WHILE there is much ado about marine reserves, there is perhaps a more tangible threat to fishing livelihoods at Narooma and Bermagui.
Recreational and commercial anglers are still digesting the news that the super trawler Margiris could be arriving in South East waters.
The Sydney Morning Herald has reported the Margiris is twice the size of the previous largest vessel ever to fish our Commonwealth waters, it measures 142 metres in length and weighs 9600 tonnes and could be targeting species such as jack mackerel or "yakkas" that form the basis for the food chain for everything from tuna to kingfish.
Its Dutch owners are changing its flag of registration from Lithuanian to Australian. By spring, it is scheduled to be roaming between the Tasman Sea and Western Australia in pursuit of 17,500 tonnes a year of small fish.
But it's not simply the size of Margiris that brings home the issue of rising industrial pressure on fish stocks. The Herald reports it's the stark story of seafood market forces.
Last March, in the Atlantic off Mauritania, Greenpeace activists wrote "plunder" on the side of the Margiris. They are campaigning against European operators who are taking West Africa's fish, leaving locals catchless.
In Australia, the Margiris is set to catch the same sort of fish - jack mackerel, blue mackerel and redbait - and freeze them into blocks for export.
The destination of the catch?
"The large majority will go to West Africa for human consumption, as frozen whole fish," said Seafish Tasmania director Gerry Geen.
Australian fishers have long sought to exploit the country's so-called "small pelagics", which are prey for bigger fish such as tuna and marlin. Seafish Tasmania is partnering with ship owners Parlevliet & Van der Plas to do this on a scale previously unseen.
Alarms have been raised in other global fisheries about these mainly Europe-based small-pelagic hunters.
According to The New York Times, stocks of jack mackerel have dropped from an estimated 30 million metric tons to less than a tenth of that amount in just two decades.
The minutes of an Australian Fisheries Management Authority advisory committee show serious debate about the introduction of the Margiris.
They reveal that Mr Geen, who was on the committee, gave "background" input. But because of his conflict of interest, he did not contribute to a recommendation to double the Australian eastern jack mackerel catch to 10,000 tonnes.
This has given the single greatest fillip to the Margiris venture.
Mr Geen told the National Times the Margiris would take less than 5 per cent of the total stock of small pelagics, as measured by surveys of egg production by the target species.
"I think people are worried about the size of the vessel, but that is really irrelevant," he said. "It's the size of the total allowable catch that counts."
Other advisory committee members pointed to the ecological impact on existing fishers of taking so much of the small pelagics, even though these catches are outside state waters.
A coalition of global, national and state environment groups has written to Fisheries Minister Joe Ludwig, calling for the Margiris to be banned.
Right now it's moored in the Netherlands, and Greenpeace is keeping an eye on its movements.
Federal fisheries authority defends management
The Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) says it is misleading and unfair to compare Australia’s fisheries management with Europe and Africa where some fisheries have collapsed.
The recent debate about the possible entry of a factory trawler to fish for mackerel off the south east of Australia has sparked criticism of Australia’s fisheries management but some of this information has been false or confusing, says AFMA CEO Dr James Findlay.
“The fact is that Australia’s fisheries management has been consistently ranked among the world’s best in independent reports by international experts”, said Dr Findlay.
One of the world’s best known critics of fisheries management, Dr Daniel Pauly of the University of British Columbia ranked Australian fisheries second out of 53 countries for environmental sustainability in his comparative assessment report. A report by the United Nation’s Food Agriculture Organization also highlighted Australia’s effective fisheries management including actions to rebuild overfished stocks.
Dr Findlay said that strict catch limits established by AFMA are very firmly based on scientific research and are set in consultation with experts in fisheries science and economics, as well as representatives of conservation, industry and recreational fishing groups.
“Management arrangements are constantly evolving to take into account fish populations and any stock under pressure is monitored closely, with catch limits changed accordingly.”
Recent increases in sustainable catch limits in Commonwealth fisheries are evidence that Australia’s fisheries management is working and our fish stocks are healthy. Sustainable increases in catch provide more local seafood for Australian consumers.
The most recent Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resources Economics and Sciences figures show that Gross Value of Production in Commonwealth fisheries has increased in the last year providing a significant boost for the industry, based mainly in regional Australian communities.
“We also monitor effects on the environment and if problems are occurring we take strong action, such as in the Southern and Eastern Scalefish and Shark Fishery, where we closed part of the fishery earlier this year to prevent sea lion captures.”
Australian fisheries have strong monitoring and enforcement programs to ensure regulations are followed.
“It’s not surprising that other countries view our fisheries with some envy”, said Dr Findlay.
“But Australians can be confident that any proposal to develop Commonwealth fisheries will be done so sustainably under AFMA’s strict management arrangements.”
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