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Monday, 17 September 2012
Page: 7073

Senator WHISH-WILSON (Tasmania) (17:27): I am glad Senator Colbeck got to the heart of the issue in the last four seconds of his speech.

Senator Colbeck: What, my amendment?

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Just prior to your amendment, Senator, where you talked about local depletion and the concerns of recreational fishers. Perhaps I can set the record straight from my perspective. I have had several discussions with Dr Wadsley about sharing his information with scientists at AFMA. I have even tried to facilitate that process. He did not go straight to the media. He put his report up on a blog—

Senator Colbeck: A blog on the Tasmanian Times? Give me a break!

Senator WHISH-WILSON: to get comment on a community blog, and it was picked up by the media. He has been very happy to talk to scientists.

Senator Colbeck: A complete lack of respect.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Senator Colbeck, I listened to you your speech with a respectful silence; I would expect you to do the same. As far as picking on Dr Wadsley, I think you are out of line.

We have discussed the science here in the chamber for three weeks. The Greens have had a very consistent position in the supertrawler debate and that is we want to see the quota disallowed. The key reason for that is that the doubling of the quota, from our point of view, was not based on necessarily science itself, but there were issues that were not addressed in that science. So, while there has been a lot of scientific work done by AFMA and other agencies on this fishery, we also believe that key risks were not addressed. We broke the science down into two parts. Before I get into that I will read some new information that has come to light in the last two days. Also the report there that Senator Colbeck was holding up I will go into in a little bit more detail on—and I also only received it this afternoon. It is quite telling in terms of the science on the setting of the quota, and it certainly raises more questions than it answers.

The letter from the Commonwealth Ombudsman to MP Andrew Wilkie last Friday, clearly stating—while its investigation has not been concluded because other matters are under investigation:

In the course of our investigation, AFMA has admitted that the SEMAC—

the South East Management Advisory Committee; part of AFMA—

failed to comply with s.64C of the Act in this regard. By allowing Mr Geen to remain in the meeting while the TAC matter was deliberated, after noting his conflict of interest as the holder of statutory fishing rights for the fishery, the SEMAC chairperson failed to follow the process set out under s.64C of the Act.

That is the first piece of information. It has been out in the media. It has been a point of public interest and public concern that perhaps the fisheries act was not followed and that there may have been a level of illegality in the setting of this quota, and we now have confirmation from an investigation that it does look like there is some smoke there in the fire. We will wait to see what further information comes from that investigation.

The second bit of information which we received this afternoon was on a report downloaded on the AFMA website called, Re-analysis of mean daily egg production in jack mackerel. This was posted to the AFMA website incorrectly—I understand, from speaking to Dr Wadsley. It was posted under their August databank rather than in their September databank, but it was picked up by Dr Wadsley. Essentially, to cut a long story short, 'After peeling away the scientific jargon'—and these are Dr Wadsley's own words—'the lowest plausible biomass estimates should have been used to set the jack mackerel quota.' Following through on this analysis, Dr Wadsley—and he has had this verified by another mathematician in the country about whom he speaks very highly—the TAC should have been set between 1,500 and 1,800 tonnes for jack mackerel, versus the 10,800 tonnes that was set under the existing analysis.

I have avoided using Dr Wadsley at all in any of the media that I have done on the supertrawler debate or in any of the forums I have spoken to and I have avoided bringing up his name in the Senate, because I have not seen it as being useful pitting one scientist against another. I have always tried to respect the AFMA scientists involved in the debate. But this is new information, and I think it has got to the point where Dr Wadsley has done so much work in this area that it does beg some specific answers from AFMA. The questions that Dr Wadsley has now put to AFMA include:

1. Why didn’t they have such a simple re-analysis carried out BEFORE they used the Neira (2011) report to set such an absurdly high and irresponsible TAC? Surely they have in place such checks?

2. Why didn’t they immediately inform their own Minister, the Hon Joe Ludwig, about the implications of the report for the jack mackerel quota, given that the report was lodged on the evening of Wednesday 12 September at the height of the 'supertrawler' debate?

I would also like to make it clear that, in all of my analysis and all my talking as a Greens senator on this issue, I have never focused on the setting of the quota for red bait or jack mackerel. The issue that I have been most interested in is not so much the quota itself but how the quota is going to be fished by a giant, industrial-scale vessel.

I have mentioned this before, but I would like to mention it again. A couple of months ago, a peak recreational fishing group, TARFish, along with conservation groups and other fishery groups, walked away from a working group with the Labor government. They put out a media release saying that they entered the negotiations in good faith and were prepared to see a trawler operate in Australian waters subject to their concerns being addressed. I will quote from their media release:

Following detailed discussions and a review of all the scientific information, provided to the Working Group—

presumably by AFMA and the Labor government—

TARFish has come to the conclusion that there is a lack of detailed scientific knowledge surrounding:

1. the extent and rates of movement of each species of small pelagic fish

2. the amount of time it would take for local populations of small pelagic fish to recover from intensive localized fishing, and

3. the size of the resident population of Jack Mackerel on the East Coast of Tasmania.

They posed a question: 'What would happen if a boat, a large trawler, was to take 2,500, 5,000 or 10,000 tonnes of fish from one area?' They also asked what impact this would have on their local fishing spot or on local ecosystems.

The lack of answers to those specific questions is the reason that we are here today debating this. Based on my discussions with these groups—and with Senator Colbeck, by the way—if those questions had been answered, if the data had been in place, and if a management plan had been put in place based on science that addressed these issues, I think we would have a situation where perhaps conservation groups would still have issues with bycatch but probably the fishing groups across this country would have walked away from their campaign.

It is disappointing to see again today the typical Green bashing that we got from Senator Colbeck. I missed Senator Abetz's discussion earlier but, based on previous—

Senator Carol Brown: You didn't miss a lot.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: So I did not miss a lot? Based on previous speeches I have heard, I am sure it was there. This is not just a Greens issue or a conservation issue, and I really do believe that they have missed the point. Saying that, I do acknowledge that it was mentioned in the last three seconds of Senator Colbeck's speech that there are concerns from local fishers. This is an issue that they have run very hard on, and they have been in discussions and negotiations since at least March. They were part of the resource assessment group at AFMA and part of previous campaigns against supertrawlers in this country.

On the issue of localised depletion, I would like to read a few select quotes from The Commonwealth Small Pelagic Fishery: General background to the scientific issues—a report tabled in the Senate the day before our disallowance motion and a report which Senator Colbeck said he commissioned the scientists at AFMA to write. It is the only research we had on local depletion. Even in that report, although they said that the overall risks to local depletion across the entire fishery were low, they said:

- fishing should be spread out so as to avoid localised depletions, especially in relation to any local ecological ‘hotspots’ where there is particularly strong local dependency between predators and prey (e.g. in the vicinity of some seabird rookeries).

Another quote from the final section says:

However given uncertainties about detailed movement patterns of several of the species targeted in the SPF—

small pelagic fishery—

it would be prudent to distribute catches to minimise the chance of local depletion. This is consistent with global scientific advice on best practice for managing such species.

The message is very clear as it was to TARfish and rec fisher groups when they walked away from negotiations. There is no specific research on fish stock movements in Australia's small pelagic fisheries. I do not blame AFMA or the scientists for this. If the research had been in place then we would have the answers. The issue here is funding, which raises the issue of it having been seven years since we began planning to bring an industrial-scale vessel to Australian waters—and this was brought up by Commonwealth Fisheries Association in their recent advertising campaign.

We have on record Senator Abetz saying that they have been working for three years since 2009 to bring this vessel here. I would like to piece together the time line at some point to work out exactly what has happened behind the scenes. Who are 'we'? We have been planning to bring out a supertrawler to Australia for seven years. Who are we exactly: is it AFMA; is it the scientists; is it the Liberal Party; or is it the fisheries minister? Who are we? If we have been planning for seven years, why hasn't the issue of local depletion been addressed and answered?

Senator Colbeck talked about the last harvest strategy released in 2008. We are now overdue for another harvest strategy; in fact, we were expecting it four or five months ago, but it has not been completed. I would have expected, given the planning for the last seven years to bring this vessel here, that we would have a harvest strategy in place and these risks would have been addressed.

This brings me to a critical point in this piece of legislation. The Greens wanted a disallowance motion. It would have allowed the government—whom we have now found out have the same concerns; they have come round to our way of thinking on the supertrawler—to stand back, cancel the quota, address the risks and get it right. In this new piece of legislation, it is very concerning to us that the words 'social' and 'economic' have been taken out of a clause, so we are only dealing with environmental impacts. From our perspective, sometimes it is very hard to separate environmental, social and economic. Think about a fisheries management plan that might be required to satisfy stakeholders.

I have sought some scientific advice on this from one of the country's leading fisheries experts, and he said a spatial management plan—apart from marine protected areas which are designed to be a spatial management plan—to protect ecological hot spots, would require a target catch for a geographical area and move-on clauses for a boat. In other words, a boat would only be able to catch a certain tonnage of fish from any given area before it was required to move on. It may also include—and this is from my discussions with the CEO of Seafish, the proponent—the fact that the vessel cannot go anywhere near existing ecological hot spots such as seal colonies or bird rookeries or, for that matter, anywhere near the coastline where it can be seen. The exact words from the CEO of Seafish in my office were: 'We are quite happy to stay out of mind, out of sight.'

So a fisheries management plan, if it were going to satisfy stakeholders and it was legislated and enforceable, which is what the rec fishing groups have been asking for, would have to be based on social and economic considerations. Rob Pennicott, who runs one of Tasmania's leading tourism businesses and employs 58 people, is very concerned about depletion of fish stocks in the areas where he takes tourists out every day to look at dolphins and seals. If his feedback was not incorporated in a fisheries management plan, which, by the way, will be required if the public is going to accept this trawler in two years time, what is the point? If it is just an ecological based assessment by scientists, it is ignoring why we are here today debating this.

This is a big social issue across the country and it has been a huge learning curve for me. I met fishers right across the east coast of Tasmania. I must admit: I had no idea how important fishing is to the culture of my state. Being a surfer, I have always focused on my community but I had no idea just how important fishing is. I have been misquoted by the Liberal Party and by journalists such as Greg Barns in the Mercurysaying that I am antiscience and antieconomics because I said at a forum and on ABC Radio that the feedback I have received from the community is that they do not want to hear about science. They do not want to hear about economics. They have made up their minds. All the transcripts show that I was surprised and I had learnt something from these people. I believe in science and I believe in economics to some extent, but people make their decisions based on a number of reasons, not the least being that they do not trust the science of the economics in this matter.

Sometimes it is little things that tip you in your path in life. I have shared this with Senator Colbeck face to face. When I met with AFMA for the very first time, I specifically asked them: did you double the quota of jack mackerel to facilitate the arrival of this boat, the supertrawler? Their answer was:' No, it was based on science.' We found out just weeks later under freedom of information that Seafish had written to AFMA specifically asking them to double the quota to allow them to bring the supertrawler. That might just be a coincidence, but you would think when a senator was asking you questions, you might at least say, 'Yes, we did get a request to double the quota to allow a boat but it was based purely on science.'

I lost trust in the process after that and I have shared that with Senator Colbeck. If I cannot trust AFMA when I meet with them to give me a straight answer, it is not surprising that other people in community cannot either. We are looking forward to talking to the fisheries minister a little later about what he is going to do with the restructuring with his root-and-branch approach to the Australian Fisheries Management Authority.

On the economics, very quickly: I also believe that one of the issues underlying the big reaction to this supertrawler is the fact that a lot of people cannot see what is in it for them. When you explain to them that the quotas were set several years ago and given to commercial fishermen—who used to operate in these fisheries and who have invested their money, time and equipment but the majority of whom have not been using the quotas; most of them are not being utilised—the next question you get is, 'So if they are not buying the quotas off us what do we get as taxpayers?' My response is, 'If Seafish makes a profit, we can tax that profit—a federal tax; you may get some dividend through the company if it makes a profit.' A lot of people are very surprised that there is no resource rent on these fisheries. There is no direct return to the taxpayer. Yes, there are jobs—and I do not at all belittle the fact that we need jobs, especially in Tasmania—but our job as parliamentarians is to weigh up all the costs and potential risks against the benefits. We need to get that right before we proceed any way down the track of allowing supertrawlers to operate in Australian waters.

Lastly, on social media: it is here to stay whether you like it or not. You are not going to get rid of it. Campaigns run by GetUp! and other organisations are here to stay. The issue for a much bigger debate at some time is how policy can be set effectively with direct marketing campaigns to politicians. I used to teach my economics students at university about the special interest model: how companies who could afford lobbyists used to get in the ears of politicians and get what they wanted. The world has changed now. Individuals can go directly to politicians and companies and set up online communities. This is something we need to wake up to and understand is a new reality. In finishing, I am hoping something positive will come out of this and that we look at how we can better manage and fund fisheries and have a sustainable fishery for the future.