Super Trawler

I spoke in parliament today on a government bill to restrict the impact of the super-trawler FV Abel Tasman (formerly the MV Margiris, among its previous five names).
Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Declared Fishing Activities) Bill, 13 September 2012

Balancing the economics of fishing is no easy task. Quentin Grafton, one of Australia's leading economists of fisheries has argued that the massive expansion in fishing over the past 50 years has brought the industry to what seems like a paradox, where an immediate reduction in world-wide catch would actually increase future profits of the industry—he estimates it maybe by as much as much as $50 billion a year. There has been overfishing throughout the world and that has led to stock declines so severe that about 15 per cent of all exploited capture fisheries have collapsed or are at less than 10 per cent of their unexploited levels.

Quentin Grafton argues that world capture fisheries reached a plateau in the early 1990s and that aquaculture must be the future of fisheries. It is a classic collective action problem: because the fish in the sea are not owned by anyone there is an incentive for every individual fisher to overfish. Good fisheries management recognises this. It recognises that if each individual fisher—each fisherman and fisherwoman—is able to go out and take as much as they want then there will not be enough there for the future. We need to make sure that we have a set of policies that recognises not only individual species but also the ecosystem in which they operate.

In that context, the Abel Tasman poses a substantial challenge. This is a supertrawler that has a storage capacity of 6,000 tonnes. The weight of fish that this supertrawler can take is equivalent to 6,000 small cars. That makes it the second largest supertrawler in the world—the largest ever to have fished our waters.

We know a lot about the science of fishing in Australia. We have dedicated teams of researchers looking at the science and the economics of fishing. And I have great respect for those scientists. But when we are dealing with an entirely new way of exploiting fish stocks we need to be very careful. And we need to be careful particularly in the global context, where we know that, as a species, we have overfished and we need to cut back.

The challenge that the Abel Tasman poses to fisheries management is its ability to stay in a single place and to take huge amounts of fish from a single part of the ocean. The impact that that has on a species is complicated. If species move around a great deal then the impact on biodiversity of focused fishing in a single part of the ocean may not be so large. If species are restricted to certain parts of the ocean then it could have substantial impacts on fish stocks. We need to be careful in moving towards this.

When the Commonwealth Fisheries Management Act came into force in 1991 there was not a prospect of supertrawlers the size of the Abel Tasman. They were as distant then as the aviation of today was to the Constitution founders of 1901. They just were not contemplated. So we need to make sure that legislation keeps up with technological developments.

If you listened to the other side you would think that this was an assault on the very foundation of society itself. I was struck by the speech of the member of Fadden, who quoted the Magna Carta—surely a sign that we are about to move into crazy email land—and then talked about how this legislation was impinging on life, love and liberty. I thought he was actually going to talk about same-sex marriage at that point, because that seems the logical place to go with those words, but, no, he was talking about legislation that would allow the minister to restrict the activities of a supertrawler in Australia's waters.

We, of course, have a framework that regulates fishers already. We impinge on the liberties of the fishing community in order to make sure that their industry is stable. Member for Fadden, that happens already. But here I am struck by the way those on the other side are standing up for big fishing operations just as they stand up for big miners and big polluters.

The old argument of the left was: they stand for capital and we stand for labour. I always thought it was a bit more complicated than that, but sometimes that is the way it feels. There is no more capital intensive fishing operation in existence then these supertrawlers. The ratio of what they spend on machinery to what they spend on people is higher than for any other form of fishing. Let us not have lines about the impact on employment—capital-intensive fishing, such as a supertrawler, employs fewer people than labour-intensive fishing. As we have seen those opposite stand for the big miners and big polluters, they are now standing for the big fishers. We need to be cautious. As the minister has pointed out:

‘If we get this wrong there are risks to the environment, to commercial operators and to everyone who loves fishing and they are risks I am not prepared to take.’

The minister has pointed out that he has been lobbied by a number of Labor MPs. This is an issue that concerns me, but I cannot claim to have had the passion on this issue that the member for Fremantle has had. I pay tribute to her and to her hard work and devotion to this issue.

This bill will not impinge on recreational fishers. The minister has bent over backwards to put in place amendments that make sure that if you are going out in your tinny to pick up a couple of fish for dinner this bill is not going to impinge on you. This is a supertrawler bill. Make no mistake, if those opposite vote against it they are saying that they are happy for the supertrawler to come into Australian waters, regardless of the uncertainty that we have over what it will do to long-term fish stocks. That is not a pro-fishing position; that is an antifishing position. That is saying: 'We're not going to go and find out any more. We're not going to get any more research to find out how this impacts on the sustainability of an industry we love. No, just let her rip! Let the most capital-intensive form of fishing come into our waters and take what it needs.'

I have no problem with the fish from the Abel Tasman being exported. Australia has a proud export industry. I think it is a terrific thing that we produce many agricultural services and manufacturing goods that are used by the rest of the world—that is not an issue. I am an open markets guy; I am entirely relaxed about the export capacity. What I am concerned about is the sustainability of our fishing stocks and making sure that we have all the science we need to make those decisions. The minister is making sure through an expert panel that we explore the impact of the FV Abel Tasman before it is given approval to fish in Commonwealth waters. Using an expert panel will make sure that we make the right decision, that we undertake an open and transparent assessment process and that we have public confidence on this issue. I have been contacted by a number of my constituents who have raised concerns about the supertrawler.

I think they raise perfectly reasonable questions that suggest that we need to make sure that the decisions are based on sound science. The current regime is based on 1,500-tonne storage capacity vessels. We need to make sure that that is updated for 6,000-tonne storage capacity vessels and we need to recognise that there is always uncertainty in the science. We do not dispute the AFMA science on catch limits and the effect of localised depletion on target stocks, but the Abel Tasman's capacity to stay on top of a single school of fish, to take hundreds or thousands of tonnes of an individual species, means that it is uncertain what impact the Abel Tasman may have on individual species.

The Commonwealth policy on fishing bycatch, endorsed by then ministers Truss and Hill, makes clear at a broad level that the definition of fisheries bycatch includes all material, living or nonliving, that is caught while fishing, except for the target species. But in practice that term is used differently by different parts of the industry and by stakeholders. What we are concerned about, for the purposes of the EPBC Act, is bycatch of protected species. We are concerned about the impact of the Abel Tasman on seals, dolphins and seabirds. We need to make sure that the impact on those species is no larger than it needs to be.

In doing so, we need to make sure that we do not adversely affect recreational fishers. I have been contacted by recreational fishers who say that they support this bill. Why wouldn't they? They are not the ones going out with a supertrawler. They are the ones who want to make sure that Australia's fish stocks can be managed not just for our generation but for future generations. We are here not just for ourselves but for the generations to come. The work we do in parliament recognises that policy has continuity. We want to leave the country and the oceans better than we found them, not worse than we found them. We do not do a service to future generations if we allow a supertrawler to take fish species in a way that does irreparable damage to the oceans.

As previous speakers have noted, this bill fits in with a Labor tradition of standing up for our oceans. The marine parks that have been announced form a historic network. They fit in with a Labor tradition of looking after the environment. It is a Labor tradition that saw the creation of Australian national parks in the 1940s and 1950s, saw us sign the Kyoto protocol and saw us move to put a price on carbon pollution, because if you do not put a price on carbon pollution you do not save the Barrier Reef. We need to leave a legacy in the oceans for our children. The previous speaker, the member for Moreton, noted that in a splendid speech in Parliament House the great Australian author Tim Winton highlighted what a legacy moment that is.

Sitting alongside the network of marine parks that we have established is good fisheries management. It is making sure that we do not do harm to the oceans that cannot be done afterwards. That fits in with a Labor legacy of listening to the scientists and the economists and thinking for the future. Too often I worry that those opposite are here just for the here and now, for what can be grabbed. They are the supertrawlers of the policy world: they grab what they can and get out. That is not the Labor view.

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8/1 Torrens Street, Braddon ACT 2612 | 02 6247 4396 | Andrew.Leigh.MP@aph.gov.au