Giant Freezer Trawler may become a reality

I wrote an article for the August 2010 Tasmanian Conservationist about the renewed push to bring a large freezer trawler into Australian waters, and the threats posed by this type of factory ship to fish stocks, other marine life and the marine ecosystem. This industry proposal is now well advanced and appears to have the support from the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA).

The risks and problems I outlined in the 2010 article remain and have simply not been addressed by industry, or the government’s Commonwealth Fisheries Manager, AFMA.

Small pelagic fishing around Tasmania already has a bad record. The huge surface schools of jack mackerel that were once common off south-east Tasmania still have not returned more than 20 years after the fishery that targeted those fish collapsed due to a lack of fish. The industry was reanimated about 10 years ago and targeted a new species, redbait. These schools also disappeared in the Tasmanian region just a few years after industrial fishing started up again.

Before we even consider allowing factory trawlers into Australian waters, the small pelagic fishing industry and the federal government must prove that the fishery will be sustainable, that marine mammals and seabirds will not be killed as bycatch, and that localised overfishing will not occur. There needs to be a long-term commitment to undertakeing proper regular assessments of the pelagic stocks. These must be based on annual fishery independent daily egg production method (DEPM) assessments, so that we can get a reliable estimate.

One of the difficulties associated with managing any small pelagic fishery is that numbers can vary greatly, and unpredictably, from year to year as a result of environmental conditions. This means that fishing pressure can crash a fish stock if it is maintained at previously levels when poor environmental conditions (which may not be apparent to the human observer) reduce stock to critical levels. Many small pelagic fisheries around the world have collapsed due to poor management, and it would be unforgivable to allow that to happen again in our local fishery.

The latest industry proposal is to bring a Lithuanian-flagged ship called the Margiris into Australia. This factory ship will process its catch at sea and produce a low-value product for export. The company indicates that it will be reflagged as an Australian vessel, although I believe that ultimate ownership of the ship will remain European. All officers will be foreign, but the proposal includes sourcing crew from Australia, no doubt as a way to reduce controversy over the Labor government allowing yet more foreign workers into Australia. It is unclear how many Australians will gain long-term employment as crew on this ship. There will be relatively little economic benefit to Australia, with much of the profit going to foreign shipowners. Australia’s marine environment will be put at risk for little reward

The Margiris is a huge factory trawler, 142m long with a gross tonnage of 9499 tons, and makes most Australian fishing boats look like bath toys. This ship poses a direct threat to marine mammals such as seals and dolphins, and seabirds. It is an ocean-going vacuum cleaner, able to deploy enormous trawl nets that are up to 600m long with an opening 100m by 200m across.

The Margiris is owned by a member of the European Association of pelagic freezer trawlers (PFA). This association is responsible for some of the worst fishing practices on the planet. It grew out of the devastation of North Sea herring fisheries. When these collapsed due to overfishing, the companies and boats moved on to new fishing grounds. In 1995, PFA trawlers started fishing off West Africa and later extended their activities into the south-east Pacific, where they participated in an ongoing fishery disaster.

I understand that the South Pacific jack mackerel fishery has been targeted by the Margiris itself. The PFA has certainly targeted this fishery, which made headlines this year when it was revealed that fish populations had crashed by 90 per cent. Almost all the PFA’s target species are now fully exploited or overexploited off West Africa, to the point where the Senegalese government has moved to expel all PFA vessels from their waters. The Margiris itself has even been the subject of a Greenpeace protest action off West Africa. It is unbelievable that the Australian Government would allow such a vessel to operate in Australian waters, at least without some very stringent safeguards in place to protect our fish stocks and marine environment.

The small pelagic fish that this huge trawler will kill are a vital part of the ecosystem, forming an important part of the diet of marine mammals such as dolphins and seals, game fish such as tuna, seabirds and other marine life. We can’t afford to put this part of our marine environment at risk.

Other small pelagic fish, such as lantern fish, may be too small to be caught by industrial trawl nets, but may still be injured and killed on contact with the gear. These species are also important to ecosystem processes, but there has been no assessment of fishery impacts on them.

Recently, claims were made during a TV interview with a Tasmanian Department of Primary Industry, Parks, Water and Environment spokesperson that the proposed factory ship will only operate in the Great Australian Bight or off Flinders Island. The implication was that it was not going to operate in Tasmania’s backyard so we should not be too concerned. Apart from this being a rather selfish and narrow-minded approach to fisheries management (we are part of the same country, after all) the claims were nonsense as there are no regulations that would limit fishing to areas far from Tasmania. We can expect this ship to be able to fish from northern New South Wales to Tasmania in the south and across to the Great Australian Bight in the west. Once Australian quotas are caught, it may even continue to fish in international waters in our region. Fish do not recognise lines on charts.

The AFMA harvest strategy for small pelagic fish has recently been watered down so that there is no longer a requirement regular science-based stock assessments, which are needed to ensure that fishing is sustainable. The AFMA and industry seem incapable of making a commitment to the necessary ongoing fishery assessments. Existing data is old and the current proposal will look at only two of the three main target species this year. I have no confidence that industry or AFMA will carry out any further DEPM-based assessments beyond that point.

One of the big problems associated with this type of freezer trawler is that, because of its size, it can be expected to concentrate effort, and increase the risk of depleting local fish stocks. There is almost no information about the movements of these fish and AFMA has not even begun to collect useful data or look at ways to prevent long-term localised depletions such as appears to have occurred with jack mackerel and redbait off eastern Tasmania.

There also needs to be more research into the movement patterns of the small pelagic fish species that are targeted, so that a management strategy can be developed, to prevent localised overfishing. This work has not even been started.

In addition to regular and thorough stock assessments, and the development of a mechanism to prevent localised depletions, there needs to be 100 per cent on-board observer coverage on this type of vessel, to ensure that seals, dolphins and seabirds are not killed during fishing operations.

These significant concerns are widely shared, including by commercial and recreational fishers who see this ship and this fishery as a direct threat to their own activities.

The TCT has recently coordinated a letter from local and national environmental groups* outlining these concerns to the Federal Minister for Fisheries, Joe Ludwig, and asking how he would deal with them. We are still waiting for a response.

Jon Bryan
Marine Campaigner
Tasmanian Conservation Trust


* As well as the Tasmanian Conservation Trust, signatories were the Australian Marine Conservation Society, Environment Tasmania, Greenpeace Australia Pacific, Humane Society International, Ocean Planet Tasmania, The Wilderness Society Inc and World Wide Fund for Nature - Australia.