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Wednesday, 4 June 2008
Page: 4600

Mr ADAMS (5:00 PM) —The purpose of the Fisheries Legislation Amendment (New Governance Arrangements for the Australian Fisheries Management Authority and Other Matters) Bill 2008 is to turn the Australian Fisheries Management Authority into a commission and to improve AFMA’s financial management and accountability to government. The changes are in accordance with the findings of John Uhrig’s Review of the corporate governance of statutory authorities and officeholders of June 2003—I guess it has taken a Labor government to put those changes in place. The bill will not make any significant changes to the day-to-day functions of the authority or operations of Commonwealth fisheries, fishers or stakeholders. I understand the new body will retain the existing functions and powers conferred on the existing body by legislation, and the bill will not reduce the body’s net funding or cash reserves in any way.

This bill establishes the requirement for AFMA to consult and specifies that AFMA is obliged to have consultation periods on management plans or amendments to management plans. The existing consultative process will be retained. Management plans are legitimate legislative instruments and are subject of course to parliamentary scrutiny, which allows feedback from those consultations. The bill will provide strong tools to help fight illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and I think the community will support the changes in this bill in a very strong way.

The board of directors of AFMA will be replaced by commissioners, and the managing director will be replaced by a chief executive officer. I understand the CEO may also be the chairperson but need not be, depending on how the commission wants to operate. There will be modified eligibility criteria which require fields of expertise to be considered in the selection process for the appointment of commissioners. There are also new obligations to disclose and report conflicts of interest, which will probably be a godsend to this body. The current board will be replaced by nine commissioners, whose expertise will include fisheries management, fishing industry operations, science, natural resource management, economics, business or financial management, law and public sector administration. Although there will be no government representative on the commission, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry has ensured, as far as practicable, that the commissioners collectively possess expertise in all fields just mentioned. After an open and transparent process, the minister will make appointments for up to five years. The CEO will be responsible for AFMA’s foreign compliance functions. I understand that the CEO will report to the minister in that regard and not to the commission. The bill therefore acknowledges the responsibilities that the government has to protect our borders, operations and important bilateral and international obligations regarding sea fisheries.

As noted in the Uhrig review, independence and objectivity are important contributors to good governance. This bill will establish eligibility criteria to exclude anyone who is an executive officer or a majority shareholder in a company which holds a Commonwealth concession, permit or licence and anyone who holds an executive position in a fishing industry association from being appointed a commissioner. These requirements are strengthened by more detailed requirements to disclose and report conflicts of interest prior to and following appointment as a commissioner.

In my state of Tasmania, concerns have been raised with me about who exactly would be eligible to be a commissioner, as this legislation is fairly restrictive. However, I have been informed that fishers who hold licences under any state government legislation, including the fisheries management by the states under offshore constitutional settlements, would be eligible to be a commissioner. Fisheries such as crab, rock lobster and stripy trumpeter fisheries are managed under the Tasmanian laws and therefore under the OCS arrangements. Fishers holding concessions in these fisheries would be able to apply to be an AFMA commissioner. I think the minister advertises these positions, people apply and, after a merit based process, the appointments take place. There appear to be about a thousand concession holders under the Fisheries Management Act and the Torres Strait Fisheries Act and well over 10,000 concession holders under the state regime. So there is a lot of opportunity to find people with specific skills and experience in the fishing industry organisations to fill these roles.

The bill also amends the Australian fisheries legislation to strengthen the government’s ability to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, which I think people would be very pleased about, and to fulfil Australia’s obligations under international law and agreements. We are party to a number of international fisheries management organisations and arrangements established to manage and conserve fish stocks and marine living resources of the high seas.

This bill allows Australian nationals to be prosecuted in Australian courts for activities on board foreign vessels in waters outside the Australian fishing zone where such activities are offences under the Fisheries Management Act. Some years ago such incidents occurred on the South Tasman Rise, which is below Tasmania, when Australian and New Zealand nationals were involved in helping rogue fishers to poach our waters and escape. This bill will allow for pursuit, capture and charges in relation to such offences, which was not possible before. I look forward to the minister pursuing those in the future.

This is in line with emerging international calls, which Australia supports, for states to control the activities of their nationals in the fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. This will also enable Australia to give effect to the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission’s boarding and inspection procedures. The framework outlined in this structure will enable Australia to more easily give effect to all future boarding and inspection procedures adopted by other international fishing agreements.

Foreign vessels going through our fishing zones will be required to disengage, secure and store inboard their fishing equipment in a manner that will not allow for fishing gear to be readily employed. Fishers often tell me that as they are coming down the coast to Tasmania they will shoot the nets and act in that way. To my knowledge, no-one has been prosecuted for that activity. This requirement will make it tougher for anyone to be able to do that. I have heard of many examples in Tasmanian local waters, as well as those just beyond our state limits, in the Commonwealth jurisdiction.

I remember sitting on the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Primary Industries, Resources and Rural and Regional Affairs in 1997 when it compiled its report on managing fisheries, called Managing Commonwealth fisheries: the last frontier. The committee put together a number of very important recommendations on fisheries management. Although some have been put in place, there is still a large gap in trying to monitor and change the activities of illegal fishers within and outside our waters.

The illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing operations put at risk millions of dollars of investment and thousands of jobs as valuable fish resources are wantonly depleted below sustainable levels. This disregard for the environment, the high seabird mortality and the abandonment of fishing gear gives rise to even more concern, as does the general disregard for crew safety in these illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing boats. These boats fishing on the high seas are highly organised, mobile and elusive. They are undermining the efforts of responsible countries to sustainably manage their fishing resources. We need international cooperation, which is vital to effectively combat this serious problem. By using regional fisheries management organisations as a vehicle for cooperation, fishing states, both flag and port states, and all major market states should be able to coordinate actions to effectively deal with these illegal fishing activities. These boats that are fishing illegally are jeopardising the Australian harvest of fish stocks, both within and beyond the Australian fishing zone. The long-term survival of the fishing industry and the fishing communities is threatened. The recent incident of illegal fishing of Patagonian toothfish in Australia’s remote Southern Ocean territories is a prime example of the damaging effect of unregulated fishing on the sustainability of stocks and the viability of the Australian industry. In the southern Indian Ocean, 4,000 kilometres south-west of Perth, six vessels have been apprehended since 1997 by Australian authorities for illegal fishing in the Australian fishing zone around Heard and McDonald Islands. Illegal fishing also occurs in Australia’s northern waters, but it is largely undertaken by traditional small-scale Indonesian vessels.

We need to strengthen our powers and our borders against these incursions by illegal fishers. I believe this bill will enhance our opportunities to do that and make our task a little easier. Our legal fishers are our eyes and ears on the high seas and they will be in a position to report other illegal activities, if given the right to do so. I have always believed that any development of a coastguard should include those who spend the most time at sea. I support the bill wholeheartedly. I am sure it will lead to keeping our fisheries safe and sustainable.