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Monday, 15 March 2010
Page: 2389

Mr OAKESHOTT (1:06 PM) —I also rise to welcome the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Recreational Fishing for Mako and Porbeagle Sharks) Bill 2010 and this move by government. I do so for several reasons, which are similar to those already spoken about. On the first reason, I will give a local example from the Golden Lure Fishing Tournament held in January. It is part of the colour and movement, the culture and life of a Port Macquarie summer. Recreational fishers come from all along the east coast of New South Wales to that tournament. This year, many of them thought they had done the last tag-and-release of a mako shark. What went with that was a lot of discussion amongst and a lot of frustration felt by people who enjoy fishing and who, like everyone else in debates on ocean biodiversity, want more fish in the water. Wanting more fish in the ocean is common ground, whether you are an environmentalist or a fisho. From some of the anecdotes I heard, and given the cost-benefits of this decision, and the binding international agreements, I am pleased to see—I hope I see—that a bit of faith in government and government processes is coming from this change to a decision that initially caused a great deal of concern amongst the very tight and very talkative group which is the recreational fishing community.

I think the word that the minister used in introducing this legislation was ‘proportionality’. It was unfair to the recreational fishing industry to ask them to implement changes to their behaviour when the evidence for a shortage of mako sharks on the east coast of New South Wales just was not there. Comments have been made by several others about respecting the science. I think that if we are to truly respect the science, as a parliament—and this goes for all the topics before us at the moment—then when the evidence trail clearly says that we as a parliament need to do something we should do it. However, respecting the science also means that, when the evidence trail says that there is no issue, we need to be the defenders and the protectors of the science by upholding what it says. And, in this case, the evidence trail says that there are plenty of mako sharks on the east coast of Australia and of New South Wales. Therefore I am pleased with this decision to, in a small way, break an international agreement.

The question of the binding nature of the international agreement is an interesting one that has been raised. A few people who I have listened to in this debate have had a crack at the concept of international agreements. I would have thought that this legislation, and the process that has gone on in regard to it, is a very good example of how we can uphold sovereign issues while still being party to international conventions. I think this is an eminently sensible alternative to all of us having to deal with all the issues that may present themselves with any international conventions and to all of us getting wrapped up in decisions about whether a particular species in the ocean is an Appendix II type fish or not. I do not think that is necessarily the business of this House. So, as an approach, this is an eminently sensible alternative to that—as it is a sensible alternative to having no international binding agreements at all.

It might come as a surprise to a few members in this chamber that fish do not really understand international boundaries; they do swim around a lot. Therefore, international agreements are worth the paper they are written on and, therefore, being a party to that is a sensible approach. But here we have an example of a decision that is relevant, really, to the Mediterranean and the Northern Hemisphere but of not much relevance to sovereign Commonwealth waters having been put on to us. Yet the process that has followed from that should give us confidence in the processes in and around this international convention in that here we see a piece of legislation responding to that lack of an evidence trail and therefore upholding sovereign rights. So, rather than being critical of international binding agreements, I say that this process strengthens the role that we play in these international agreements because it is an example which shows that we still can uphold sovereign rights whilst agitating and advocating, at an international level, for much higher standards within ocean biodiversity.

On that point, I will raise a broader issue. The issue really is one for the executive—and for the minister responsible, who has not had the best couple of months. Here lies an opportunity to supercharge a ministerial career. This issue of ocean biodiversity is waiting for Australia to grab it and run with it and, potentially, lead the world with it.

We are an island nation. We face many challenges to do with fishing rights and complex issues right throughout our region, whether in the Pacific or the Asian regions. I think the point was rightly made by others that overfishing in the Northern Hemisphere is—without being shy about it—out of control. Australia has a rare opportunity to lead by being a protector and an upholder of the importance of ocean biodiversity. I made the point previously that, whether you are a recreational or a commercial fisher or the deepest of environmentalists, everyone wants more fish in the ocean, and to have more fish in the ocean you need to have an active and live biodiversity that goes with that. There are some common points for everyone in this debate within Australia. And I think there is a need for us to lead within the Asia-Pacific region as the issue of overfishing and many other unsustainable practices continue to present some pretty difficult challenges for the future.

If anyone is in any doubt about what I am saying, then they should take the time to read chapter 18 of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. That talks about the importance of what is in our oceans. If that did not get them excited, and if that did not allow them to sniff out a potential opportunity for an Australian government to show some leadership, then I would be sorely disappointed.

Last week, members from both sides of this chamber—from memory it was the member for Fremantle, Melissa Parke, and the member for Moore, Mal Washer—presented a very good documentary, The End of the Line, about substantial overfishing issues in the world right now and the lack of government action to address these issues. I would encourage everyone to try and get their hands on a copy of this documentary and to reflect on it—particularly, please, if you are in the executive and are wondering whether this is an issue worth getting involved in.

I keep coming back to the fact that we have had divisions and clashes in the past between environmentalists and those who want to use our natural resources. The issue of ocean biodiversity and the desire for more fish is one of those rare occasions where natural resource management has many friends. On the east coast, for example, fishing clubs, which sometimes do not get the recognition that they deserve, are self-regulators of many of the environmental issues. Most of the clubs now have rules around dropping anchors in weed beds. That is a very small but practical example of fishing clubs themselves starting to take responsibility and to lead on many of the environmental issues in play.

Likewise, I can report that right up the east coast of New South Wales we are seeing a greater demand for opportunities to participate in underwater research. A group recently formed in Port Macquarie, the Port Macquarie Underwater Research Group, with the acronym PURG, was based on a group that had been formed at Coffs Harbour, the Solitary Islands Underwater Research Group, with the acronym SURG, which was based on the Byron Underwater Research Group, with—you guessed it—the acronym BURG. What we have seen over the last couple of years at a community level from divers, recreational fishers and environmentalists is a growing interest in and desire for a real understanding of what is happening on the ocean floor and the role that that plays in fish stocks and natural resource management generally. I think that is a good trend.

I would hope that the government recognises that as a good trend and supports it on a broader basis, and that it taps into that sentiment and provides all the support possible, because there are still anomalies in practices in the field. One that absolutely kills us on the minerals coast of New South Wales, despite good self-regulation within fishing clubs and a growing desire for knowledge about the ocean floor, is the issue of beach hauling, which is shaped largely around state regulations. We can talk about and have all the best environmental practices in the world, but it only takes two or three days a year for outside commercial fishos to stand at any river mouth around Australia and rip into the smaller fish—in our case in Lyne it is the mullet run—and thus decimate the breeding-ground stock of fish that everyone wants. These are anomalies in practice that still continue. It absolutely kills everyone to see piles and piles of dead fish lying on a beach, stinking away and serving no purpose to anyone. Yet this is still seen as an acceptable fishing practice in Australia today.

This bill is good. It reflects our government ‘getting it’ with regard to both international agreements and also the use of evidence to drive policy. Marine biologist Dr Julian Pepperell, who normally is not a friend of the sceptics, is quite strong in saying there is no evidence trail connecting the mako sharks in the Mediterranean and the shortfin mako sharks off the Australian coast. It is good that the government has listened to those who are the keepers of the science and has responded accordingly. It is a sensible move the government is making, but there is plenty more to do. There is a huge opportunity here for government to lead this parliament and the region in taking the issue of ocean biodiversity and the desire for more fish seriously and actively and, hopefully, to make a difference to ocean biodiversity not only right throughout the region but throughout the world.