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Tuesday, 30 November 2004
Page: 3

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) (12:33 PM) —I thank both Senator O'Brien and Senator Greig for their contributions to the second reading debate on the Fisheries (Validation of Plans of Management) Bill 2004. Senator O'Brien has given a precis of the purposes of the bill, and I will try not to take up the time of the Senate by repeating the content of it. Suffice it to say that I appreciate the support for it; it involves a fairly technical issue. The government is advised by AFMA that there is no real problem with plans of management, but a legal audit determined that there was some very minor doubt, which we want to put to rest by passing this bill, thus validating plans of management that have been dealt with in the past.

In concluding the debate, I want to comment on a couple of the issues that Senator Greig raised in his contribution. They were not directly related to the bill, but he raised some issues about fisheries management generally that I think require a response. He mentioned the super trawler Veronica, about which, I have to say, any number of left-wing candidates tried to make an issue during the election campaign. On all occasions, as I kept saying at the time, no formal application had been made by the connections of the Veronica to do anything in Australia. If there had been, there would have been quite a long process to go through, but that did not stop some of the Labor candidates trying to beat it up. I have to say that even my namesake in New South Wales, with whom I have a very close working relationship, did not mind having a bit of a chop—

Senator George Campbell —He doesn't tell us that.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I do not want to destroy him by giving away any secrets, but we do get on rather well. As I always say to him, I think sometimes you lefties in the Labor Party are more genuine to your cause than some of your right factional brethren, and I say to Mr Ian Macdonald, the New South Wales minister, that, whilst I do not always agree with his politics, I think he is genuine in his approach to the work that he does. But he could not help having a bit of a chop on this issue because he thought it might help a couple of the Labor candidates in the federal election and, by gee, as events have shown, they needed every bit of help that they could get. Unfortunately, even the help of my namesake in New South Wales did not make much difference to the outcome.

Having said that—and I know Senator Greig will find that very interesting—I want to confirm for Senator Greig that the AFMA board has recently decided to adopt individual transferable quotas in the small pelagic fishery as the key management measure for the fishery. However, the freeze on boat nominations announced in September will continue until the board receives advice from the independent advisory panel on the allocation of statutory fishing rights in the fishery. The method of allocating fishing rights will be considered as part of the development of the statutory management plan of the fishery, and a final decision on the allocation is expected in June next year. The decision to maintain the freeze reflects AFMA's concern about the possibility of rapid overcapitalisation in the fishery, so the entry of any new vessels to be used in the small pelagic fishery against existing permits continues to be disallowed.

The uncertainty of the stock levels and the increased interest in the small pelagic fishery were noted by AFMA. AFMA has, accordingly, issued an investment warning for the fishery effective from 6 July. The status of the target species in the small pelagic fishery is uncertain and stocks are currently managed under precautionary trigger catch levels that range from 100 to 9,000 tonnes for different species in each zone of the fishery. Once the trigger catch level is reached fishing ceases for the rest of the season. It can only be recommenced once the AFMA board has considered any new scientific advice and has consulted with stakeholder groups.

I simply conclude on the Veronica issue, Senator Greig, by indicating, as I did when I was asked to comment publicly, that no application had been made to any Australian government agency. If a foreign boat wants to fish and operate in Australian waters it has to go through any number of agencies. It had not made formal application to any of them, as I am advised. I am in a position where courts and others can look at the words that I say in relation to these issues, so I do not want to pre-empt anything that anyone might do at some time in the future. I have indicated, though, that, as far as the government is concerned, if that particular vessel fishes in a way it is alleged to have fished in the Northern Hemisphere, the government would be very concerned about it operating in a similar way in Australian waters.

As Senator Greig would know, however, fisheries management in Australia is run by an independent statutory authority—and I think for good reasons; I do not think politicians and ministers should be involved in managing fairly technical things like fisheries—but if it became appropriate, I would not hesitate to consider some legislative support for the prospect of keeping all of our fisheries in a good condition.

Senator Greig also referred in his speech to `the lack of any mention of domestic management planning or environmental assessment in the government's 2004 election fisheries policy'. We did not mention that because it was relevant to previous election commitments. Senator Greig well knows that all export fisheries, including state managed fisheries, have to get an environmental assessment under the EPBC Act. They are being done. Some of them have taken longer than anticipated and they have been given extensions of time by the environment minister, but we are proceeding with those as quickly as possible and I am quite confident that we will achieve that aim and have those plans with the appropriate assessments under the EPBC Act.

Senator Greig mentioned overfishing of various species of fish and said that the Bureau of Rural Sciences—which, I hasten to add, is an element of my department: it is part of the government—has assessed some of the fisheries as overfished. AFMA is aware of that and is endeavouring to correct those problems. It does take some time, though, to convert a fishery with an overfished status to a `ticked' status, if I can call it that. The redevelopment of fisheries does take a period of time. Those that have been identified as overfished are being worked on by AFMA and I am confident that, given a number of years, as is required, we will get those fisheries back to a very healthy state. AFMA is very much aware of that and the government is very much aware of that. That is our goal and we are proceeding towards that.

Senator Greig also mentioned some issues associated with bycatch. Again, it is something the government are very concerned about and we are working with the industry to get bycatch action plans in place and to appropriately deal with the issue. I share Senator Greig's concern and the fishing industry share Senator Greig's concern. The fishing industry are in fact leading the charge to ensure that all of our fisheries are sustainable and that bycatch is addressed in the appropriate way.

Finally, Senator Greig mentioned a speech I made in Cairns yesterday morning and the press release I issued about it. He has misquoted me in reference to the `light hand on the tiller'. What I said was:

The Australian Government wants to keep a very light hand on the tiller to ensure that all responsibilities that relate to the management of Australia's fisheries resource, and the required accountability to the Australian public, are met.

We want to make sure that the fisheries are run properly. Having done that, we then do not think that governments are the right people to run the fishing industry; we think the fishing industry are the right people to operate the fishing industry and to direct it. Fishermen are very responsible; they understand the questions of sustainability and they will continue to manage the fishery properly. We think it is appropriate that the fishing industry itself should direct the business of fishing. We intend to keep an eye on the accountability issues and ensure the appropriate management of fisheries resources. Having said that, can I again thank all senators who have contributed to this debate and thank them for their support for the bill.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.