Abel Tasman Supertrawler
Posted on Thursday, 13 September, 2012
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. The government bill in this case is a knee-jerk reaction and a total overreaction, despite the minister's comments. It proposes that the minister have the power to suspend any fishery for a period of up to two years, and one of the reasons for this, one of the trigger points for this, is that there are 'social concerns'. Social concerns? What the hell are they? What are social concerns? It is ill-defined, and I do not think the minister's office can define it either. It is preposterous. This bill is far too broad, it is ill-defined and it is totally irresponsible. Most importantly, it walks away from all the scientific work and processes that have gone into the approval of fishing licences.
AFMA, the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, are recognised as running the second best managed fishery in the world. We are right up there with the very best. Their work is backed up by the CSIRO and by the South Australian Research and Development Institute, and they all approve of the methodology that has been used. But the government have chosen to throw all of that out and then turn around and say, 'We need more study on this.'
Really what the government are saying to AFMA, to the CSIRO and to SARDI is, 'We don't trust you. You don't know what you're talking about, but the senders of the emails, GetUp! and the Greens, know what they are talking about.' It has really outraged an enormous number of people in the community. These campaigns have many supporters and are very effective. That is why the government have buckled. The problem is, if you have a strong minister, if you have a strong government, they get out and lead the debate with reason. In this particular case, once again they have run for cover. In fact, the bill has been brought in in such a rushed manner that they now seem to be relying on the member for Dobell, who is suspended from the Labor Party, to bring in amendments to try to save their bacon from the wrath of the recreational fishing industry. But they still have not got it right because they have upset the charter industry as well. There is total confusion.
Already in the industry there is talk of financial tightening, of increasing risk. We have a lot of contacts in the industry. At this stage it is anecdotal, but the talk is that financiers are becoming nervous about backing the fishing industry in Australia. There is good reason for that. The government's grab of marine parks, both Commonwealth and state parks in the case of South Australia, have caused a lot of nervousness. In my own state the abalone industry and the crayfish industry are feeling extremely threatened by the state marine parks. The Commonwealth marine parks off South Australia are not quite so bad but certainly the grab for this enormous slab of the Coral Sea has caused a lot of uncertainty in the industry. This legislation is another grab for power which puts more uncertainty into the fishing industry.
If finance does tighten for the industry then once again we will have a dispute on our hands similar to the live cattle dispute. If the bankers are saying to these long-term fishing families, 'We're not going to bankroll you for another 12 months, we're not going to allow for the upgrade of your boats', then you will see the knock-on effects. I will come to some of the local effects because the electorate of Grey has a very close association with this matter. At this stage the MV Abel Tasman, formerly the Margiris, is anchored in Port Lincoln. Port Lincoln is the home of the biggest fishing fleet in the southern hemisphere. Understandably, there is a lot of anxiety there about this vessel being in port and what it might be doing when it goes out to sea. Quite rightly, they have raised concerns about the links of super-trawlers to overfishing around the world.
It is worth recounting a little bit of history here. The success of Port Lincoln today is based on modernisation and being able to adapt to the environment and to the economic climate of the time. Port Lincoln became a boom fishing town in the sixties and seventies on the back of the vastly and quickly expanding wild-catch tuna industry. It seemed there was an inexhaustible supply of tuna, but that was not the case—and we know that has happened in many fisheries around the world. Eventually the wild-catch tuna industry virtually collapsed—it was almost wiped out—but the industry was able to revive itself. In fact, fishing stocks are increasing every year at the moment. The recovery is quite remarkable, but it is recovering because of good fishing management through the enforcement of international quotas. There were some difficulties a few years ago with one of the major parties taking beyond-quota fish, but by and large that has been fixed up now. Since that problem has gone away, tuna stocks have been bounding back quite quickly.
The other thing that happened at the same time was the establishment of the tuna farming industry. This has made an enormous difference in Port Lincoln. It required a complete change to technology. It required more powerful boats to drag the tuna back from out in the Great Australian Bight so that it is not damaged as it makes its way through some of the heaviest seas in the world. The tuna is dragged back to Port Lincoln and put into tuna farms, where it can be turned into a high-value product. The industry had to adapt completely, to change its practices and to change its equipment. That is what we are looking at here: an industry trying to adapt to the economic climate and the environmental impact of the times.
I am concerned that this bill is standing in the way of technological adaptation. I was a farmer before I came to this place—I have used this analogy in a few places. What the government is trying to do here is the same as if you were to stop two or three farmers from getting together to get rid of their old header to buy a decent-sized new harvester because they know that they will be able to get their crop-off in a more timely fashion and that it will be in better condition. That is a very important point. I want you to hang on to that, because having the right tools for the job makes an enormous difference to your return. I have sought a lot of advice on this issue because it is so closely linked to my industry.
I know many people in my electorate will not be pleased with what I have to say on this, but I make the point—as I often do—that the way I think democracy should work, and the way it does work, is that we elect people to the parliament to make decisions on our behalf because we trust their reasonable nature. We trust them to get all the facts and to make a reasonable decision. When we leave public life, we do not have the ability to amass all the facts. So much of what we know is brought to us in little snippets. Unfortunately that is the case for the general public. They elect us because we have the time to get to the bottom of issues. I have sought as much information on this issue as I could possibly find. It is worth getting some of the background on the page.
The Abel Tasman, if approved, will be operating on existing quota. It has 18,000 of the 32,000 tonne total allowable catch in the industry. It is true that this quota has recently been expanded. Whether or not that total allowable catch is sustainable is a very good question, but it is not a question for this particular vessel. That is about the overall management of the fishery, which is what we entrust the scientists, who are recognised as some of the best fisheries managers in the world, to do.
At this stage, Australia only produces 25 per cent of its own seafood. Considering the vast amount of ocean space we have, one would think that probably we do not fully understand our stocks. This advance gives us the possibility of understanding more.
We have local owners of the quota. In fact, they have accumulated that quota on the open market, just the same as any other fisherman would accumulate the quota. They are long-term Australian companies and they have effectively leased a ship, just as a ferry operator would do, just as many plant operators do. They go and get the right machine for the job and they bring it in. The target fish in this case are of very low value. They are not of interest to the Australian market, and it is not the kind of fish we eat. At this stage, the fish brought to port are not for human consumption, and that is because the vessels being used at the moment have neither the range nor the capacity to preserve the fish properly once it is brought on board. That means they cannot freeze it. So they are limited to around one week from port. By the time they come back into port—and remember these fish are not gutted, so they do not keep a long time in the chiller—this food is no longer safe for human consumption. So it becomes a lower value product than it would otherwise be. The ability of the ship to range much further than the current vessels means that the load of the 18,000 tonne quota that it would take—half from east of Tasmania and half from west of Tasmania—will be spread over a far greater portion of the ocean. So it is much less likely to have local impact. The boats are currently fishing the same quota. Despite the pictures in the paper of the fishing nets and the comparisons, they actually use the same equipment as the Abel Tasman is intending to use. But, of course, they do not have the reach because they do not have the freezer capacity.
I have had, I think, very justifiable concerns raised with me at a local level by the sardine industry in South Australia. The sardine industry was established to provide feed for the tuna industry. They have a quota of 34,000 tonnes. It is a state managed fishery. They are concerned about the possibilities of bycatch on the Abel Tasman and quite rightly; why would you not be concerned? I made some inquiries, and I would like to get this on the record as well. The facts are that the Abel Tasman will not have quota for sardine. So if they bring sardine on board they cannot land it. Some might say that they can just chuck it back in a sea but of course if they are catching bycatch, it will be mixed up with the red bait and the other taken fish. So if it is mixed up then their load, their catch, is contaminated and becomes virtually worthless because these are small fish. You cannot afford to sit down and sort them into little heaps and say, 'We have sardines over here and the red bait over there.' So as soon as they start catching sardine—remember there are three observers on this boat and a number of cameras—it is not in their interest to remain there anymore. So I assure the sardine industry back in South Australia that we have looked at this issue, and they should feel comfortable with the outcome. It is a matter of fact that the sardine industry collects a bycatch of red bait. But that is another story.
In balance, the legislation before the House now is a complete overreaction. The outrage against the Abel Tasman and Seafish Tasmania is confected in many cases by people who have a political agenda. The legislation should be rejected. It is not good government.