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Tuesday, 11 September 2012
Page: 10214


Mr BURKE (WatsonMinister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities) (16:35): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

Over recent weeks and months there has been heightened community concern surrounding the potential introduction of a new style of large scale fishing operation in Australian fisheries. Of particular concern has been the likely introduction of a 143-metre long vessel that has an onboard processing facility and is capable of storing more than 6,000 tonnes of fish, thus enabling it to remain fishing in Commonwealth marine areas for extended periods.

Management of fisheries is the responsibility of the relevant state, territory or Commonwealth fisheries management agency. Fisheries are assessed under national environment law—which is the Australian government's principal law for protecting the environment. Fisheries management is underpinned by the best available science, and there is a good process already in place which allows my environmental responsibilities to be properly factored into those decisions. However, the nature of this vessel and in particular its capacity to remain in the same area of ocean for extended periods of time creates new environmental issues which had not been fully contemplated when the scientific work was last done.

I sought advice from my department to determine the extent of my legal powers under current environmental law.

The advice that came back said the powers under part 10 of the act were not available to me on the evidence before us but legal powers under part 13 were.

On 3 September 2012, I accredited the relevant fishery under part 13 of the act, for an interim two-week period and subject to conditions. These initial conditions impose stringent requirements on the fishing operations of the vessel. The conditions are intended to ensure that all reasonable steps are taken to avoid interactions including mortalities of protected species, particularly seals, dolphins and seabirds. They also provide for public reporting to inform community and enable scrutiny of the operations.

These conditions were a significant improvement on the environmental standards immediately prior to me making the decision. However, they still fell short of the cautious approach which I believe is important to adopt when considering our marine resources.

As a minister I cannot go further than the legal authority which I have but as members of parliament we are free to change the law to extend those powers and that is what I propose to do today.

My concern to have a cautious approach has been shared by a large number of stakeholders. Environmental groups have an understandable interest in the potential impact on bycatch. Those who love to fish for recreational purposes have expressed concern about depletion of the fish they target and commercial fishing operators have an understandable interest in making sure that any take is both sustainable and retains community confidence.

Our environmental law is one of the few acts anywhere in the world that provides a comprehensive national approach to environmental protection and that deals with such a wide range of environment and heritage issues.

Experience over the last couple of months has however shown that the act does not provide sufficient powers to suspend a fishing activity where there is uncertainty as to the potential environmental, social and economic impacts of the activity and an assessment of those potential impacts needs to be undertaken.

The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Declared Fishing Activities) Bill would create just that ability. It would enable a process that would not only ensure ecological sustainability for our marine environment but also raise community awareness and understanding. It is important that there be mechanisms that enable community concern to be addressed and allayed. Community confidence in the legislative and administrative processes of government is a foundational pillar of civil society.

Proposed changes

The amendments propose to incorporate a new chapter into the EPBC Act that will allow the environment minister to prohibit a declared fishing activity while an independent expert panel undertakes an assessment of the potential environmental, social or economic impacts of the activity.

The provisions would only be activated if the environment minister and the fisheries minister agree that there is uncertainty about the environmental, social or economic impacts of the identified fishing activity and that further assessment is required. A final declaration would provide for prohibition of the fishing activity for no more than 24 months.

Prior to making a final declaration, I would be required to consult with fishing concession holders who may be detrimentally affected by the prohibition of the declared fishing activity over an extended period. An interim declaration will prohibit the activity for no more than 60 days while I undertake this consultation. This ensures procedural fairness for affected fishing operators.

The expert panel would need to undertake the assessment against terms of reference and their report, once made available to the environment minister, would have to be tabled in the parliament.

Closing

The changes to the EPBC Act proposed by this bill will ensure that matters of national environmental significance continue to receive the highest possible level of protection whilst affording an opportunity for significant community concerns to be addressed. The proposed changes will strengthen the EPBC Act's environmental protection regime and increase its effectiveness by facilitating more expert review of new fishing activities prior to their commencement.

The government has a strong commitment to the protection of the oceans. We have shown this in our commitment to creating national parks in the ocean, in our treatment of the Great Barrier Reef and in our approach today.

This is important for those who love the environment, love our oceans, love to fish or rely on fishing for their livelihoods.

Australia's oceans are some of the most magnificent places on earth and we will not risk them.

We cannot allow there to be a view that Australia would manage our oceans only with an eye to immediate commercial opportunities.

On issues like this the government has formed a pact with the Australian people, with those who love our oceans, love to fish in them or rely on our oceans for their livelihood.

That pact and the obligation that comes with that does not only apply to this generation but for generations to come.

Marine environments once wrecked take generations to recover, if they ever do. A precautionary approach is not only good policy; it is the only decent option.

Debate adjourned.