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Picture: Greenpeace

THE public backlash against the super trawler is not a case of mob rule, writes Peter Whish-Wilson.

TO paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to make a mistake once is an accident, to err twice is careless, for it to occur three times is akin to stupidity.

For the past two weeks, September 10 and 17 respectively, Mercury columnist Greg Barns has repeatedly written that I am of the view that “empirical data, facts and considered expert opinion ... doesn’t matter”, if “the mob doesn’t like it”.

He bases his argument on comments I allegedly made to a public meeting at Campbell Town on September 2 in regard to the super trawler.

To my knowledge Barns neither attended the meeting, nor has seen or been provided with a transcript of my comments—I’m happy to provide him with one if he would like.

These accusations go directly to my personal reputation, and I thank the Mercury for affording me the opportunity to set the record straight.

The point I was making—and stand behind—at Campbell Town was that many people I had recently met had already formed an opinion on the super trawler and no amount of additional scientific or economic data would change their view.

This feedback was specifically based on a tour of the East Coast of Tasmania the week before the forum, where I met hundreds of fishers and concerned Tasmanians.

This is quite distinct from me personally wanting to “attack scientists” or ignore scientific opinion, as Barns suggests.

The view of Barns’ “mob” could in part be attributed to a high level of public distrust following the revelation that successive federal governments and the Australian Fisheries Management Authority had been working to bring a trawler like this to Australia for about seven years, without public consultation or recent scientific data collection on the small pelagic fishery.

It is also based on a clear link in many people’s minds between industrial-scale fishing and the collapse of fisheries. Add to this the very real recent memory of many fishers that this particular fishery on the Tasmanian coastline had been in severe decline only a decade ago.

I personally also believe this distrust is compounded in Tasmania following repeated backroom governmental intervention in other contentious projects, such as the proposed pulp mill, along with a lack of public consultation.

As a gifted barrister Barns would be well aware of the hearsay rule, a cornerstone of our criminal justice system, whereby only those with personal knowledge of the facts asserted can speak to those facts in a courtroom, unless caught by an exception to the rule.

Barns appears to have no personal knowledge of what my comments actually were, or even to have spoken to somebody that does.

A single phone call to my office prior to publication could have remedied this.

An old legal adage sagely warns, “a lie often repeated doesn’t become the truth”.

I’m not saying that Barns is lying per se but I made him aware on September 14 via social media that accusations in his column published on September 10 were untrue.

He then re-published the same accusations the following week, on September 17, with the knowledge they were incorrect.

A universal truth in this debate is the Hansard record of my actions in the Senate.

The public record shows I have consistently stated the Greens support our marine scientists and the good work they do.

Most of the concerns we have raised, in our research and detailed questions to Fisheries Minister Joe Ludwig, relate to valid uncertainties in the assessment and management of the small pelagic fisheries.

These include a lack of independent funding to collect the scientific data used to determine quota limits, the issue of localised fish depletion and how it can be managed, and the still unanswered question of bycatch.

For three months the minister denied there were problems around any of these issues until he intervened at the 11th hour, effectively backing our approach and concern on these issues.

As a senator my role is to scrutinise governmental action on behalf of the citizens of Tasmania to ensure their interests are protected.

Scrutinising the minister and AFMA’s actions is quite distinct from Barns’ allegation I have been attacking both “the science” and scientists underpinning the super trawler’s quota allocation.

The acceptance of independent scrutiny is a hallmark of a strong democratic society. To simply deride it as “mob rule” misses the point.

Nothing—even scientists—should be considered a sacred cow and placed beyond the public’s reach.

In many ways science is similar to politics—both represent a contest of ideas whereby those with the most compelling arguments garner the greatest support.

In the political arena this results in the formulation of policy. For scientists it’s the acceptance of new theories or the evolution of existing ones.

It’s to be hoped that the review into AFMA will see the organisation receive additional support to allow it to better manage our Commonwealth fisheries, rather than as at present, relying upon “vested interest” industry funding.

The take-home message from the super trawler debate isn’t one of “the mob” ignoring scientific research, or one of government bowing to populist concerns.

The message is look at what everyday Tasmanians can achieve when we all pull in the same direction toward a common goal.

Peter Whish-Wilson is a Greens Senator for Tasmania.

First published today in Mercury here

• A request to Zoe Banks from John Hawkins, Chudleigh:

Zoe Banks, in a series of comments to Andrew Wadsley on an earlier post, seems well briefed on this subject, so may be able to help me here:

Sometime ago I came across this document:

An Economic Analysis of FRDC Investment in Population Dynamics and Stock Assessments - AFMA (Cluster 27) 16th June 2010.Agtrans Research

Zoe appears to be a professional providing a positive spin to the fishery industry, so I ask could you explain to me why I could not get this Agtrans search document off the www?

It commences: “An estimate of stock size is a fundamental requirement in predicting a fisheries production potential and subsequently in developing ecologically sustainable management practice ….

It is argued that governments intervene to manage fisheries in the public good therefore research to strengthen fisheries management is also a public good.”

It then goes on to detail 29 projects suitably researched between 2003 and 2008. This included the1995, Project No /048to 2006 Project Number /076. Mostly this research deals with fish other than Jack Mackerel; the closest and first reference I can find is to:

“Blue Mackerel South East Australia 2002/061 [p29]…..Seventy five fish from three Australian locations, Queensland South Australia and Western Australia and one New Zealand location were examined, with regard to genetics and parasite assemblages……results suggested that there were several stocks in Australian waters …….a total of 4,025 eggs were collected from 2,386 plankton samples during 12 research surveys between Southern Queensland and the Western Great Australia Bight between 2001 and 2006.”

The project reviewed the literature and existing Data sets for redbait and jack mackerel but not in regard to their DEPM

Zoe, is the consultant employed by the government referring to the collecting by the government of only 4,000 eggs from a different species of mackerel across the whole of Australia’s southern ocean to allow a giant trawler into the fishery?

Zoe, would it be correct to say that it is on this the sample for blue mackerel and a more detailed reference to the South Australian sardine fishery that the scientists based their calculations for a the Small Pealagic Strategy for Jack Mackerel?

I have discounted the samples provided by the person who stood to benefit ... Mr Geen’s Seafish Tasmania.

I would like to know, since you are obviously at the cutting edge, if you can produce another independent sample of eggs from a contemporary government document for Jack Mackerel and for Red Bait taken between Queensland and Western Australia before 2010, or are the only other known samples provided by Seafish Tasmania?

I await you reply with interest.