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Speech by the Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation at the Joint opening of 4th International Fisheries Observer Conference: Sydney Aquarium, Sydney: 8 November 2004.



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Last updated: 8 November 2004

Joint opening of 4th International Fisheries Observer Conference

Sydney Aquarium, Sydney, NSW - 8 November 2004

Welcome to Australia. I'm sure you'll find Australia's largest city - the Olympic city - an exciting place and one where you can enjoy the non-working hours; although, I guess they will be few.

It is a great honour to our nation that this is the first time this conference is being held outside North America. Fisheries management is a global challenge and, increasingly, requires international cooperation.

That conferences like this are able to attract participants from all over the world demonstrates the width of the issues confronting fisheries management, and is a recognition by industry, government and science that we need to work together to realise the outcome we want - profitable, healthy and most important to the sustainable fisheries.

The Australian Government is committed to playing its part in sustainable fisheries management; not only domestically, but as a responsible international citizen. The fact that no less than five Australian Government agencies are sponsors of this conference and, indeed, the fact that two - my own department and our research and development corporation - are major sponsors, gives an indication of our Government's support for the work you do.

On a national level our fisheries management authority, AFMA, is responsible for management observer programs in Australian controlled fisheries, and on Australian-flagged vessels on the high seas.

I note that your conference has attracted a significant group of speakers and presenters who are clearly recognised by their peers as international leaders.

You have been closely engaged in workshops today and, by the time you finish your deliberations on Thursday, there will not be much about fisheries observers and the programs and future plans, and innovations that you won't all be experts on - so I'm sure you don't need me to at this social occasion marking the opening of the conference to get too involved in the intricacies that you'll be exploring over the next three days.

I did want to; however, thank you all, the scientists, technicians, managers, who are responsible for the design management and safe delivery at sea of the fisheries observer programs throughout the world, and also to those professional observers who are in the audience.

You all do a job that is so important, and without your dedication and

commitment, the sorry state of the world's fisheries would be much, much worse.

I know you all share the challenges of a responsible fishing nation and, indeed, the modern fishing industry's to add to our knowledge of fish stocks and to ensure compliance with sustainable targets and by-catch mitigation.

Compliance observer programs help build public confidence in fisheries management and scientific observer programs provide valuable information that in turn can help improve management practices.

Observer programs help underpin public accountability and provide a measure of transparency to fisheries management. This is very important to Australia and, in our role as a very strong supporter of regional fisheries management organisations (RFMO). These RFMOs will struggle to be effective unless observer programs are in place and adequately supported.

As you'd all be aware there are particular difficulties associated with observer programs.

Observer programs are a very high cost items that impact on the efficiency and economy of the fishing industry, but where highly trained and qualified people are required to operate in safe conditions I'm not sure that there is any easy answer to the cost of the program.

But for the program to be at all effective, the independence and integrity of observers must be beyond question. I think it's safe to say that when you place an observer on a vessel for many weeks, even months, their opinions can be influenced by the views of the captain and crew, and therefore the data they collect may not always be as useful. These challenges are very much to the fore for Australia, particularly in relation to the international management of one of the few fish species that is not yet under the same sort of extreme pressure as most other fisheries in the world are experiencing.

The Patagonian toothfish, or Brazilian sea bass, or Mero, as it is referred to in other parts of the world, is a very valuable but limited species that lives in the icy waters of the Southern Ocean. The species is managed through the RFMO, in this case the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. To get an effective surveillance and enforcement regime in place has taxed the resolve of responsible nations over many years past, but I'm delighted to say that the strong efforts by Australia, New Zealand and the United States particularly over the past 12 months has at last paid dividends.

At the CCAMLR annual meeting in Hobart last week, the RFMO adopted unanimously a Centralised Vessel Monitoring System, which is anticipated to substantially reduce pirate operations in the Southern Ocean.

In the past, the sustainable catch was thought to have been in the range of 13,000 tonnes a year allocated on a very strict quota basis to participating nations. It is; however, believed that the illegal take of toothfish is almost double that and, at this rate, the species will be extinct like so many other

species around the world in a short period of time.

Australia has participated in some fairly significant and high profile chases of pirate vessels, including the chase of the Viarsa, which was brought to a successful conclusion with the help of the United Kingdom and South African authorities.

In the next couple of weeks, our Government will be launching a dedicated Southern Ocean patrol vessel at a cost of around $90 million as a further indication of our Government's seriousness to stop illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in Australia's territorial waters around Heard and McDonald Islands, part of the CCAMLR engagement area.

Stronger measures were taken with the Catch Documentation Scheme to ensure that fish marketed around the world had documentation showing their legal source. I acknowledge, in this instance, that the United States has been to the forefront of enforcing legal-only sale of toothfish and I am very grateful to them.

The recent CCAMLR meeting also took firmer action on identification of vessels both lawfully operating in the area and unlawfully.

All of these measures do; however, highlight the importance of a strong, independent and honest observer program.

I won't mention names for legal and indeed diplomatic reasons but, in one recent arrest by Australian authorities of a vessel illegally fishing in Australian waters in the Southern Ocean, there were reports that the observer on the foreign fishing vessel apprehended spent a lot of his time shooting seabirds from the bridge with the captain.

When this observer was questioned as to why he didn't report or take some action when the vessel was fishing illegally in the Australian waters he indicated he was sick in his cabin for the relevant period and didn't look out of his cabin porthole once. The gross improbability of this, shows that this observer was not doing his job.

The government of the flag state has recently changed and I suspect voters may have at least to a minor degree been influenced by the international criticism that was levelled against their country as the result of this type of dodgy activity.

I'm proud of Australia's reputation and our professional observers, but I guess we have not always been perfect. But I know that Australia, and all responsible fishing nations, are determined to ensure the integrity of their programs by designing and training for the highest professional standards of integrity and honesty. This may cost money, and it is an issue I think that governments need to work on more closely with industry to ensure the cost-effectiveness, safety and integrity of the observer plan.

I know your conference will be addressing these issues and I look forward to using your conferences conclusions to assist the observer programme worldwide. I know you'll be discussing new technologies that I believe are

crucial to the task, and I believe a major challenge for you is to integrate this new technology with people as part of future observer programs.

Can I conclude by again welcoming you to Australia, and thanking you for the work that you do to help maintain the healthy state of the fish stocks of the world?

Can I also particularly thank the NSW Department of Primary Industries for hosting and organising this conference? In particular, Dr Steve Kennelly, who has chaired the organising committee. I should also particularly thank the United States National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administrations National Marine and Fisheries Service, the international principle sponsor of this conference.

I know that NOAA and the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans have been involved in the Fisheries Observer Conferences since their inception in 1998, and I hope both of those organisations would agree by the close of Thursday that this Conference has been productive and enjoyable, and I would hope that you can repeat the words of the International Olympic Federation at the close of the 2000 Olympic Games by saying that this was the best conference ever.

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