Australia’s ‘World’s Best’ Fisheries Management – a Dangerous Mantra?

It’s a key message for the fishing industry and their lobby groups, supported by government Fisheries Departments and the a number of Australia’s fisheries scientists in the media, and it goes a little something like this – Australia has the best fisheries management in the world, so you can stop worrying about our oceans.

The mantra is also regularly reinforced by politicians, and often too by Greenies trying to maintain some common ground with the fishing industry in a tense political atmosphere created by the public debate around marine reserves, certification of fisheries and ongoing issues of stock depletion and by-catch.

With the world’s second biggest super trawler steaming towards our shores, it has again been cited as a reason for allowing this vessel into our waters despite a history of super trawlers being implicated in the destruction of fish stocks, the marine environment, and fishing livelihoods the world over.

But is this true? Can we simply trust our fisheries managers and go back to sleep?

A quick look raises concerns immediately.  At a statistical level, for Australia’s commonwealth managed fisheries, 18% of Australia’s fish stocks are currently considered overfished or subject to overfishing; and for a further 42% there isn’t enough information to tell the status which is perhaps even more concerning.  This is just for target species, there is no published measure of impact on species taken as by-catch, which ranges from dolphins and sea-lions right down to fish, corals and sponges.

At a species level there are also red flags.

Hearing the mantra, some might be surprised to hear that there have been many collapses in Australia.  Some of the worst are on the East Coast where for a couple of examples the Harrison’s dogfish population was reduced by around 99%of those before fishing in some areas, and the grey nurse shark population is estimated at below 2000 individuals. In 2006 long lived deepsea orange roughy was the first commercially harvested fish to be listed as an endangered species in Australia. It was a drastic case of a common problem – that of not properly understanding the biology of the fish being harvested, and being far too overconfident in setting the limits on catches.

Much of this is historical overfishing, but is worth raising because it is the history of fisheries management in Australia, and it is not that long ago.  Still well within the time period that fisheries managers claim proves we are the best in the world.

Another examples that is well known to fishers is the decline in coastal demersal fish species around the country. Fishing restrictions, seasonal bans and other more extreme management measures are becoming far more commonplace (QLDWA). Some would argue these are just example of fisheries management in action, but they are also evidence of fisheries in decline that as yet have not recovered.  They are reactionary responses to fisheries in decline, not proactive and precautionary management that is building a healthier future for fisheries and oceans.

Other issues are in the area of by-catch. For example three zones of the South Australian shark gillnet fishery have been closed on account of ongoing by-catch of endangered australian sea lions. In the same fishery in Western Australia the Department of Fisheries is refusing to implement observer programs to measure the impacts on sea lions. The Pilbara Trawl in Western Australia still continues to take dolphins every year, alongside a number of other protected species.

It’s also worth getting beyond the data and just looking at things in a practical sense – how many people are out there highlighting that the fishing is as good as, or better than, it was a decade ago, or two?

Even the flagship of Australia’s fisheries management, and the world’s first MSC certified fishery, the Western Rock Lobster fishery has recently undergone a sustained recruitment failure that has led to a halving of the fishing fleet. The fisheries managers have responded by cutting the fleet, but have been unable to explain or remedy the collapse.  Time will tell if the fishery recovers.

For the rest of Australia’s fisheries that don’t have the resources to conduct the sort of scientific management applied to Western Rock Lobster where the annual recruitment is directly estimated by measuring the settlement of larval lobsters, the game is much more about predictions based on catch data (often unreliable) and computer modelling.  Being a little over simplistic, but hopefully capturing the general idea, the size distribution and overall tonnage of catch is used as a surrogate for what is happening underwater, and models to predict the impacts of future catch are constructed based on this.  A lot of assumptions have to be made given the limited information about the biology of almost all of the species we catch.  The ecosystem effects of removing large numbers of one species are even more poorly understood. In many cases catch data doesn’t go back far enough to know what the fish stocks were like before fishing started, so its hard to find a baseline against which to measure performance.

Its a method that can work, but only if it’s applied with the appropriate caution and checks and balances.  The limits of the method need to be clearly understood. Overconfidence is not compatible with this sort of methodology.

Dr Jonathan Neville, an aquatic scientist and author from Tasmania has written a number of pieces about the overconfidence of Australia’s fisheries managers, and the lack of application of the ecosystem based systems and precautionary principles they claim give Australia the best management regime in the world. See some of his work in the Tasmanian Times here.

The danger of overconfidence by fishing managers is akin to gambling, it is playing an experiment with one of the most valuable resources we have in a healthy ocean full of fish.

The truth is that Australia does probably rank near the top in terms of fisheries management, but that’s in context of a global overfishing crisis.  Being the least bad can be interpreted as being the best, but it doesn’t equate to being adequate, or good.

There is some excellent research work being done in Australia, it’s usually easy to spot because these are the fisheries scientists who are open and honest about the limitations of their models, and are always advocating for more data and research.  I have also seen this work blatantly misrepresented by fisheries mangers.

Our fisheries managers and the industry at large needs to adopt a more humble approach and work with marine scientists, marine biologist, conservationists and others to restore our ocean ecosystems, rather than continuing to cite a mantra that might be good PR, but isn’t good for the fish.

The mantra is dangerous because it can block consideration of new science evidence that might disagree with old methods, and blinds managers to lessons that should be learned from mistakes.

Rather than reciting the mantra and attacking critics, our fisheries managers should be advocating a more precautionary approach, setting lower catch limits. embracing alternative management measures, and supporting the establishment of marine protected areas for conservation and as an insurance against future mistakes.

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