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Standing Committee on Agriculture, Resources, Fisheries and Forestry
Role of science for the future of fisheries and aquaculture

NASH, Mr Warwick, Science Leader, Fisheries and Aquaculture, Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry

Evidence was taken via teleconference—

Committee met at 08:38

CHAIR ( Hon. DGH Adams ): Welcome to today's public hearing of the Standing Committee on Agriculture, Resources, Fisheries, and Forestry in its inquiry into the role of science for the future of fisheries and aquaculture. Today's committee will hear from representatives of the Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry by teleconference, Food Standards Australia New Zealand, the Australian Museum by teleconference, and the Commonwealth Fisheries Association.

Good morning, Warwick, and thank you for being with us. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a formal proceeding of the parliament and warrants the same respect as proceedings of the House. Giving false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. You may wish to make some introductory remarks then the committee will probably have some questions.

Mr Nash : I just scribbled these notes down this morning because I had some talking notes on my computer which decided to die on Sunday. I guess that in Queensland both fisheries and aquaculture are facing some challenges. For fisheries, it is its continued viability as an industry to provide fish for local or broader consumption and, for aquaculture, it is constraints on its expansion or sustained growth. Both fisheries and aquaculture have a bad image, portrayed as either unsustainable in the case of fishing or polluting in the case of aquaculture. To a large extent, I believe these images are not warranted.

Areas available to fishing are diminishing along the Queensland coast as areas are set aside in marine reserves. The science that promotes the value of marine reserves for supporting fishing outside the reserves needs to be questioned. Growth in fish supplies to meet increasing demand, both in Australia and globally, can only be met from aquaculture. Aquaculture in Queensland has enormous potential but is constrained to a large extent by the areas that are available to it and also by the requirement—not applied to any other primary production or other industries in Queensland—for nil net discharge into coastal waters of any new developments.

You may be aware that the Queensland government is currently reducing the size of the Public Service in all areas, including the science to do with food production. Questions around the importance of fisheries and aquaculture science; research priorities, and who should be doing the research—whether it is the state government, universities or federal science agencies such as CSIRO—are hot topics in Queensland at the moment. That is my preamble.

CHAIR: Thank you for that. The Queensland government going through the issues about its budget et cetera makes life tough for everybody. You mentioned aquaculture. Are there opportunities for aquaculture in the inland in fresh water? There seem to be real opportunities in tropical waters because of the fast growing nature of fish.

Mr Nash : We are growing a number of species here. Cobia or black kingfish is one. It is an incredibly fast-growing species that grows to five kilos or more in the first year so, in terms of producing a product to market size very quickly, it is pretty good. There is not much that grows faster than that. It is a tropical species that extends down to northern New South Wales waters and we are doing some research into it at the Bribie Island Research Centre in south-east Queensland. We are working with fish farmers in Northern Queensland where they are doing the grow out.

We have a second aquaculture research centre in Cairns The Northern Fisheries Centre. We are focusing on some grouper species. For a few years we have been focusing on the gold spot grouper which is a smaller species but in high demand throughout the Middle East and South Asia, where it fetches a high price, as well as in markets down south. More recently we have been growing Queensland giant grouper. We have succeeded in being able to get the brood stock conditioned successfully in tanks for three years running now. They just started to spawn two weeks ago for this summer. Like the cobia it is a very fast-growing species that gets a very high price in the market. The researchers up in Cairns have been working closely with some fish farmers along the Queensland coast, providing them with fingerlings so that they can grow those out on farms in fish trials to become familiar with them.

CHAIR: You mentioned aquaculture in your introductory remarks. In some quarters there seems to be an anti-aquaculture cause, and the evidence we have received is that the amount that we are taking from wild fisheries in Australia will not increase that much. It might increase some; it might go down a bit in different fisheries, depending on the health of the fisheries et cetera. Aquaculture is an area of growth. I think we import 70 per cent of our fish from other parts of the world. There must be a bit of concern about that in the science community in the sense of how we are going to get growth in aquaculture if there seems to be a culture that aquaculture is bad or there is something wrong with going down that path.

Mr Nash : That is true. I know a decision has been declared by, for example, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority that, because the nutrient loads in near-shore coastal waters are higher than they should be for healthy coral reefs, there has been a declaration that there be no further nutrient inputs into the Great Barrier Reef waters. That in itself basically sets the bar that says that any aquaculture that happens has to have zero net discharge. An observation, for a start, is that that seems to be something that is targeted at aquaculture but not at other primary industries. It is a point source polluter. In that sense it is being targeted in a way that other primary industries and other activities, such as port development, are not.

CHAIR: An easy target.

Mr Nash : It is an easy target. But despite it being singled out, recognising that it is a good thing to do to try to get to the point of having as low effluent discharge as possible, we have been working with CSIRO and the Australian Institute of Marine Science and others to try to reduce the effluent footprint of aquaculture in Queensland. I think the farmers are doing a pretty good job. For example, the prawn farmers set aside about 30 per cent of their farm area for settlement ponds. So, by the time the water passes through these in series to the last settlement pond, the water is pretty clean before it is discharged back into the environment. With the accumulation of sediment that occurs, particularly into the first of the settlement ponds, at the end of the prawn season the ponds are dried out and it is scarified so that it oxidises. Then it is just spread over the farm. So there is very low discharge into the sea anyway. There is a perception issue there. As well as that, we are trying to reduce the footprint of the effluent reduction side of farms by doing things such as creating sand filters that have got marine worms, polychaetes. It is possible to do that and reduce the footprint from about 30 per cent of the farm down to about 10 per cent. This also more efficiently removes the nutrients and the sediment than the standard settlement ponds. It also provides a by-product—marine worms—that is useful as food back to brood stock. They have got the essential fatty acids that are needed for maturation of fish. Also, they are in high demand—I do not know how much now; I think it is a couple of hundred dollars a kilo—as fish bait.

CHAIR: That is good. Of course, we should aim for world's best practice in any discharge. It is just that we are going to set the bar for the world, by the look of it.

Mr Nash : There is also recirculation technology, which has been around for some time, but it is getting better and better. That means you take in water into your tanks and you have very low levels of discharge of water or nutrients—zero nutrients—going back into the sea and you have a sludge at the bottom of your recirculation tanks that you then have to deal with. There are some very strong interests underway at the moment in setting up major recirculation technology for fin fish aquaculture in Queensland. These are things that we are supporting very strongly because we can see this as one way in which we can get past this issue about zero net discharge.

Another point that I have made in some venues is that, in some of the areas where pond based aquaculture occurs, it is right next door to sugarcane farms. Sugarcane, as part of the primary industry in Queensland, is required to provide offsets to its effluent discharge into Great Barrier Reef waters. One thing that I would like to have considered is that they set aside a portion of their areas as prawn farms, or pond based farms, because the nutrient effluent from those is far less than from an equivalent area that has been used for cane farms. Rather than looking at the discharge out of pond based aquaculture, purely in terms of the aquaculture side of things, look at it as an offset to the pollution that is produced out of the cane farms. This is another way around it: look at the net benefits that by using pond based aquaculture as an offset to sugarcane farms.

Mr SCHULTZ: I have just a couple of general questions. I think you have answered some of the thoughts I had to some extent. Queensland seems to be well advanced in terms of the science around aquaculture. You mentioned the groper and the different species of cod that you are undertaking research on, as far as aquaculture is concerned. Is this a dual exercise, where you are not only looking to preserve the species from pressure but you are also opening up a market for commercial processing of the species?

Mr Nash : I would say that for those species there is not much evidence that they are under any pressure from fishing, or excessive pressure from fishing. If there is pressure on them, it may be environmental. Particularly in coastal waters, there are some impacts that are occurring, particularly in areas of port developments. We are not looking at aquaculture as a means of boosting the numbers of those species.

I forgot to mention that in Queensland we also have had cage culture in coastal waters. Inside Hinchinbrook Channel there was a farm called Bluewater Barramundi which was producing, on something like four hectares, the equivalent of the total production of the wild barramundi fisheries. That gives you some idea about the levels of production you can have when you have fairly intensive farming. A survey that was done of the waters under those cages and around those cages a few years ago by the Australian Institute of Marine Science showed, basically, that there was no significant environmental footprint under those cages.

Nigel Preston from CSIRO, who runs the Food Futures Flagship and is in charge of CSIRO research on aquaculture, has made the point on many occasions that a measure of sustainability would be that, once the activity has stopped, if you went back three months later you would not be able to find a signal of that farm having been there. It has been proposed that, since that farm was destroyed by Cyclone Yasi about 19 months ago, it would have been good to go back and do the study of the sediment underneath, but, unfortunately, funds could not be found by those who do that work.

Mr SCHULTZ: On another issue, we talk about the Great Barrier Reef, and there has been a significant amount of pressure from offshore by groups such as PETA, which has created a massive reaction within the industry itself. I am not sure whether they are totally focused on protecting the reef or just focused on shutting down the fishing industry. We have seen many attacks on the reef over the years. The crown-of-thorns starfish is an example of what I am talking about. There is coral bleaching and all sorts of alarmist comments are made about the impact that these things are having on the reef as distinct from the impact that man himself is having on the reef and its fish species. Would you like to comment on your observation of the reef and the pressure that it has allegedly been under in the past? Is it deteriorating, holding its own or recovering?

Mr Nash : That is a difficult one for me to answer because I just do not have much detailed information about the reef itself. I did some surveys back in the late 1970s up on Lizard Island off Cairns and about five years later I went back after the crown of thorns had come through and there was a marked degradation of the habitat there. But I hesitate to draw any conclusions from that, because that was just one small place with a localised event. I know that there are those sorts of impacts. I know that there is a general observation made by people who work in fishery science that the biggest threats to our fisheries, whether in the Great Barrier Reef waters or other places, is not so much from overfishing but habitat degradation. That probably is a reflection of what the greatest threats are to the Great Barrier Reef itself—from habitat modification, habitat degradation. Most of the impacts are coming from inputs from the coastal land, whether that is port development or land-based agriculture or urban development.

Mr SCHULTZ: I have just one final question. The chairman raised the issue of fish imports into this country, which are sitting around 70 per cent. They are imports, I might add, coming from countries that are suspect in terms of biosecurity. What confidence does the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry in Queensland have in the current biosecurity system in this country?

Mr Nash : I am not sure exactly. I do not represent the department in that area so I really could not comment. But I do know that in terms of prawns, for example, some of the major diseases that exist in prawn aquaculture overseas do not exist in Australia, and the only way to ensure that those diseases do not get in here is not to allow any prawn product in that is not cooked. Freezing is not sufficient to kill it, and obviously live imports do not help. They are the sorts of requirements that need to be put on the imports and those requirements need to be supported by the vigilance of the Biosecurity officers to ensure that they are supported.

Mr SCHULTZ: Thank you very much, Warwick. I am sure that some of my colleagues would like to ask some questions as well.

Mr LYONS: I guess I have two points of interest. It has been some time since a prawn farm has been commenced in Queensland, and maybe your comments explain the reason for that. The other one is: what work has been done by your department or in your state in creating food for fish in terms of aquaculture? I wonder whether you would like to comment on that.

Mr Nash : No doubt you will have heard that aquaculture faces the problem that if you grow a tonne of fish it takes somewhere between a tonne and three tonnes of food that contains fishmeal or fish oils to produce that, and that is brought in from the wild. I think that the CSIRO is doing some fantastic work particularly in the nutrition area. We work closely with CSIRO but we are not doing nutrition work ourselves. CSIRO is doing really good work in terms of trying to find alternatives to fishmeal and fish oil in foods that do not, at the same time, reduce the quality of fish for human consumption in terms of their essential fatty acids. As well is that, they have had a major breakthrough in terms of a food additive for crustacean feeds that increases the efficiency of the assimilation or uptake or metabolism from the food they do eat so that the growth rates increase by an enormous amount. Those combined things—looking at food additives to increase the efficiency of assimilation and finding alternatives to fish meals in the diet—are the sorts of things that need to happen if there is going to be sustainable aquaculture into the future.

Obviously if you are growing species that live low down in the food chain that need algae, you are in a better position because you do not need to be producing fish food out of fish itself to be feeding those fish. One of the best examples there is tilapia, but that is a pest species here so it is not likely to get grown in the near future. But it certainly is overseas.

Otherwise, the potential in Australia is going to be through increasing the efficiency and quality of the research we do in making advances in reducing the quantity of fish meal and fish oil in the diet.

Mr LYONS: What are your comments on prawn farms? Is there any particular reason why they have not expanded?

Mr Nash : There are two things. The stringent requirement for nil net discharge has discouraged farmers from engaging in the processes, particularly for one farmer who applied it took more than 10 years to get the approvals and it was very costly. Another part of it was that under the Queensland coastal plan, which has not progressed quickly, it has not been clear that there have been areas set aside for aquaculture. Until there is a discussion between the environment sectors of government and the aquaculture sectors of government, it is difficult to plan for future areas in Queensland to where aquaculture can expand.

CHAIR: Could we do the current research funding structure better in Australia? Would we work out in the process? We have people at university and people who come to do a PhD in a certain fishery and then go on from there. Is there another way we could restructure setting the priorities for fishing research?

Mr Nash : There are two components there. One is setting priorities and the other is who does the research once the priorities have been set. Generally what happens at the state level is that because most of our fisheries here are state based, the priorities around the research needs to support the fisheries and aquaculture are made within the various industry sectors in combination with the state government departments. There is a difficulty there which is that it is more difficult than it used to be. A few years ago in relation to fisheries there used to be various management advisory committees. The members of those were the fisheries scientists from the government, representatives of the particular fisheries sectors, and they worked together, met periodically and had a common vision about the issues and problems. Out of that, it became fairly easy to identify the research priorities.

Prior to the previous election in Queensland, a directive was given that there needed to be some cost savings and efficiencies made by reducing or removing the numbers of committees—there were hundreds of government committees in Queensland. Out of that process, the management advisory committees and other committees associated with working out research priorities in Queensland were a casualty.

Since then, it has been made more difficult to have formal meetings between government and the different sectors to work out and identify the research priorities. At the moment, the priority setting process for funding for the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation is that there is a Queensland Fishery Research Advisory Board. The different sectors plus the government submit their priorities to that board. The process is not working very well at all at the moment. To be more effective, it would be useful if something like the previous management advisory committees were re-established. I have little optimism that that is likely to happen, given the current focus on reducing costs, but it needs to be considered if we are going to be developing more accurate, more reliable and more useful lists of priorities for the different research in fisheries and aquaculture.

In terms of the execution of it, I think the national R&D priorities forum framework process that is currently being set up is a useful one. It helps to look across the country to see where research capability exists area by area. It may not be necessary for the research groups within a state to be doing the research that has been identified as a priority within that state. I am involved in that process on the research providers network. What we have done is to identify the different research agencies who would play a major research role in a number of different research priority areas.

Queensland has declared its position in playing a major role. To some extent, that is now in question because we will have to wait until the budget is handed down to see whether we continue to have strength in fisheries and aquaculture research that will allow us to continue to play a major role. At the moment, we are not sure where that is going to go. Also, through the national framework process, the universities are part of that. It has been difficult to bring all the different universities that play a role in fisheries and aquaculture into that national framework process effectively, but I think governments see the universities as a place where research can be done if they disinvest from research themselves. For that reason alone, if for no other, the relationship between the state government researchers and the university research groups needs to be fostered and maintained so that the universities can pick up what the state government no longer can do, but it needs to be done in a way where there is good understanding by the universities about what the research needs are.

One of the problems that we have with doing research is that a lot of the work that we do is, for example, in fisheries stock assessment, where we gather information year after year from the fish stocks. That feeds into an ongoing stock assessment process that happens every year; for our major fisheries we do a major stock assessment review every three or four years. That sort of research is not groundbreaking research that can be published in the top-level science journals. Universities to a large extent get funded by the quality of the research that they do and the number of papers they have in those high-level journals. So, to some extent, the type of research that is needed for the states to be able to have their fisheries going into the future is not the sort of work that is attractive to universities. There needs to be a continued role for state government research agencies to be able to do the sort of research into the future.

CHAIR: We have received several submissions that suggest a national fisheries authority or standardised fishing legislation around Australia. They also talk about databases, where people's research is on the national database so that people know what research is taking place around the country. I would like you to comment on that point. Also, people have raised the possibility of standardised fishing legislation and regulations around the nation. It already occurs in some states. In one state's legislation there may be a maximum legal catch size, while the state next door has a different standard. It is a bit behind the eight-ball to have that sort of legislation in our country.

Mr Nash : I used to work in the abalone fishery in Tasmania. One of the striking things about that fishery is that you have abalone growing to different sizes in different parts of the state and reaching sexual maturity at different sizes. So a single size limit for the different areas of the state just did not make sense because, for a given size limit, you had populations that were not protected at all—they had not had a chance to reproduce at all before they entered the fishery—and in other areas they would have been reproducing for many years before they entered the fishery.

I think the same pattern applies to some of our fisheries along the eastern coast of Australia.

I think that any decision about whether or not to make the standards uniform—for example, around size limits—needs to be based on their biology.

CHAIR: Generally, I accept the science of that and the logic of act. But, going to where other differences in management et cetera apply, through COAG or ministerial councils could we work towards a more standardised process maybe on registration, because boats and fishermen sometimes fish across borders?

Mr Nash : Yes, I think so. I think there is a lot of merit in that. As for one of the things that it would do, I am thinking of examples that we have of fisheries that are shared between Queensland and New South Wales. If we had similar approaches then it would make it easier for us to be jointly assessing our fish stocks, where these are shared, than it currently is. Also, on your first question on whether databases should be national or not, I have a strong belief that states have ultimate responsibility in some ways and an ultimate interest in some of the data that are gathered around their fisheries but I think that information needs to be made available more broadly so that it can be joined with data from other states and also be examined by other fisheries scientists. So I am thinking about that not just between the state government agencies but between universities and state government agencies as well. I think one of the problems that sometimes appear to exist with data that are gathered from universities is that they are reluctant to divulge it until they have published their key papers out of that data. Sometimes that can be several years down the track. When using that data and adding to the data that are held by the state governments, it is important to be able to get the time series trends that are otherwise unavailable if the universities do not provide that data.

CHAIR: I take your point. I indicate to you that I was not saying that that should be controlled by the Commonwealth or anything; it was just about having it available, given who owns it on a shared basis. So it was about having the information available for collaborative processes right through our nation. That is where I was coming from. A question I have asked many scientists is this: taking Australia's competitive advantage in aquaculture, can you give us any indication of what you think that might be?

Mr Nash : Quality—quality of product. I know, from talking to people who sell product particularly in Asia and the Middle East, that as soon as they find out that there is an Australian producer that is the product they want. The products that are coming out of parts of Asia are seen as being of poor quality and of questionable production having used chemicals or having been grown under poor conditions. I know, for example, with Cobia that is grown in Australia, there is a demand for it in places where Cobia is also grown. That is because the local people do not want to eat it. People consume product because they know how it is grown. I think that is where Australia has got the biggest advantage, to sell high-quality aquaculture product that has been grown sustainably and well.

CHAIR: That comes back to our science as well, doesn't it?

Mr Nash : It does. It is the science plus the standards that are set here plus the rigorous enforcement of standards.

CHAIR: Warwick, thanks very much for your time. We do appreciate it. Please thank your minister on our behalf. We appreciate that. We hope that our report will be useful for everybody.

Mr Nash : Thank you for the opportunity.