12 September 2012 

Andrew speaks in Parliament in support of the super trawler ban.

Mr WILKIE (Denison) (12:21): The federal government’s decision to stop the supertrawler operating in Australian waters for up to two years is, I believe, a very significant and a very positive development. I applaud the government and the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities in particular for finally acting in this matter. The case against the supertrawler is, in my opinion, overwhelming. For a start, there are doubts over the science.

Can I say up-front that I have enormous respect for the Australian scientific community and for the work that it does and I am very mindful of the fact that, in my electorate, I have a disproportionate number of marine scientists and fisheries experts—in fact, one of the highest populations of such people, pro rata, of any city in the country. But the fact is that the views in the scientific community are divided; there is not a clear consensus one way or another in this matter. For example, in Tasmania, our own Dr Andrew Wadsley has done some very good work picking apart the science behind the quota and has found many errors. Further afield, Professor Jessica Meeuwig, who is a research professor at the University of Western Australia, has had this to say:

But we are largely ignorant about the effective population structure of these species. Of the four species considered for exploitation, the population structure of blue mackerel is uncertain, and jack mackerel and redbait are believed to have eastern and western subpopulations. No dedicated population studies have been conducted on redbait nor is any information available for Peruvian jack mackerel. Moreover, little is reported about adult movements of any of these species except that larger jack mackerel are found in deeper waters.

That is one opinion from a very highly regarded Western Australian professor. I will quote again, this time from a friend of mine from Hobart, John Biggs. In an online blog comment this morning, he wrote:

Science’s role is to provide the information on which policy can be made, its role is not to create policy. Policymakers certainly need to take the science into account, which means they are satisfied it is fully up to date … But policymakers also need to take into account a range of other factors, including the opinions of the public who elected them. Science may tell us what can happen but that does not mean to say it should happen. And in any case, the science here is focused on a specific species, not the whole ecosystem, is out of date and statistically wrong according to Dr Wadsley and others.

There are also doubts, in my opinion, over the effectiveness of the government’s safeguards and, in particular, the promise of an observer onboard the supertrawler Margiris. To save money, the government is moving to replace fishing observers with electronic monitoring through the Fisheries Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1), which passed this House in August and is now before the Senate. The government variously described the conditions it had imposed on the Margiris as ‘tough’, ‘stringent’ and ‘best practice’ but the reality is that the key condition of an onboard observer was nothing more than a facade. In introducing the bill, Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Sid Sidebottom, told parliament:

Trials and cost-benefit analyses have shown that the more data that is required for a fishery, the cheaper it will become to use e-monitoring systems, rather than observers.

There are also doubts about the risk of localised stock depletion. This is one of the most important reasons that a single large vessel is much more problematic than a number of smaller boats filling the same quota. I suggest it is self-evident that one very large vessel with one very large net going into a relatively small fishery will have a disproportionate effect compared to a smaller number of vessels, which would probably operate across a broader area by comparison.

Another problem with the supertrawler Margiris—and I will call it Margiris because I think renaming it Abel Tasman was downright offensive, particularly to the Tasmanian community—was that it had no social licence. Very few Tasmanians in particular wanted the vessel. That is not at all surprising, considering there are well over 100,000 recreational fishers—men, women and children—in Tasmania in a population of only half a million. I understand that elsewhere in Australia there are similar levels of concern with supertrawlers. This is very important. We in this House should represent our communities. It is too easy to simply say, ‘Some government agency at arm’s length knows more and we will disregard the view of the community.’ That is not our job and we should not do that; it should only be done in extreme circumstances. It should not have been done in this case.

There has also been the problem of the misconduct by the Australian Fisheries Management Authority when setting the quota relevant to the Margiris. I refer here to AFMA advisory committees. The outcomes of the February meeting of the resource assessment group were not accurately recorded and concerns by at least two members of the group were not communicated up the chain to the management advisory committee. We know that because the concerns of at least two members of that committee are now on the public record. Their concerns went to what is called the South East Management Advisory Committee. We know that at its meeting in March—the key meeting when the recommendation for the quota relevant to the supertrawler Margiris was finalised—the committee did not comply with the Fisheries Administration Act. We know that the proponent for the supertrawler, Mr Gerry Geen of Seafish Tasmania, a man with a direct conflict of interest, remained in that meeting—which in my opinion was entirely improper, but it was allowable as long as the committee had explicitly given him approval to remain in the meeting, and they had not. When I challenged the CEO of the Australian Fisheries Management Authority about this, remarkably the CEO said that AFMA does not take its act literally—that, in fact, it has developed in-house workaround arrangements because it has difficulties with the act.

I have taken these concerns to the ombudsman, and I am pleased that the ombudsman feels there is enough substance to my concerns about the conduct of AFMA that it is currently investigating the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, in particular its conduct regarding the setting of the quota relevant to the supertrawler Margiris.

Finally, there is also a question mark over the big picture and the fact that AFMA blocked the supertrawler Veronica in 2005 with the support of the Howard government. In fact, at about the same time, the proponents for the supertrawler Margiris commenced their work. ‘So what?’ you might ask, Mr Deputy Speaker. Well, the proponent for the Margiris, Mr Gerry Geen, was on at least one of the AFMA advisory committees in 2005 when AFMA blocked the Veronica. If that does not raise serious questions about the conduct of AFMA and whether a supertrawler should operate in Australian waters then I do not know what will.

I am not saying that Mr Geen has done anything wrong in these matters. In fact, I am genuinely concerned that Mr Geen has been allowed to do a lot of work, spend a lot of money and give employees a lot of hope when his expectations really should have been cut short long ago by either the Howard government, the Rudd government or, much earlier, the Gillard government. No, my issue here is with fisheries management in Australia and the fact that far too many people with direct conflicts of interest are allowed to occupy positions on key advisory bodies. Remember that Mr Geen, from Seafish Tasmania, the proponent for the supertrawler Margiris, was heavily involved with AFMA when a competitor vessel, the Veronica, was stopped, and he was again heavily involved more recently when the quota relevant to the Margiris was set. Surely, this is entirely improper of AFMA and should not be allowed to continue.

I urge the government to turn yesterday’s announcement into law as quickly as possible—and I urge my crossbench colleagues to support the government. I also urge the government to ensure that this two-year assessment process which has been identified is done effectively and is absolutely beyond question. And given all the uncertainty over the setting of the quota for the supertrawler Margiris I also urge the government to revoke that quota and not allow any other vessel to fish it in the interim. Regrettably, I would also add that, while the government’s announcement yesterday is to be applauded, I think it could have gone much further. Ultimately I will be supporting an amendment I expect to be moved by the member for Melbourne which would seek to ban supertrawlers permanently.

I would like to quote from a Greenpeace fact sheet on some of the issues we need to consider about toughening up the government’s bill and banning supertrawlers permanently. The supertrawler Margiris is 142 metres long, twice the size of any vessel that has fished Australian seas previously. It is six times longer than the average Australian fishing vessel. It can process—and this is a typical supertrawler—up to 250 tonnes of fish a day and store 6,200 tonnes of fish before it has to return to port. This is fishing on an industrial scale never before seen in Australia—nor should it be. Fishing on such a scale has an enormous bycatch that kills a large number of very precious animals. For example, in the past 15 years, bycatch from the 20 supertrawlers fishing off West Africa has killed an estimated 1,500 critically endangered turtles, more than 18,000 giant rays and more than 60,000 sharks. And not only are they destroying these precious animals, they are destroying jobs. Supertrawlers are inherently machinery intensive and personnel light. They are job killers, not job creators. They have done enormous damage around the world where they have been allowed to operate. For example, they collapsed the South Pacific fishery. I am still quoting from the Greenpeace fact sheet here. ‘Scientists said there were so many jack mackerel in the South Pacific that the fishery was impossible to overfish. But supertrawlers, including the Margiris, fished so much that in 2006 the Pacific fishery collapsed to 10 per cent of healthy stocks. Fisheries managers are calling for fishing to be cut by half, with some scientists arguing for a five-year total ban in that fishery.’ They have also effectively wiped out West Africa’s commercial fish stock. ‘Since supertrawlers, including the Margiris, started fishing off the west coast of Africa, most commercial fish stocks have become fully exploited or overexploited.’ In other words, there are effectively no more fish for commercial fishing—and that is what supertrawlers have done in recent years in other parts of the world.

Frankly, it should be up to the proponents of such vessels to prove to us that they are environmentally and economically sensible, rather than the current situation where it is up to the government to prove that such vessels are inappropriate. I believe that if we were to amend the government’s bill and ban supertrawlers permanently it would put the onus on any future proponent of a supertrawler to make a strong enough case to convince a future government to change the law. It should not be up to us to work out how to say no. The onus has to be reversed. It should be up to the proponents of supertrawlers to convince us in the future that they have changed their ways and things are better. It should be up to a future proponent of a supertrawler, if they want to have one operate in Australian waters, to persuade a future government to change the law to allow it.

I will wind it up there. I will finish by saying that yesterday’s news was great news for a great many Australians, certainly for the overwhelming majority of Tasmanians that I am aware of. I applaud the government for doing it and I call on my crossbench colleagues to understand that the government’s bill should be applauded. And the issue of science is a fair point, but remember that there is uncertainty even within the scientific community.

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