The coalition government’s management of the super-trawler Geelong Star and the small pelagic (deep ocean) fishery is failing to protect the environment and important recreational fisheries. The latest management arrangements may conceal future dolphin and seal deaths and there is no mechanism to prevent localised depletion of fish stocks that is based on scientific evidence. Just when the government needs all the good advice it can get, its fisheries manager, the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA), has axed the Small Pelagic Resource Assessment Group (SPFRAG), the primary scientific advisory committee for this fishery.
One benefit of AFMA dissolving the committee is that I am now free to speak out. As a member of the committee I had to accept a non-disclosure agreement.
AFMA’s management of the committee has been inadequate. AFMA has produced inaccurate records of committee meetings to the point where, in my view, they became misleading and had the potential to corrupt public debate on important issues.
AFMA has also failed to address serious concerns about conflicts of interest. Documents released under FOI show that the SPFRAG Chair resigned due to concerns about the way AFMA was dealing with this problem. Amongst other things, she pointed out that one industry committee member was ‘in a perpetual state of pecuniary conflict’ and that ‘it is not in AFMA’s nor the fishery’s best interests for him to continue to be involved in the RAG’s advisory role and processes’.
In February this year, as an advisory committee member, I wrote to Minister Barnaby Joyce to make him aware of serious problems associated with this fishery and the committee. Joyce’s deputy Senator Colbeck replied but failed to adequately address any of the substantive issues.
A bit of argy-bargy over a government committee is not important in itself, but there are real-world problems and consequences at stake that have the potential to cause enormous damage to the marine environment and recreational fisheries. This is because small pelagic fish are important food for predators such as seals and dolphins and fish that are important to recreational fishers. Overfishing or localised depletion of small pelagic fish can harm the environment and destroy recreational fisheries. Current management arrangements do not provide adequate safeguards.
Supporters of the Geelong Star often claim that the management of the small pelagic fishery is based on science. What supporters fail to say is that there are big gaps in the science and basic questions about impacts on the marine environment and recreational fisheries cannot be answered.
We know practically nothing about the movements of these fish. This means that we cannot predict how long it will take for an area to recover from fishing. There is no evidence-based mechanism to reduce the risk of localised depletion to an acceptable level to prevent unacceptable impacts on the environment or recreational fisheries.
Earlier this year, before the Geelong Star had started fishing, I warned AFMA directly that the protections for dolphins and seals were inadequate. I predicted that seals and dolphins would be killed if the Geelong Star was permitted to operate. AFMA ignored these warnings and dolphins and seals died as a result.
In future, we may not even know about the deaths of seals and dolphins because the current vessel management arrangements do not require video monitoring of the excluder devices. The devices on the Geelong Star have not been adequately tested. Excluder devices are supposed to prevent dolphin and seal deaths. However there is a risk that they may actually destroy evidence by releasing dead or injured marine mammals into the water before they can be observed and the lack of compulsory underwater video monitoring means that future dolphin and seal deaths may be hidden from public scrutiny.
Australia has long been at the forefront of protecting marine mammals. This country’s opposition to Japanese whaling is well known, well justified and widely supported by people throughout the community. It seems hypocritical for Australia to condemn Japan for killing cetaceans in the Antarctic while failing to protect them in our own waters.
The AFMA CEO recently compared the deaths of dolphins and seals caused by the Geelong Star with roadkill. Presumably this was to reassure people, and suggest that this should just be accepted as just a normal part of fishing. It should not be. Many Australians would find it disturbing that someone in such a responsible position can so easily dismiss the violent drowning deaths of animals such as dolphins and seals.
The Geelong Star is currently operating under a cloud of secrecy. While the fish stocks it targets are a public resource, the public is prevented from knowing where it is operating and what it is catching.
There is a great deal of community concern about the operation of the Geelong Star. Not only conservationists, but recreational fishers and many others, see this type of fishing operation as an unacceptable threat. It is time for Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce and Environment Minister Greg Hunt to act. They should immediately stop the Geelong Star’s operations, to protect Australia’s marine environment and recreational fisheries and stop the inevitable killing of more seals and dolphins.