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Geelong Star trawler: Concerns over regulator’s ability to prevent more seal, dolphin deaths

The Australian fisheries regulator has defended its record after a leading marine scientist says she has lost confidence in its ability to prevent more dolphin and seal deaths from a factory fishing trawler off Tasmania.

The 95-metre Geelong Star freezer trawler has killed nine dolphins and four seals since it started fishing earlier this year.

It was banned from operating in one sector and from fishing anywhere at night.

The ban on night fishing has since been lifted.

But emails written in April, and obtained by the ABC under freedom of information, suggest more deaths may be inevitable.

A message from Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) bycatch manager Brodie MacDonald revealed how hard it was to avoid killing seals.

“Another seal taken this morning,” he said in the email.

“I’m not really sure there is much more we can do to stop them though.

“On haul we have about 20-30 around the net feeding.”

Another email suggested that the only conservation member from a government advisory panel was sidelined and only learned about the mammal deaths through a press release.


Professor Jennifer Meeuwig (above) heads the University of Western Australia’s Centre for Marine Futures.

She said it was unacceptable that AFMA had doubts about whether it could stop more seals dying in the ship’s nets.

“We wouldn’t accept mining activities that killed threatened species and so why do we accept that in the ocean?” she said.

“These key scientific questions: is a quota of 18,000 tonne sustainable?

“How many marine mammals are we actually going to capture and if we can’t mitigate those numbers, if we can’t meet the standards, then why are we accepting that this is a reasonable way of approaching fisheries?”

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Richard Colbeck: Small pelagic fish one of most sustainable sources of protein in the world Senator Richard Colbeck, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Agriculture, said research by American Professor Ray Hilborn found that large factory trawlers, such as the Geelong Star, have proven to be one of the most environmentally friendly forms of fishing. “Professor Hilborn’s research found that large factory trawlers are sustainable for a number of reasons – they are fuel efficient, they produce food at a low carbon footprint, the fish are a higher quality as they are frozen immediately and multiple observers mean by-catch is reliably measured.

• John Hayward in Comments: Yesterday’s Age reported a study by the Royal Zoological Society of London and WWF that found that the World’s marine fauna, including marine mammals, had been depleted by 49%  in the past 42 years to 2012. In Australia this report has already been trumped by a report earlier this year that the Liberal Party had received a hefty donation from the fishing industry. Game over.

Peter Whish-Wilson: New super-trawler documents demonstrate AFMA reform needed “Evidence that has come to light via Freedom of Information demonstrates that AFMAs failings, made clear in the Borthwick Review, still remain today. “The operations of the super trawler Geelong Star are particularly contentious and sensitive in the Australian community, especially given the appalling track record of dolphin and seal deaths that have occurred in just its first few weeks of operation. “AFMA are communicating with key stakeholders via media release and are refusing to come clean about the level of risk these factory freezer vessels pose to our wildlife. “Our oceans and fishery resources are owned by all Australians, not just narrow commercial interests, and as such, the well documented dangers of large factory freezer vessels are a matter of significant public interest. “The deaths of dolphins and seals, protected and loved by all Australians, are unacceptable and it appears there is a fundamental divide between the regulator and the community on this issue’ …

• Carol Rea in Comments HERE: There is something called the triple bottom line. It’s about a corporations attention to economic, social and environmental performance. Seafish Tasmania should be assessed against this accounting framework. Senator Colbeck quotes a single paper from the US to support his view. Meanwhile respected scientists here in Australia are criticising the Authority overseeing the process due to the failure of AFMA to adequately deal with conflicts of interest in its management processes. If the use of factory trawlers is so sustainable why is the Geelong Star catch bound for West African tables where local fisherfolk have lost their livelihood due to these ships? Senator Colbeck doesn’t realise we can recall events from only a few months back. The Federal Government’s Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) has disbanded the Small Pelagic Resource Assessment Group (SPFRAG), the only Government committee that specifically provided scientific advice on the management of Australia’s Small Pelagic Fishery (SPF) and the Geelong Star super trawler.