the Environment Department on four occasions: 2003, 2007, 2009 and 2012. Moreover, the introduction of the larger vessel is in keeping with the desire to improve efficiency as it will lower unit costs, and Environment Minister Tony Burke had set stringent bycatch conditions on the operation of the vessel.

This is not to say that the general management arrangements for the Small Pelagics Fishery or any other Commonwealth-managed fishery are sustainable. Several of them are overfished and subject to serious bycatch and environmental degradation issues (noting that the Small Pelagics Fishery is probably among the better-managed Commonwealth fisheries). However, the operator of the Abel Tasman, Seafish, has done everything according to the book. Its only crime was to run into a government in a tight political spot that is looking to attract votes on the back of a populist environmental campaign.

As if to highlight the absurdity of the situation, the government is rushing through legislation today in order to give it the power to stop the Abel Tasman from fishing pending an environmental assessment, even though it already possesses this power. There are provisions in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act that allow Burke to call in the Abel Tasman’s proposed activities and subject them to the project-based environmental assessment and approval process. It is unclear why the government thinks it needs to duplicate these existing powers.

Given the way the process has unfolded, at the very least, Seafish should be offered compensation for its treatment. If it isn’t, the company is justified in asking why its losses are any different from those incurred by the fossil-fuel generators and other emissions-intensive polluters, which have been so grossly overcompensated for the effects of the carbon pricing scheme.

Beyond that, this incident shines a light toward more serious policy questions, particularly the sustainability of the current fisheries management arrangements and efficacy of the Commonwealth’s strategic assessment process.

To date, there has been only one independent analysis of the fisheries strategic assessment process. It found that the strategic assessments rarely led to material changes in fisheries practices and that its environmental achievements were modest. If there is a need for change, it is in the way these assessments are conducted and the level of transparency in environmental and fisheries regulation.

As Seafish has pleaded today, fishers need certainty in the regulatory environment in which they operate. Equally, the community is entitled to ask that its marine resources are effectively and sustainably managed, and that it is provided with the data to make these judgments.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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