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Wednesday, 4 June 2008
Page: 4592


Mr TRUSS (Leader of the Nationals) (4:25 PM) —The Fisheries Legislation Amendment (New Governance Arrangements for the Australian Fisheries Management Authority and Other Matters) Bill 2008 will amend the Fisheries Management Act 1991 and make consequential amendments to the Torres Strait Fisheries Act 1984 and the Migration Act 1958 to improve the governance of the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, AFMA, by moving AFMA from being a statutory authority to a commission. The bill is also designed to strengthen and tighten measures to combat illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing within the Australian exclusive economic zone.

The Australian Fisheries Management Authority is the statutory authority responsible for the efficient management of Commonwealth fishery resources on behalf of the Australian community. The functions of AFMA include policy and planning. In managing Commonwealth fisheries, the Australian Fisheries Management Authority has an obligation to develop plans and implement policy in the performance of its functions and the pursuit of its objectives. It is also responsible for licensing and quota management. AFMA grants permits and statutory fishing rights for Commonwealth fisheries, processes transactions in relation to these concessions and maintains registers of individual transferable quota to give effect to fisheries management arrangements. It has a compliance role. AFMA has a responsibility to enforce the provisions of the Fisheries Management Act 1991 and the Torres Strait Fisheries Act 1984 through the detection and investigation of illegal activities by both domestic and foreign fishing boats in the Australian fishing zone and the Commonwealth managed territories.

It has responsibilities for the environment and sustainability. AFMA is strongly committed to the protection of the ocean’s ecosystems and biodiversity by promoting the sustainable use of our fisheries resources. It is tasked also with data collection. Good decision making depends on having the best quality information available. This means providing information which is relevant, accurate and timely to our fisheries managers and researchers. Research undertaken for the Australian Fisheries Management Authority seeks to address a number of fisheries management related issues. It also undertakes an observer program. The observer program currently places observers on domestic and, if required, foreign fishing vessels within the Australian fishing zone and some adjacent areas under international agreements. It works in partnerships with a range of other agencies. AFMA maintains a firm commitment to managing Commonwealth fisheries resources for the benefit of the community as a whole. Accordingly, cooperation with the community, industry, government agencies and others with an interest in the sustainable management of the Commonwealth’s fishery resources is a vital part of our approach.

AFMA manages fisheries within the 200 nautical mile Australian fishing zone, on the high seas and, in some cases, by arrangement with the states and territories, to the low water mark. AFMA looks after around 20 Commonwealth commercial fisheries and three nautical miles out to the extent of the fishing zone. These include the Antarctic’s Heard, McDonald and Macquarie islands, the Bass Strait Central Zone Scallop Fishery, the Coral Sea Fishery, the Eastern Tuna and Billfish Fishery, the Southern and Eastern Scale Fish and Shark Fishery, Norfolk Island Fishery, North West Slope Trawl Fishery, the Northern Prawn Fishery, South Tasman Rise, the Southern Bluefin Tuna Fishery, the Southern Squid Jig Fishery, the Western Tuna and Billfish Fishery, the Western Deepwater Trawl Fishery, the Skipjack Tuna Fisheries, the Small Pelagic Fishery, the Commonwealth trawl, the Great Australian Bight Trawl Sector, the Gillnet, Hook and Trap Sectors and the East Coast Deepwater Trawl Sector. The state and territory governments generally look after recreational fishing, commercial coast and inland fishing and aquaculture. AFMA is charged with ensuring fishing is conducted in a sustainable way so as to provide the benefits we get today, such as healthy seafood and employment, and to ensure that these will be continued into the future.

The Australian fishing industry is one of our great industries. It carries with it great traditions, and there are many Australians who dream of participating in an industry of this nature. But the reality is that recent times have been very tough for the fishing industry. The contraction of their resource, the closure of very large areas to fishing, the creation of a whole range of national parks from which fishing is excluded and significant developments, especially the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park plan and in the Torres Strait, have made a huge difference to the profitability of our fishing industry. A great many of these changes have been made without adequate consultation with the men and women involved in the industry. There has certainly been pain and hardship.

The previous government devoted substantial financial resources towards compensation for fisheries that had been adversely affected by conservation and other priorities. I appeal to the new government to follow a similar path. If resources are to be taken away from the fishing industry, and if their capacity to have an economic industry is to be restricted because of some kind of perceived greater national good, then the livelihoods of the men and women involved in the industry need to be considered. There are many family fishing operators, and they can ill afford shocks in relation to their access to the available resources. The industry needs to be able to plan effectively. The massively increased cost of diesel fuel, in particular, is having a huge impact on the Australian fishing industry.

The industry has little opportunity to pass on the increased costs to its customers. We have seen how changes to the subsidy arrangements for fishermen in Europe have led to protests on the streets. The Australian fishing industry, whilst not subsidised, is enduring similar experiences with cost increases. It is facing difficulties in obtaining crew and in meeting the huge costs associated with maintaining operations. Australians love their seafood and are proud of what our fishermen are able to deliver to the market, but fishermen are also facing increasing competition from cheap imports, much of it coming out of Asia and much of which requires detailed supervision and testing at the border to make sure that there is no risk of pests, diseases and chemical residues coming into the country. Australian consumers have enjoyed unprecedented access to comparatively low-cost seafood as a result of these imports, but they have had an impact on the Australian industry—both the wild catch and the aquaculture sectors—and we need to make sure that there is an appropriate balance to guarantee that there are no disease risks imposed upon the Australian industry so that it can prosper.

This is a particularly difficult sector. The Australian fishing product is also in high demand around the world. Our premium prawns can attract a very high price in Europe, the United States, Hong Kong or other key markets. On the other hand, we have lower quality products being imported into Australia in significant quantities. This applies to other fish as well which frequently bring much higher prices in other markets around the world than can be achieved domestically. That is the way in which trade occurs, and it is appropriate that products find their way to the highest priced market, but so often there is intervention for one reason or another which prevents the fishing industry from achieving its best marketing advantage. Sometimes it is protection in other parts of the world; sometimes it is the demands of conservationists and those who demand that additional areas be protected. All of these initiatives are placing enormous threats and challenges on the industry. I have a significant fishing fleet based in my electorate, so I appreciate and face these difficulties on a personal, one-to-one basis. It has happened quite a lot over recent times.

The changes that are proposed in this bill will of course improve governance arrangements, but they will not of themselves do anything to improve the profitability of the industry. So it will be important for the government to monitor very closely the viability of this sector. It needs to be responsive to the particular challenges of the fishing industry, which, in many instances, are beyond those of other primary industries. Particular challenges are the demand that certain areas be locked away from commercial fishing and the competition between recreational fishers and commercial fishers and, for that matter, those who need to use nets or trawls or other fishing gear. Some of those issues are not easy to deal with, but we need to remember that our country does need reliable supplies of quality fish. It is important to cater for the needs of the recreational sector, but we must also ensure that the capacity to provide needed fish for our diet is taken as a very important national priority.

I welcome the arrival of the minister to the room. I hope that he might take a little time to read some of the things that I have said about the particularly difficult plight confronting many in the fishing industry at the present time. There are the challenges of the availability of the resource, the locking up of areas for conservation or other purposes, the difficulties of competing with imports and, perhaps more pressing than anything at the present time, the skyrocketing cost of fuel, which is devastating the viability of many in the industry. I appeal to the government to look very seriously at the economic viability of the sector and to do what it can to make sure that fishing families, people who have given their lifetime to this industry, have a strong and optimistic future.

I will return to the specific detail of the bill. The previous government announced in October 2006 that AFMA would become an independent commission from 1 July 2008. The principal changes in the legislation relate to AFMA’s governance structures and resource management. Considerable rationalisation of Australia’s Commonwealth managed fisheries has been carried out, and the opposition expects the government to use the changes to AFMA’s structure to also rationalise their operations, with the objective of reducing costs that are passed on to industry.

A significant aspect of the bill is the increased fisheries enforcement role that AFMA will perform. AFMA works in close cooperation with Coastwatch, the Australian Customs Service and the Australian Defence Force. As international waters to our north in particular come under increasing pressure from overfishing, Australia faces rising levels of illegal fishing within our zone. Increasingly sophisticated criminal syndicates target valuable stocks and have attempted to avoid prosecution by locating mother ships in international waters and effectively raiding our fisheries in small boats. The ability to intercept in international waters and take into custody people suspected of fishing in Australia’s exclusive economic zone will provide a greater deterrent to illegal fishing activities. AFMA is seeking this power. Australian fisheries need this added power to protect their future sustainability. The opposition totally supports this initiative.

The budget for AFMA that was announced just last month was increased from $52.763 million to $55.574 million—an increase of just $2.8 million. The role of AFMA is being considerably increased, especially in the area of high-seas fisheries and compliance, as I mentioned a few moments ago. The recent incident off Darwin, with AFMA being found to have incorrectly detained fishermen in a joint Australian-Indonesian managed fishery, has highlighted the necessity for AFMA officials to be well trained and equipped to carry out their duties, especially with the proposed new functions contained in this legislation. The credibility of the Australian government and the integrity of our fisheries compliance depend upon ensuring we have highly trained officials and clearly defined procedures that are adhered to.

The minimal $2.8 million additional funding in the budget for AFMA seems inadequate to allow them to implement the new management arrangements as well as implement the new roles and functions assigned to AFMA. I am concerned that the amount the government has announced for AFMA will not be enough to enable the authority to implement its new roles. I would be interested in a comment from the minister as to how he believes that the organisation will be able to undertake its increased functions within the budget that is being provided without passing on significant additional costs to the industry. Indeed, the objective of all this is to reduce the cost to industry. I have always believed that the policing role of AFMA is not just one for the industry. It is a national function that is an important part of our national security, so the nation as a whole should share in the cost and not expect that it be borne entirely by the industry. We want to make sure that AFMA does not end up with another funding black hole. It has experienced a few of those in its lifetime under successive governments. If we expect it to do its job, it is important that we adequately resource it.

In relation to the bill, the opposition shares the concerns of industry that the commissioner and the organisational component of AFMA must separate policy setting and service delivery. This is why the opposition will be moving the amendments that we have circulated to legislate that the CEO be not eligible to also be appointed as the commissioner. AFMA manages Commonwealth fisheries and is largely funded by the fisheries industry. It is therefore fair that the industry have the opportunity to make recommendations for the position of commissioner. The opposition is also moving an amendment that would mandate a consultative process with industry in the appointment of AFMA commissioners. Industry support and involvement in AFMA policy development is vital in ensuring that AFMA continues to deliver the services that the industry needs while protecting Australia’s Commonwealth fisheries.

As I mentioned earlier, this legislation fulfils a commitment that the previous government had made. I commend this government for having carried forward this proposal. It is, I think, a helpful advance for AFMA and for the fishing industry. The industry faces many challenges, and I hope that these new governance arrangements will give it increased confidence and that it does enjoy the support of the government and the community for its future.