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Wednesday, 4 June 2008
Page: 4597

Dr WASHER (4:48 PM) —The main purposes of the Fisheries Legislation Amendment (New Governance Arrangements for the Australian Fisheries Management Authority and Other Matters) Bill 2008 are, firstly, to amend the governance arrangements of the Australian Fisheries Management Authority; secondly, to strength the enforcement provisions of the Fisheries Management Act 1991; and, finally, to enhance the enforcement provisions to take action against foreign vessels contravening international management measures.

The governance arrangements proposed by the bill are in accordance with the recommendations of the Uhrig review. This review was commissioned by the previous government for the purpose of improving the performance of statutory authorities without compromising their duties. The Australian Fisheries Management Authority is a statutory authority responsible for the efficient management and sustainable use of Commonwealth fish resources. It manages fisheries from three nautical miles out to the extent of the Australian fishing zone, on the high seas and in some cases, by agreement with the states, to the low water mark. The Australian fishing zone is the third largest in the world, covering nearly nine million square kilometres. It extends out to 200 nautical miles from the Australian coastline and includes the waters surrounding our external territories, such as Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean and Heard and McDonald Islands in the Antarctic.

The authority manages more than 20 Commonwealth fisheries, which are worth nearly $500 million in production value and generate more than 72,000 tonnes of catch annually. The largest of these by value are the Northern Prawn Fishery, the Southern Bluefin Tuna Fishery, the Eastern Tuna and Billfish Fishery, the Commonwealth Trawl Sector and the Southern and Eastern Scalefish and Shark Fishery, which provides much of the table fish for the east coast. Currently its operation is overseen by an eight-member board of directors. This bill would replace this board with a commission involving a chairman and a limit of eight commissioners, including a CEO. The commission would be responsible for domestic fisheries management and the CEO would be responsible for foreign compliance matters. These foreign compliance matters will be reported directly to the minister. Provisions also include requiring commissioners to disclose any conflict of interest.

The bill widens a number of definitions to broaden the application of the Fisheries Management Act 1991. The act will then encompass references to fish stocks by any prescribed fisheries management organisation and not just the UN Fish Stocks Agreement. Australia is a key member of a number of international and regional fisheries and fisheries related forums, such as the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna, the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, the Convention for the Conservation and Management of Highly Migratory Fish Stocks in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean and the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. This more comprehensive framework will enable authorised officers to exercise their powers more broadly to enforce these other international fisheries agreements or arrangements—that is, under certain circumstances it will allow the boarding and inspection of foreign vessels not only in Australian waters but also on the high seas or in the waters of a foreign country.

Australia’s fishing industry is rated as our fifth largest food-producing industry. Fish are a major industry for Australia, worth more than $2.2 billion to our economy each year. Fish are also a healthy source of food, with Australians consuming around 16 kilograms of fish and seafood per person per year, purchased from fish markets, supermarkets and food outlets. The impact of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing on this industry is significant and extensive. Within each of our states a number of our marine species are on the verge of extinction, with illegal fishing aggravating the situation. The Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts periodically releases a priority assessment list of threatened species and ecological communities. This list includes the green sawfish and the southern bluefin tuna, both common targets of illegal fishing. The list also includes the dugong, marine turtles and the manta ray in Queensland waters, the western blue groper and the harlequin fish in southern Australia, the spotted handfish and the freshwater lobster in Tasmania, and the grey nurse shark in Victoria. The populations of these endangered species can be controlled with sustainable fishing practices. However, illegal fishing could cause a collapse of these fisheries. Other endangered members of the marine ecosystem, such as the albatross, are also placed at risk by illegal fishing.

Illegal fishing in the Australian fishing zone around Heard and McDonald Islands is threatening the sustainability of fisheries in this area. A prime target is the endangered but highly valuable patagonian toothfish. In 2000, around half the total trade of patagonian toothfish was illegal catch. In our northern waters, sharks, trochus and trepang stocks are being seriously damaged in the ‘memorandum of understanding box’ around the Ashmore and Cartier reefs and their surroundings due to illegal motorised Indonesian vessels. The problem of illegal fishing in Australia grew steadily over the last few years, with the number of illegal fishing vessels apprehended increasing by 250 per cent between 1999 and 2005. During the 2005-06 year there was a further 80 per cent increase. However, in 2006-07 there was a 58 per cent drop in sightings of foreign fishing vessels by the Australian Customs Service. In the first six months of 2007 alone there was a 90 per cent drop in sightings in our northern waters. This success has been attributed to the whole-of-government approach taken by the previous government to combat illegal fishing. As stated by Peter Venslovas, a regional director at the Australian Fisheries Management Authority:

What we are seeing is a real turnaround in the number of fish is trying to enter our water to fish illegally. Continued visible the trials, education programs in Indonesia and some high profile cases have helped get the message across. They are finally starting to understand the risks they face by coming into Australian waters to fish illegally.

As mentioned earlier, Australia—along with Japan, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea and Taiwan—is a member of the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna. The southern bluefin tuna is considered the most endangered of all large fish species. These creatures can reach weights of around 680 kilograms and lengths of up to four metres. Whereas most of the approximately 20,000 fish species are cold-blooded, with body temperatures similar to the waters in which they swim, the southern bluefin tuna is one of the few warm-blooded fish species. Even when diving to depths of one kilometre, where the temperature is around five degrees centigrade, the bluefin can maintain a body temperature of 27 degrees centigrade—close to that of a mammal. Bluefin hunt in packs and will eat anything they can catch; and they can catch almost anything that swims, floats or crawls. Unfortunately, these are the ones that are now being hunted to endangerment. A single bluefin can sell for more than $170,000. The industry is rife with illegal and unregulated fleets, and with Japan alone devouring over 60,000 tonnes of bluefin every year there are many eager to buy, regardless of how it is caught.

It is not only illegal practices that are damaging fish stocks. Every country along the Mediterranean, except Israel, is taking advantage of a legal loophole that allows countries to take undersize tuna and fatten them up in floating pens. Hundreds of thousands of half-grown tuna are being captured in this way. Catching the fish before they are old enough to breed and keeping them penned until they are killed is decimating the breeding population. As the Mediterranean is one of the breeding grounds for this highly migratory species, this practice, in combination with overfishing in the foraging grounds of the Atlantic, is seeing bluefin stocks collapse throughout the oceans.

We are reaching, or have already reached, the stage where the hunting of certain wild fish stocks is no longer sustainable. We must look at ways in which to breed, raise and harvest commercially valuable species in an environmentally sustainable way. Unless bluefin can be raised like domesticated animals, such as cattle, they will be taken to the brink of extinction. An Australian company is, in fact, leading the way. The previous government provided Clean Seas Tuna with $4.1 million through a Commercial Ready grant to assist in the commercialisation of southern bluefin breeding. I was surprised and saddened to hear that the current government has scrapped this highly successful program. In March of this year, Clean Seas Tuna became the first organisation in the world to create an artificial breeding regime for southern bluefin tuna. This breeding breakthrough will give them the ability to at least duplicate Australia’s annual bluefin quota within the next few years and to dramatically grow the aquaculture industry without impacting on wild tuna stocks.

Perhaps one of the most insidious legal practices that occur is deep-sea trawling. Bottom-trawlers operate at depths of two kilometres with nets of around 55 metres across and 12 metres high. These traverse the seabed on giant rollers while trawl doors, weighing up to six tonnes, scrape along the bottom. They are a weapon of mass destruction, demolishing ancient coral reefs, giant sponge communities and seagrass beds. The benthic environment accounts for 98 per cent of marine species. Deep sea fish are characterised by slow growth and low fecundity, and they are rapidly depleted to commercial extinction, even within a single season. While these fish species will take decades to recover, coral recovers over centuries. Deep-sea trawling is practised by relatively few vessels, perhaps no more than 200 worldwide, and accounts for about 0.2 per cent of the total world catch. The scale of the destruction is out of proportion to the gain in terms of the value of the fishery. This problem has been recognised by the UN, which has made moves to implement a moratorium in the past but without success. Although we have had success in the past 18 months in tackling illegal fishing in our waters, the threat will not only remain but increase as worldwide demand for seafood increases.

The UN Environment Program released a report in February noting that rising greenhouse gas emissions threaten at least three-quarters of the key fishing grounds, affecting about 2.6 billion people who derive their protein from seafood worldwide. The combination of climate change, overharvesting, bottom-trawling, invasive species infestations, coastal development and pollution will see the demand for seafood protein increase as supply dwindles. Legislation which assists Australia in tackling illegal fishing is to be commended. However, we must also look to the future and provide support for those who are seeking to address the demand sustainably through aquaculture. I commend the bill to the House.