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Thursday, 10 May 2012
Page: 4630

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (10:21): I appreciate the opportunity to speak in relation to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2012. I also note the contributions by the member for Lyons, the parliamentary secretary and also the shadow minister, who explained the nature of this bill, which is primarily one of an administrative manner. I also acknowledge the positive comments in relation to the way the department is working with the relevant industry sectors towards what I believe should be our common goal: to provide for sustainable and productive industries in these various sectors.

The bill also provides an opportunity for me to raise a few concerns that have been brought to my attention, primarily within the commercial fishing sector, and also to put forward some of the constructive suggestions that have come through from the industry in my region.

For those members who are not aware, Lakes Entrance is home to one of the largest commercial fishing fleets in Australia. It is a critically important industry for the East Gippsland region but also for the broader Victorian and Australian economies. There are many threats to the future viability of the commercial fishing industry. I have spoken in the past about the impact of things like the AFMA licence fee increases on the commercial sector but also the influx of inferior imported sea food products. There are other issues like threats to habitat through accidental events or inappropriate development, or the impact of invasive and introduced species.

There is also the ever increasing issue of green tape and red tape, particularly as it relates to the question of access to the resources and this obsession we have seen from the extreme environmental groups to shut down commercial fishing activities, regardless of the science or the proven sustainability of the catch. I welcome the intent within this bill to try and reduce the amount of red and green tape.

I hasten to say we have a fight on our hands. When I say 'we', I am talking about those of us who care about the commercial fishing industry, who believe in the future of the industry or who want to consume fish caught from clean Australian waters which have been sustainably managed. We have an enormous fight on our hands in that regard. We have to fight this overblown rhetoric that we are seeing and the hype we are seeing from the green movement. We have to make sure that the department and other statutory bodies let the science decide. We have to make sure that the decisions that we make are in the best interests of the entire community, the industry and the resource that we are trying to manage.

I have a very good relationship with my local fishing sector, with the men and women on the boats and the people who manage the local cooperative or represent the industry to governments. It is a relationship that I value very highly for the matter-of-fact and commonsense advice that these people are able to provide about the conditions on the ground and the way regulations or legislation imposed by governments affect the people in the industry.

If you believe the Greens, you would believe that these men are out there raping and pillaging the environment and the ocean on a daily basis. It is simply not the fact. I acknowledge that some of the past practices have contributed to some resource shortages and some environmental concerns, but the industry has changed enormously in recent times and recent decades. I commend this government and previous governments for being willing to work with the industry on things like setting catch limits to make sure that we manage our fishery in a sustainable manner and to ensure that future generations can not only continue to work in one of the oldest professions in the world but also continue to enjoy—do not smile, Parliamentary Secretary; I know where this is heading—the opportunity to participate in the bountiful harvest of the fishing sector.

As I indicated, we do have a fight on our hands. We need to ensure that the future is viable for these people and that this green tape and red tape that I have referred to does not overwhelm the commercial fishing sector. Today I make it very clear where I stand in this debate. I have said many times in this place that it is time for everyone who cares about the freedoms we have enjoyed in the past to take fish in a responsible and environmentally sustainable manner.

We need to make sure we stand together to push back against these extreme environmentalists and their philosophies. Lock it up and leave it is not an environmental policy. It has been a proven disaster on land and it will not work in the marine environment. We continually have to fight this ideology and embrace the opportunity for active management and use of natural resources in a sustainable manner. The claims we constantly see about collapsing fish stocks are unproven and untrue. I have referred previously to the work of Dr Ray Hilborn and his report entitled Australian seafood consumers misled by prophets of doom and gloom. The reason I raise those issues in the context of today's debate is to highlight the need for the science to decide and for common sense to rule when the department and the various agencies deal with the fishing sector. That is why I am supporting the proposed amendments to the bill today.

The bill also talks about labelling in the wine industry, but I do not think it is too big a stretch to refer to the seafood industry in that regard. In his comments the parliamentary secretary said that the bill would 'amend requirements of the labelling integrity program under the wine legislation'. The parliamentary secretary further said: 'The program aims to ensure the truthfulness of label claims on vintage, variety or geographical indication of wine. It relies on accurate record-keeping so that wines and label claims can be audited effectively.

That proposed change to the bill has been supported by both sides, but in the context of the concerns I am raising in relation to the fishing industry I would like to highlight labelling within the fishing industry. There is no description that comes to mind other than that it is a complete mess. It is confusing for the consumer and extremely frustrating for the industry itself. I have spoken in the House before about cooked seafood. I believe there should be a nationwide requirement that consumers be fully informed about the seafood they are eating.

I know that I have just talked about the need to reduce red tape and that I am about to suggest another regulation but, in the presence of the parliamentary secretary, I would like to comment a bit on that. In the Northern Territory, we have seen a trial introduction of regulations which has worked very well. It has actually added value to the Australian product. The restaurant and catering industry, I believe, can demand a premium for fresh Australian seafood. When consumers are fully informed about the origin of their seafood, they are more likely to make that choice to pay a bit extra for a product they can trust. I think the discerning customer, who cares about quality, who cares about the conditions in which the seafood has been harvested and who cares about the sustainability of the resource itself, should be able to make an informed decision. That is simply not possible today in Australia, apart from the Northern Territory, where the origin of the seafood you are about to consume is declared on the menus in restaurants and other establishments.

In relation to the retail sector and the labelling of seafood products, again I think we have an enormous problem. I am referring specifically to the two giants, Coles and Woolworths. They are locked in a battle for market share at the moment, and they are using every means at their disposal to try to attract customers. They like to trumpet their environmental credentials, and we saw Coles waffling on about hormone-free beef, I think, or something ridiculous like that. We have seen seafood species removed from sale under pressure from the Greens. But, at the same time, the supermarket giants are selling seafood under extremely dubious titles such as 'South American flathead', which I understand is a fish caught in Argentina that is not even of the flathead genus.

If we then go to the pre-packaged section, we see fish variously described as 'flathead fillets in beer batter' and 'flake fillets in beer batter'. They are obviously designed to instil confidence in the Australian market because the consumer has an understanding of what those products are, but what is actually in the box is by any definition not flathead and it is not flake. But that is on the box and it is a deliberate ploy to build confidence in the consumer by using names with which the Australian consumer has some level of familiarity and some level of confidence. It is a big issue facing the Australian fishing industry because our industry is subject to very strict conditions and regulations and is managed in an environmentally sustainable matter—and I am not confident we can say the same about these imported products.

I appreciate the opportunity to raise these concerns. I must stress that the fishermen who talked to me, and the professional staff, their elected office bearers and their various representative organisations, are not afraid of the competition. They have enormous confidence in their own local product, which they believe is drawn from better environmental conditions and standards. They have better-tasting fish and a product which is produced from a better managed fishery, but the problem is they are fighting with one arm behind their back. They are up against these imported products, which are being misrepresented in the marketplace and sold to the consumers, I think, in an almost nefarious manner. It is something that we need to work on in this place and I encourage the department to continue working with the industry in that regard to have a fairer playing field for the commercial fishing sector.

In the time I have left, I want to raise one other issue, relating to the commercial fishing sector, its relationship with the department and the manner in which we manage the resource in Victoria. I refer to an area of fisheries management which I have brought to the attention of the House in the past—and there have been some developments since then—relating to the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, AFMA, and its dealings with the Victorian Department of Primary Industries. It relates to the strict 50-kilogram snapper bycatch limit per trip on each Commonwealth licensed trawler. For those not familiar with the issue, as I understand it, the snapper is subject to Victorian licensing arrangements, but sometimes it is caught by Commonwealth licensed vessels as an unavoidable bycatch. There has been targeting of snapper by at least one operator in Victoria. I have no sympathy at all for the licence holder concerned and I can understand why the Victorian department would like to crack down on that particular operator. But, when snapper is caught as a bycatch of normal fishing operations in Bass Strait and the quantity sometimes exceeds 50 kilograms, what is the fisherman to do with that snapper? Snapper is a highly desired fish. It is highly sought after, I know, by recreational and commercial fishermen. When the 50-kilogram limit was in place, basically it meant that if you caught more than 50 kilograms you could not land it; you had to throw it away. That is not a situation we want to see in the Australian fishing industry.

The industry and the department have worked with the commercial sector and we were hoping that we could achieve a result and a revised set of rules that would overcome this issue. What we came up with under this revised set of rules is a 200-kilogram per trip catch limit on these Commonwealth licensed vessels. If you were generous you would say it is an improvement because it has gone from 50 to 200 kilograms, so obviously there is some level of improvement. But the simple fact is that, in day-to-day operations in Bass Strait, if a fisherman puts a shot out and happens to pull in 250 kilograms or 500 kilograms of snapper, we still have the same problem: he cannot land those fish in Victoria. So what is the fisherman going to do? He cannot go to Lakes Entrance because he is not allowed to land in Victoria. He does not want to throw the fish away because that is just against his moral code and professional ethics, I would say, so he will go to Eden and land the fish at Eden, where he is allowed to.

There is an inconsistency there where, if you catch the fish in Bass Strait, technically you are in strife already because you are over the 200 kilograms, unless you discard it straightaway. No fisherman is going to discard that valuable fish straightaway; they are going to motor around the corner to Eden, land the fish there and get the return on that trip. It is an inconsistency; it is a problem. It will undermine the viability of the Lakes Entrance fishing co-op if this continues. As I understand it, it is not often that you will hit a batch of snapper in excess of 200 kilograms, but if you do get onto some, you do not want to just throw them over the side. The Australian public would be horrified if they thought that we had fishermen in Bass Strait throwing good fish away just to meet a regulation. We could end up with a situation where a fisherman who may catch more than 200 kilograms will turn up at the entrance to Lakes Entrance on the incoming tide and throw the fish overboard to make a point—and that would be a horrible point to make. He will land his 200 kilograms, he will throw the other couple of hundred kilograms on the incoming tide, they will flood through the lake system and people will say, 'What's going on?'

I think we need to come up with some solutions here, and it is not going to be easy. We need to make sure the fish are not being targeted—I understand that—but we also need to make sure that we understand the practical reality in that, when you are fishing in Bass Strait, occasionally you are going to exceed that 200-kilogram limit. The industry sources are saying to me that they can come up with a solution. They say the way to approach it would be that you have an exclusion zone in the area around Port Phillip Bay where the snapper were being targeted illegally in the past. They say have an exclusion zone there—that is a way to manage the targeting of the species—but also put a requirement in place for the fishermen that you move on from a place if you catch 200 kilos. If you happen to catch 500, that is fine, but you do not continue to target that particular spot. I think, with some goodwill and some practical management between AFMA, the department and the fisheries sector, we can overcome this issue.

I thank the House for the opportunity to speak today in relation to these issues. I congratulate the parliamentary secretary in relation to the amendments which are before the House. I look forward to continuing positive dialogue between the department, the various agencies and the people on the ground. I think that we need to continue to respect the people on the ground—or in this case at sea—who have a very practical understanding of these issues and are interested in working in a very positive way to secure the long-term viability of their industry. I thank the House.