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This article on Australian Commercial Fisheries was written in response to questions from Menakhem Ben Yami,former head of Food and Agriculture Organisation Fisheries based in Israel.

‘...What is Aussie fishermen and your own personal impression on the state of fish resources fished by Australian fleet in comparison with the past? Do you see any major downward trend in catches considering the fishing effort exerted, and if so of what fish? Any improvements?  How is the tuna doing, if any?..’

Fishermen have different views of management, depending on how they have been or are affected. From memory Australia already had one of the smallest fishing fleets on FAO list in 1999, smaller than Uganda’s, despite having one of the largest continental coastlines of any country in the world.

It was composed of mostly small estuary bay and coastal boats and landed less than 60,000t of fish annually - but this list was not published on the web by the end of that year. Australia likely now imports 95% of its fish (including shellfish, prawns etc.).

Though academics saw a relatively small catch as a sign of low ‘productivity’ it’s more likely is driven by market forces.  Australia has only 6 major city retail ‘markets’ and only 2 significant fish markets, in Sydney and Melbourne, to serve a population of 22 million people, mostly on the east coast.

Fresh fish fisheries, to be viable, usually need to be within 8 hours trucking distance of a capital city fresh fish market. These fisheries have increasingly had to compete with large amounts of imported product, often deceptively labelled in a virtually unregulated retail sector. Cheaper imports are commonly substituted for fresh fish.

Stock assessments, management is based on, is divorced from ‘market forces’; the distance the catch is landed from market, variations in price, inter and intra-seasonal variations in fish abundance/catches. This variation is almost invariably attributed to commercial fisheries and their impact on the ‘stocks’ of each fish species – most often managed by allocated quota .

Using catches to estimate fish stocks in Australia was further complicated by fishermen, prior to Commonwealth management, being able to freely move between different fisheries, use different gear and fishing different places in response to market prices and abundance in environmentally volatile fisheries.  This flexibility was in response to volatile fisheries and markets.

Parochial tastes for fish also distort the market. Fish typically have three times the value in States that ‘eat’ those species though they may be caught across several states - further distorting the use of catch figures to estimate stocks and restricting the range of fresh fish fisheries.

By 2000 the Commonwealth was managing most coastal fisheries, leaving the states with those in bays, estuaries, rivers and lakes. Overfishing had been ‘sold’ to the public by marine scientists, state and federal governments and green groups etc. as the principle threat to fisheries.

This is backed by the World Wildlife Fund, also prominent in Australia, that offers, for a price, ‘certification of sustainability’. This certification also favours quota management and increasing corporate ownership of quota. Variable fish catches are lost under set catch quota management and there is no reliable fisheries independent stock assessment.

State political parties were able to exploit fisheries closures and buyouts to generate votes at successive elections from the green and recreational fishing sectors - even doing deals to close fisheries in negotiations for votes with individual politicians. 

Almost all inland fisheries have been closed down, are under threat from pollution or loss to management changes. The urban green vote was chased by politicians with Marine Parks, though federally these almost invariably allowed oil exploration by seismic testing with explosive gasguns and drilling.

The Commonwealth staged the introduction of quota management into most of ‘its’ fisheries which, combined with state closures, capped and shrunk catches, rapidly pushing up prices with growing demand. The value of the fisheries landed catch remained roughly the same but the catch shrunk radically and even the labour for its processing was increasingly taken offshore.  This in turn opened up the Australian market to imports from nearby New Zealand, with its already almost fully corporatised fisheries, South Africa, Vietnam etc.

With strong links to UNESCO and the UN Australia is able to exert extraordinary influence on southern oceans fisheries on ‘Aid dependent’ states.  Through the CCAMLR, Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. with its ‘compulsory’ membership for many southern fishing nations, Australia gained the opportunity to enforce fisheries management on those states that fished Antarctic waters. This enforcement is most often by high media profile ‘slow’ pursuits of vessels ‘suspected’ of ‘illegal fishing’ in distant territory Marine Parks - bringing vessels back to Australia and arresting skippers. This is linked to the international campaign to close down, ‘illegal’, ‘unregistered’ and ‘unreported’ fisheries which describes most international waters.

In the South Pacific Australia is heavily involved in both ‘aid’ and ‘security’.  The ‘aid’ invariably has strings attached and the Australian intervention in East Timor, for instance, led to the virtual closure of its fisheries by regulation, Marine Reserves privatisation of ports etc. and likely led to the loss of more than 20,000 in the small fishing boats. There is now malnutrition in East Timor and other South Pacific nations subjected to ‘Australian consultants’ with similar management responses.

Since the mid 1990’s Australia, after swapping vast amounts of territorial waters with Indonesia, has been arresting Indonesian sail and other small boat fishfolk who still fish there, now too often ‘illegally’. This is often followed by the burning their ‘dirty unseaworthy boats’, broadcast on the national news, and jailing them for months before trial. While crews are almost invariably released, skippers are often jailed for a year or more for ‘failing to pay fines’, circumventing international law of the sea which forbids the jailing fishermen for fisheries offences. 

Indonesian fishermen have died in custody, in one case being imprisoned their own boats by a private company for months without sufficient food or medical assistance.  The destruction of Indonesian small boat fleets neatly dovetails into ‘fisheries economic reform’ through corporatisation.

Successive State and Federal governments have and continue to weaken marine and land based conservation laws. They have deregulated seismic testing, mining waste management and even approved the dumping of dredge spoil in Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.  The mining boom has left dozens of unmanaged toxic tailing dams scattered throughout coastal catchments that leak and periodically overflow onto fishing grounds.

The Thai government-owned company was responsible for Australia’s biggest oil slick in 2009 from the Montara well off north west Australia. This company was neither fined nor charged clean-up costs for a slick that polluted vast areas Australian waters including former Indonesian fishing grounds and impacted many other Indonesian fisheries.

Under quota those fishing are not entitled to compensation for losses due to pollution or losing fishing grounds to Marine Parks that ban fishing.

There are increasing numbers of large trawlers now licensed to work coastal waters using Commonwealth quota with larger corporations better able to gain tax credits for the extreme cost of management than owner operators or even local small fleet companies. Dolphins and seals are a common by-catch from these vessels, especially those that trawl mid-water.

Without mountains or any significant snow melt flow Australia’s fisheries are for the most part rainfall dependent and highly volatile. On the East Coast several years of wet weather has led to vast schools of bait fish persisting on coastal waters. This is not reflected in the fish catch from a greatly diminished fleet and set catches, but in a spike in shark attacks on people – seven in one state, NSW, in the last year.

Those Australian coastal fisheries not based on large trawlers will all be lost within 20 years without a fundamental change in management. Their loss has only been delayed by the management-induced high price of fish reflected in buyout costs.

Australian Marine Science has become truly parasitic, ‘killing its host’ and source of funding - the commercial fishing sector. 

It has failed to identify the impact of obvious large scale pollution, streamflow and habitat loss on fisheries.

Through ‘its conservation societies’ it is still portraying commercial fisheries as the biggest threat to the marine environment and using ‘science’ to convince the public and politicians.

Australia’s tuna fisheries under quota have ended up in the hands of a few more than a dozen companies which ‘fatten’ seine caught bluefin tuna in pens in a form of aquaculture for export.

Australia actively campaigns to reduce the catches from other blue fin tuna fisheries to maintain a high price on the Japanese market.

‘Tuna fattening’ was allegedly responsible for the introduction of a virus from pilchards imported for feed that swept through the southern pilchard fisheries a more than a decade ago which are yet to fully recover. It is pointless blaming fishfolk for adapting to ‘management’.

*Bob McDonald worked in fish habitat restoration, mapping and management with the commercial fishing industry in Bass Strait, and along the East Coast, consulted, wrote articles and organised stock assessment reviews for small boat fisheries in the USA,  Europe and India from 1997 to 2009. I still maintain a keen interest in fish habitat management and mapping. I can be contacted on .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)