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Thursday, 21 June 2007
Page: 143

Senator STERLE (5:20 PM) —The incorporated speech read as follows—

Mr President, Senator O’Brien has outlined in great detail Labor’s position on the Fisheries Legislation Amendment Bill 2007.

As a Senator from Western Australia, which has a vast coastline, subject to encroachment from illegal fishers, I rise to make just a few brief comments on this Bill.

As part of my parliamentary duties I have been in close contact with key stakeholders in the Australian fishing industry.

They have included, representatives of the Australian commercial fishing sector, members of remote Indigenous fishing communities who rely on fishing for their economic sustainability—like the community of One Arm Point and Government officials engaged in monitoring and managing fishing stocks and border control matters.

These contacts have given me insight into the damaging impact on Australian fisheries from the peril that is foreign illegal fishing.

This Bill primarily focuses on amending the Torres Strait Fisheries Act 1984 to ensure that Torres Strait fisheries can be managed consistent with contemporary Australian Government fisheries policy.

The Bill also includes extensive technical and other amendments to the Fisheries Management Act 1991, the Fisheries Administration Act 1991 (FAA) and the Surveillance Devices Act 2004.

The amendments to these later Acts will of course apply to the management of foreign illegal fishing and border control measures along Western Australia’s coastline.

As an initial comment it strikes me as rather odd that it has taken so long for these amendments to be made to Australia’s obviously defective fisheries and border control laws.

The problem of foreign illegal fishing and the control of Australia’s northern coastline is not a new issue. The tardiness of the Howard Government’s action is just another sign that the northern parts of Australia often get scant attention from the CBD centric Leadership.

So, here we go again. We are dealing with a problem not only after the horse has bolted but when it is well and truly out of the paddock.

Prosecuting authorities are encountering significant hurdles to achieve successful prosecution of illegal foreign fishers found in Australian waters.

Further, existing legislation often puts in doubt the legal position in regard to the confiscation of fishing equipment found on illegal foreign fishing vessels in Australian waters.

It has therefore been necessary for some time to bring forward extensive amendments to fisheries and border control legislation yet the Howard Government have dragged their feet.

Federal Labor inquired extensively into the issue of illegal foreign fishing in 2006 and publicly released a report addressing the key issues.

The consensus within the fishing industry at that time was that the Howard Government had failed their industry and in a majority of cases, family businesses were being destroyed by illegal foreign fishing.

Throughout the country, the industry told Labor that it had tried for many years to play its part in the containment of illegal fishing by regularly reporting sightings of illegal boats, but the lack of feedback or action by the Howard Government had left the industry feeling that the authorities no longer cared.

The industry also raised the impossibility of managing a fishery in a sustainable way when the size of the illegal catch is unknown and control over the illegal catch is non-existent.

While there appears to have been a lull in foreign illegal fishing apprehensions since a run of them last year, this problem has not gone away.

We know that there continues to be a ramping up of the sophistication of foreign illegal fishing operations world-wide.

In the vicinity of Western Australia for example, there is still concern among legitimate commercial fishers about illegal fishing activities in the area known as the MOU box.

The MOU box relates to an undertaking entered into in 1974 between Australia and Indonesia to permit Indonesian traditional fisherman access to a box shaped area in the locality of the Ashmore Islands, Scott Reef and Browse Reed within Australia’s exclusive economic zone.

The current concerns are that not only have foreign illegal fisherman been encroaching into the MOU box using sophisticated fishing equipment but they are also using the MOU box to make forays into the adjoining Australian fisheries zone.

This activity is contributing to the decimation of the important shark fishery in Australian waters off the far North West of Western Australia.

There continues to be a large shortfall in the Government’s response to foreign illegal fishing and border control in Northern Australia.

Labor’s believes that a successful approach to halting illegal fishing requires a national strategy which is built around a high level of co-operation between all levels of Government, agencies and stakeholders.

Now we will hear from those across the chamber that this is not true, “we’ve done this” and “we’ve done that”.

Mr President, it’s all smoke and mirrors.

At Senate Estimates hearings in May this year Senator O’Brien, questioned Senator Abetz on why the Government had reduced it’s fisheries enforcement spending.

At the same time as there had been a 16% reduction in spending on domestic fisheries enforcement, the AFMA reported that the number of “overfished” fisheries was on the rise.

Senator Abetz responded and I quote:

“Look, there undoubtedly are a whole host of reasons as AFMA have indicated…I haven’t heard any complaints from the fishing sector that AFMA were being too soft or not pursuing investigations or prosecutions with sufficient rigour…”

I wonder whether the State Ministers for fisheries would have the same off-hand view about the AFMA’s statistics on the state of Australia’s declining fish stocks due to overfishing?

Somehow I don’t think they would.

I suspect Senator Abetz hasn’t heard any complaints because he has simply chosen not to listen.

This sounds like the Howard Government has lapsed back into its complacent attitude about the state of the Australian fishing industry that has been a trade mark for 11 years.

Because of the Howard Government’s ongoing neglect of the relationship between the different jurisdictional fishing authorities—they have severely hampered the effectiveness of Australia’s efforts.

This Bill provides for greater capacity for the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) to collect information.

The amendments also provide for regulations to be made to cover the details of the sharing of information collected by AFMA.

However, the AFMA will have delegation in respect to who it is willing to share this information with.

There is no indication at this stage that the AFMA intends to enter into formal undertakings with state fisheries authorities for mutual exchange of vital information on illegal fisheries and fisheries management. And without this, many of the existing problems will not be addressed properly.

The Western Australian Minister for Fisheries, has advised me that albeit that the wider collection of information by the AFMA is welcomed, he has serious concern about the state’s access to this information.

The fear is, and I suspect other states will have similar misgivings, that the security classification placed on this information by the AFMA and the manner in which the decisions are made about the dissemination of the information may preclude it being available to other jurisdictions.

Mr President, I would like to make some comment on the Government’s plan to establish the AFMA as a commission, which is not part of this Bill but is nonetheless relevant to this debate.

Mr President, I am concerned that with the establishment of a fisheries commission this could lead to increased separation between the state and commonwealth jurisdictions in respect of fisheries management, which would be a step backwards.

I would therefore be very appreciative if the Minister could, as part of this debate, give an assurance that the creation of the commission will in fact improve communications.

Mr President, the management of fisheries in this country is the responsibility of both State and Federal Governments.

This responsibility can only be effectively met however, if there is untrammelled co-operation between all jurisdictions.

These are uncertain times for the sustainability of our fishing stocks and fishing industry, and it is crucial that foreign fishers who illegally enter Australian waters be caught.

Thank you.