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The Commonwealth Ombudsman has written to me outlining his findings in response to my complaint that the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) erred when setting the quota relevant to the super trawler Margiris.

The Ombudsman found that AFMA did not follow the law when the South East Management Advisory Committee finalised its recommendation for the quota relevant to the super trawler.

In particular the Ombudsman found that one of the members of that committee had a financial conflict of interest but was allowed to remain in, and contribute to, discussions about the quota.

As a direct result of the Ombudsman’s investigation AFMA has undertaken remedial and corrective steps to address the substantive issues arising from my complaint.

The Ombudsman has also forwarded material to the Federal Government’s review of fisheries legislation.

Seafish Tasmania has responded by attacking the Ombudsman which is clearly a case of attacking the messenger who found very serious problems with fisheries management in Australia.

Seafish claims the Ombudsman ``had completed the investigation and found nothing to report’’. In fact the Ombudsman’s letter to me of 18 December 2012 outlining the results of the inquiry runs to four pages and includes the findings ``processes relating to a scheduled meeting of the South East Management Advisory Committee (SEMAC) on 26 March 2012 were not in accordance with legislative requirement’’ and that the ``conflicted SPFRAG [Small Pelagic Fishery Resource Assessment Group] members did not seek approval to remain at, and participate in, group deliberations after declaring the conflict [of interest]’’.

In other words my complaint to the Ombudsman that AFMA did not follow proper process when it set the quota relevant to the Margiris has been upheld.

Seafish claims I didn’t release the letter because it didn’t suit my ``agenda’’. In fact I decided not to release the letter during the Christmas/New Year holiday period because it was simply too important a document to bury during the holiday period and subsequent bushfire emergency. Moreover I did hand the letter to the Mercury newspaper this morning, well before Seafish issued its media release.

Seafish notes the Ombudsman’s report (which it claims to have not seen) offers no comment on Director Gerry Geen or Seafish itself. But in fact Mr Geen is well known as being the relevant member of SEMAC and SPFRAG.

Seafish claims my comments last year about the Ombudsman investigating ``other matters’’ was some kind of beat up. But in fact it was the Ombudsman who referred to other matters being under investigation and the Ombudsman’s letter to me does in fact address other issues, and in particular the conflict of interest and communications difficulties associated with the SPFRAG.

Seafish Tasmania claims there is now no question mark over the quota relevant to the Margiris. But in fact all the Ombudsman says is that ``it does not necessarily follow that errors in the SEMAC process operate to invalidate the TAC [Total Allowable Catch]’’ and goes on to note the review of fisheries legislation which is still ongoing.

That there were at least very serious problems within AFMA is beyond question for all, it seems, other than Seafish Tasmania. The Federal Government has already identified the need for a roots and branch review of fisheries legislation and the Ombudsman’s letter to me lists 11 AFMA actions as a result of my complaint.

Download the Ombudsman’s findings:
2012-300213_s12_Notice_Mr_Wilkie.docx_.pdf

• AFMA CEO Dr James Findlay responds ...

AFMA CEO Dr James Findlay today said that independent MP Andrew Wilkie’s interpretation of the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s findings was selective and misleading.

“When Mr Wilkie first brought the administrative error from the South East Management Advisory Committee meeting to AFMA’s attention we immediately and publically conceded the error and took immediate action to prevent any repeat”, Dr Findlay said.

“However, as clearly outlined in the Ombudsman’s report to Mr Wilkie, it is the independent AFMA Commission that sets the catch limits and not the advisory committee.

“AFMA has always maintained that the catch limits set by the independent AFMA Commission were lawful and unaffected by the error within the meeting procedures followed by one of its advisory groups.

The Ombudsman’s report does not support Mr Wilkie’s contrary view.

“Mr Wilkie’s further claims that the Ombudsman’s findings mean there are ‘very serious problems with fisheries management in Australia’ are not in any way supported by the Ombudsman’s findings.”

“Moreover, it is disappointing that Mr Wilkie has today sought to claim responsibility for actions taken by AFMA that have nothing to do with the Ombudsman’s investigation and actually pre-date Mr Wilkie’s complaint.”

ABC Online: Bid to use super trawler as giant freezer:

Seafish Tasmania’s Joe Pirrello is stressing the ship will not fish and it is not an attempt to sidestep the Minister’s ruling.

“The Abel Tasman will not put a net in the water. This is not an attempt to circumvent the Minister’s declaration,” he said in a statement.

“This is our response to the Minister’s approval of existing fishing techniques and operations.

“It means jobs for at least 50 Australians and existing Australian boats, existing technology and boats that have previously operated in this fishery.”

Seafish Tasmania says there is support from the industry.

“The smaller operators cannot fish economically to supply export markets,” Mr Pirrello said.