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Wednesday, 8 December 2004
Page: 202

Mr GAVAN O'CONNOR (4:32 PM) —The Australian fishing industry is one of our great regional industries, and I am very pleased to speak on the Fisheries (Validation of Plans of Management) Bill 2004. As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker Quick, I have been to your electorate on many occasions, and the fishery industry is very important to Tasmania and to many electorates in that state. All across Australia the fishing industry sustains communities, generates income and creates employment. It is an industry with a gross value of production of around $2.3 billion annually from a total catch of 249,000 tonnes, and $1.84 billion worth of product is exported. So it is a very significant industry indeed.

The primary focus of this legislation is the management plans that enable sustainable fisheries to be put in place for the benefit of the nation, for our domestic consumption and for exporters. The fishing industry generates economic activity worth about $10 billion, much of it in the coastal regions of Australia. Australia's fish catch is worth $856 million. Other key commodities include rock lobsters, which are worth $460 million annually; prawns, which are worth $355 million; tuna, which is worth $305 million; and abalone, which is worth $212 million.

While fish farming and aquaculture play an important, valuable and growing role in this industry—including in my electorate of Corio—the basis of the vast bulk of the industry remains the commercial exploitation of the fish stocks around our coastline and in the oceans. These resources are important community assets, for which there are competing uses such as Indigenous fishers and recreational fishers as well as the commercial industry. It is therefore vital that they be managed in an effective and sustainable way.

Management of our fisheries is a responsibility shared between the Commonwealth and the states, and the federal agency charged with this responsibility is of course AFMA, the Australian Fisheries Management Authority. Labor set up AFMA back in 1992 with the statutory responsibility for the efficient management of Commonwealth fisheries. These are largely fisheries on the high seas within the 200 nautical mile Australian fishing zone. The chief tool that is used by AFMA to regulate Commonwealth fisheries is the development and issuing of plans of management.

The Fisheries (Validation of Plans of Management) Bill 2004 makes a number of amendments to the Fisheries Management Act 1991 designed to ensure that certain decisions made by the Director or Acting Director of AFMA are not open to legal challenge. This bill makes it clear that decisions taken by the Director of AFMA prior to June 2003 to revoke or amend plans of management are valid and should be taken as having the same effect as if the determination were made by AFMA itself. A legal audit of the operations of the Fisheries Management Act last year identified a small risk—nevertheless one that must be attended to in legislation—that it may be possible to challenge decisions made by the Director or Acting Director of AFMA in relation to plans of management. This bill closes off any opportunity to challenge those decisions. While the risk of a successful challenge was always slight, the consequences for the industry of a successful challenge could have been great.

Our fish stocks are indeed important community assets, and it is important that the community can have confidence in the structures put in place to manage them. It is also important that the community has confidence in the procedures and practices put in place to protect our fish stocks from those who have no respect for structures or management plans. I was deeply concerned to learn earlier this week that last Friday the minister responsible for fisheries, Senator Ian Macdonald, the Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation, admitted to the Natural Resource Management Ministerial Council—and I quote from the document that was distributed by the minister to the council—that:

Illegal fishing activity appears to be increasing in Australian fisheries.

This honest assessment of a very disturbing situation, given in private to a ministerial council, completely contradicts the public stance taken by the minister. We of course know the capacity of illegal fishers to greatly upset the carefully considered management plans that are the subject of discussion in this particular bill.

Since taking over responsibility for fisheries, Senator Ian Macdonald has issued 134 press releases claiming victory over illegal fishers, with titles such as `We are winning the war'—this sounds a bit like Iraq—`on illegal fishing' and `Illegal fishers cop a caning'. I think they have been slapped with the wet fish there. Nevertheless, we have two positions from the minister: one for public consumption that we are winning the war against illegal fishing; and an honest, frank, private admission that, far from winning the war, the situation is actually getting worse.

We are debating a bill here today that gives certainty to the plans of management issued by AFMA, but valid plans of management cannot achieve their aim of ensuring that our fish stocks are managed sustainably when illegal fishing is becoming more common. It is typical of the government that they maintain one position in public, that they are winning the war against illegal fishing, and another in private, that the position is getting worse. When Labor raised this matter in question time in the Senate yesterday, the minister maintained the fiction that the government are still winning the war against illegal fishers and then turned around and admitted that the situation in our northern waters is getting worse.

We know that there is a catch and release policy up there with regard to illegal fishers on the part of the government, but the minister is trying to have it both ways on illegal fishing. Effective sustainable management of our fisheries requires not only that appropriate legislative and management structures are put in place—and that is what we are on about here today—but also that our waters are effectively policed to put a halt to illegal fishing. I understand that the piece of legislation we are discussing has the support of the major associations that represent the interests of the fishing industry.

Everyone concedes the necessity of well considered and developed management plans for the sustainability of our fisheries resources. Fishers, people in the value-adding chain, coastal communities and local, state and federal governments all agree that these management plans are necessary. However, it is not only the plan itself that is important; how it is developed is critical to the general industry and public acceptance of the plan in its implementation phase. To be accepted by all stakeholders, any management plan must reflect not only good sustainability principles but also integrity in the process of development.

Following the election, I travelled to Ayr in Queensland and held discussions with Mr Neil Green, the Senior Vice-President of the Queensland Seafood Industry Association. In the course of our discussions, he outlined his far-reaching concerns about the consultation processes of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority—commonly known as GBRMPA—in the development of the representative area program. Mr Green has 31 years in the industry: 20 years in commercial fishing and 11 years in the wholesale and retail aspects of this industry which is very important to his community. He knows a bit about the industry and he knows about the players. He said that his family has fished in the Ayr region for a long period of time; they know it intimately, and they have fished to sustain the resource and have complied with previous management plans designed to give legal effect to the sustainability of the resource.

Mr Green had a lot to say about the consultation processes of GBRMPA and the development of the representative areas in his community. He claimed that fishing has been condensed into very small areas as a result of the management plan that has been developed and that this will inevitably lead to some overfishing in other areas. I think we need to understand this dimension of the sustainability argument. It is all very well to develop a management plan, but when that management plan has the effect of displacing effort into another fishery and putting pressure on it, then we may have compromised the sustainability objective. Mr Green also had some very real concerns about the government's compensation package and the emphasis that is being placed on licence buybacks. According to Mr Green, not enough emphasis is being placed on the loss of income and compensation for capital equipment items by fishers.

The whole tenor of the discussions that I had with Mr Green was that the consultation processes in the development of the management plan really lacked some integrity. I think it is a shame when people in an industry, who have contributed to it for most of their lifetimes, as have their parents, are faced with a consultation process that, at the end of the day, they have little confidence in. I think that is a real shame, and it is an indictment of the processes that have grown up around the development of these very important management plans that we are debating in this legislation.

I certainly hope that as government members raise this matter, as I am doing in this debate today, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority pays more attention to and treats more seriously its consultative processes, takes on board the advice of those key stakeholders who know the fisheries which are under discussion intimately and incorporates their sensible suggestions in the management plans. Only then can we get a consensus between the stakeholders in those communities. Such a consensus will enable these management plans to be effectively implemented without adverse implications either for the fishing industry or the communities in which it operates.

I have said it before and I say it again: these management plans are very important to creating sustainability in these fisheries. However, they must be developed through a consultation process that takes due account of the good advice and the extensive knowledge that is possessed by the fishers in the local communities. They are the ones who know intimately the capacity of the fishery under discussion. They know the areas in which they fish. They know the areas they need to leave alone. Their knowledge should be a prime source for any authority in the development of any management plan.

This is a very important amendment bill that we are discussing here today. The legal audit brought to the attention of the government that a failure to act as we are acting today through this legislation may well compromise these very important management plans, plans that at the end of the day must ensure the sustainability of these particular resources. The opposition will be supporting the bill.