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Tuesday, 25 June 1996
Page: 2127


Senator MICHAEL BAUME(4.23 p.m.) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the documents.

This may be one of the last occasions on which I have the opportunity to move that the Senate take note of an Auditor-General's report. I simply would like to say at the beginning that I found that one of the greatest contributions to proper supervision of government spending and activity has been provided by the Auditor-General over the many years I have been a member of this place. I hope that senators will continue to place on record their recognition of that work by commenting on his reports when they are brought down.

This particular report is of great concern to me because, when I was in the House of Representatives, I represented a fisheries area on the south coast of New South Wales which was subjected to severe quota and equipment restrictions. Many times I have been concerned about whether or not some fishermen were feeling the excessive burden of regulation. At other times I have been concerned that fish stocks were being overwhelmingly and unnecessarily almost wiped out because of overfishing. Whether that related to people from other countries fishing in Australian waters or to locals fishing is a matter for some debate.

What does concern me is that this Auditor-General's report reveals many serious problems in the management of Australian fisheries, largely because control over them is split between the Commonwealth and the various states. The key question is: how can Commonwealth fisheries law effectively control these problems and to what extent is sustainable development capable of being assessed? I would like to deal with a few matters in this Auditor-General's report.

It seems to me that one of the major problems is that, when a professional fisherman puts down a net, he cannot determine what is going to end up in that net. You get many fishermen who find that they have overfished a particular species in terms of their own quota by accident—and this may be an expensive species. They are then obliged to dump these fish over the side unrecorded. This, firstly, costs them a lot of money and, secondly, creates a situation where there is no recorded evidence of the extent to which a particular species has been fished and then returned dead to the sea. The Auditor-General's report mentions in passing this problem. It says on page 130:

Many of the other fisheries are single-species fisheries but, depending on the gear used, a whole range of other fish can be caught and, if it is not marketable it is often dumped overboard (discarded) and no records are kept.

The same thing is true of fish where there is a very severe quota limitation. So we have a ridiculous situation where, because of a lack of flexibility, dead fish are being dumped. This is of no use to the protection of the fishery and is certainly of no use to the fishermen. If only one could have a much more flexible plus and minus arrangement, it would be far more sensible.

The problems that the Auditor-General has pointed out are basic. He points out that the Australian Fisheries Management Authority cannot be certain that it is achieving ecologically sustainable development. The report says:

Stock assessments have been carried out for only a very small percentage of the fish caught in Commonwealth waters, whether a target or other species. There is little knowledge about Commonwealth fishery habitats, nurseries and the environmental impact of commercial fishing for most of the Commonwealth fisheries. No environmental impact assessment has been conducted for any Commonwealth fishery decision. Also, due to the high level of latent effort, fish stocks cannot be regarded as being adequately protected from the possibility of excessive commercial fishing. Latent effort refers to unused or under-utilised fishing permits.

The Auditor-General then deals with the subject of maximising economic efficiency in the exploitation of fisheries resources. The report says:

Based upon AFMA's statistics for fishing permits, statutory rights and boats, the use of inherently inefficient input controls and the ineffectiveness of the quota system in the South East Fishery, there is little evidence to indicate that there has been a significant improvement in economic efficiency in Commonwealth fisheries since AFMA was established.

This seems to be central. There seems to be a real need to do something about this on the basis not only of providing better information but of doing a lot more research.

I am concerned about the precautionary principle that has been adopted—that is, where there is an element of doubt, usually associated with a lack of fish stock information, management decisions should, according to this principle, favour the protection of fish stocks. In other words, if the authorities do not know what the situation is, it is the fishermen who cop it, if you like, rather than the fish.

If we are going to threaten the livelihood of Australian fishermen, there is a particular obligation on the authorities doing so to know perfectly well what the real situation is rather than to do it on the off chance that there may be a problem and, therefore, destroy the viability and the livelihood of Australian fishermen. So there is a clear need for much better and greater levels of information.

This precautionary principle is subject to a few legal problems. The AFMA advised the Auditor-General that its legislation did not give it the power to implement this policy and provided recently received legal advice. This advice indicated that the imposition of fishing controls to protect stocks could be ruled invalid unless there was sufficient evidence to support the need for a reduction in catch levels.

The audit office considers that, if this legal advice has general application to all fisheries, AFMA will have difficulty in achieving its ESD objective established by parliament. It was parliament that established that precautionary principle. Consequently, the audit office has recommended that AFMA seek to clarify this apparent conflict between its statutory objective and its statutory powers.

There are other matters that are of concern to me. For example, the Auditor-General reveals that:

The Environmental Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act requires AFMA to provide advice to the Minister if a fisheries management decision will have or is thought likely to have a significant environmental impact. A decision to provide advice can originate only from some form of environmental impact assessment.

That sounds great, but the facts are that during the audit the Audit Office observed there had been no environmental impact assessments of any fisheries management decisions under either AFMA or the former AFS, and no referrals to the Environmental Protection Agency, so either the system has not been working properly or the system is wrong.

Something has to be done to fix this up. The big question is whether or not to limit, and this is a matter the Auditor-General went into. If you are going to regulate fisheries, do you limit the amount of equipment and boats that are allowed to fish, or do you limit the catch? In other words, do you have input controls imposing restrictions on the type and/or amount of fishing, such as gear restrictions, closed seasons and so on, or do you have output controls which just limit fish catches or landings?

As I mentioned, if you limit fish catches, then it means a fisherman who has accidentally overcaught a particular species will simply dump it in the ocean and everyone will be the loser. According to the 1989 policy statement, the use of output controls—that is, limiting fish catches—was adopted. The report states:

Despite this stated preference, the ANAO noted that most Commonwealth fisheries are managed through input controls (only one of which has tradeable units of gear). No fishery has been placed under output controls since AFMA was established.

We have to resolve which is the best way to go about this.

Finally, I want to mention that AFMA, according to the Audit Office—

advised that the majority of Commonwealth fisheries will continue to be managed using input controls. This form of control is acknowledged generally by fisheries managers to be ineffective in protecting fish stock if controls do not match improvements in technology and leads to inefficiencies.

The ANAO noted that—

recent stock assessments indicate that over capacity, latent effort and over-capitalisation still exist.

This is a serious and significant report. Fishing is a very important industry to Australia and—certainly for the south-east fishery area where I have many friends and associates involved—I must express concern that, unless we regulate it properly, this industry will face a serious future.