A Tasmanian scientist has recommended to the Commonwealth Government that the fisheries management agency, the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) be closed down, and replaced with an agency with far wider powers and responsibilities.

Dr Jonathan Nevill, author of the 2010 book, Overfishing under regulation: the application of the precautionary principle and the ecosystem approach in Australian fisheries management, has told the Minister for Fisheries, Joe Ludwig, in a written submission that the Australian Fisheries Management Agency (AFMA):

• has a history of dishonesty;
• is subservient to and captured by its commercial fishing clients;
• is in breach of its own legislation in relation to the Precautionary Principle of fisheries management;
• fails to meet world’s best practice in the management of Australia’s Small Pelagic Fishery in which the super trawler is planning to operate, and
• has a long-standing and intractable problem with its organisational culture, undermining its credibility with the Australian community at large.

Dr Nevill recommends that the federal government closes AFMA down and replaces it with an agency charged with the management of Australia’s marine biological assets, taking over responsibilities not only for harvesting (fishing) but also for the Commonwealth’s network of marine protected areas, as well as marine biosecurity.

“There is a global model for an agency with a culture conductive of both technical competence and honesty in dealings with all stakeholders”, Dr Nevill says.

“This model is the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Living Marine Resources – an international agency based in Hobart. The Commission has achieved international recognition of its efforts to achieve sustainable fishing regimes”, he says.

Dr Nevill also cites in his submission what he says is AFMA’s bias and incompetence in its handling of the current super trawler controversy.

“The three key environmental issues related to the fishing activities of the super trawler are (a) uncertainties over forage fish stock levels, (b) the absence of spatial controls in the Small Pelagic Fishery (SPF) designed to protect key forage areas of forage fish predators, and (c) bycatch and incidental kill”, Dr Nevill’s submission says.

“Taking Jack Mackerel as an example, the stock estimate for the western zone of the SPF is a number produced by ‘expert opinion’. As detailed in the submission, AFMA provides no framework or transparent justification for the use of expert opinion in this way.

“The Jack Mackerel stock estimate in the SPF’s eastern zone is based on a 2002 survey which was not designed to collect data on Jack Mackerel. The information on eggs is thus poorly sampled, necessitating correction factors likely to have very high uncertainties.

“As pointed out in the submission, modelling data does not support the Jack mackerel biomass estimate currently used by AFMA and AFMA’s approach is not a precautionary approach. However, it should be noted that that the Precautionary Principle must be applied under the Fisheries Management Act 1991, AFMA’s legislation”, Dr Nevill says.

“Regarding spatial controls to protect predator forage areas, such controls are a necessary component of any management regime designed to meet a ‘worlds best practice’ benchmark. Addressing this gap will, in my opinion, require one to two years’ further investigation by scientists.

“AFMA has also completely ignored the issue of incidental kill (small fish killed as they get squeezed through the net) by the super trawler, and has presented no credible information on the design or effectiveness of physical and operational means to reduce bycatch to minimal levels. The current voluntary guidelines for bycatch reduction are designed for small fishing vessels and could not be applied in practice to the operations of the super trawler.

“The current bycatch reduction device design used by small Australian boats has the exit chute on the wrong side (according to recent research) – the bottom rather than the top. AFMA’s inability to oversee implementation of scientific findings in this regard suggest that it has no real interest in bycatch reduction”, Dr Nevill says in his submission.

He also highlights “a lack of comprehensive and honest communication” in the way AFMA provides information to the public, particularly related to the activities of the super trawler.

“I have observed AFMA over some years, and the ‘white lies’ which I document in my submission are typical of this organisation. This leads to the related issue of comprehensive and honest communication in fisheries science, and as part of this discussion I compare the management of the Commonwealth’s Small Pelagic Fishery with ‘world’s best practice’.

“The Australian SPF management regime does not meet world’s best practice – spatial controls to protect predator forage areas is the missing link.

“I draw the conclusion that there has been a long-standing and intractable problem with the organisational culture within AFMA, an agency which tends to act in a way subservient to the commercial fishing industry. While such a culture undermines AFMA’s credibility with the public at large, the main problem is that the culture impedes effective implementation of modern management tools, discussed in detail in my 2010 book, Overfishing under regulation”, Dr Nevill says.

“In essence, in applying tools such as the precautionary principle and the ecosystem approach, there are often important trade-offs between short term benefits to the commercial fishing industry and long term values related to ecosystem services, as well as the economic stability of the industry itself.

“AFMA’s management decisions lean strongly towards the short term as is illustrated in my submission in relation to the Small Pelagic Fishery.

“AFMA’s predecessor, the Australian Fisheries Service (AFS), suffered from the same cultural problem before being replaced in the early 1990s. While many of the changes that accompanied AFMA’s replacement of the AFS follow modern management principles, in practice the outcome has been disappointing and the original vision of a competent and impartial fishery management agency has not been realised.

“I believe that major reform is needed now”, Dr Nevill says.

His full submission can be download from or the Federal Government’s ‘Borthwick Review’ website.

• Earlier on Tasmanian Times: Earthquakes and fishing … includes links to earlier articles by Dr Nevill

First published: 2012-10-30 12:07 PM