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Wednesday, 30 October 1996
Page: 4768

Senator KERNOT —My question is directed to the Minister for the Environment and relates to his statutory obligations with regard to the reefline fishing experiment in protected zones of the Great Barrier Reef. Can the minister give a categorical assurance to the parliament that he has fulfilled all of the legal requirements under the Australian Heritage Commission Act 1975, particularly section 30, subsections 2 and 3 and subsequent advice under subsection 3A—which he should know, because he has just made this decision? Has the minister fulfilled all of the legal requirements under the Environmental Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act 1974, particularly with regard to designation and decision making? And, if so, can the minister demonstrate this by providing to the parliament a copy of his request, any subsequent advice from the Australian Heritage Commission on this matter and a copy of the briefings he has received regarding the EPIP act in connection with the decision he was required to make under that act? This is a decision which has just been made.

Senator HILL —I am prepared to provide, obviously, all relevant materials because I believe in transparency in government, and the public have a right to know. I am reasonably confident, because I did take a great deal of care in relation to this matter, Senator Kernot. To be absolutely true in this confessional, I will say that I was a little sceptical when I first saw the recommendations, and I went back to the scientists at GBRMPA and CRC and requested further information.

I attended Townsville and debated the issue with them personally. In the end they convinced me that this scientific work, this research, is soundly based scientifically and is necessary to ensure that the fishing that is allowable on the Great Barrier Reef is not threatening the sustainability of any of the fish species. This is, of course, an experiment proposed by the Cooperative Research Centre on research designed to gather the information necessary to manage commercial and recreational fishing in the marine park in an ecologically sustainable way.

Madam President, as you know, line fishing is a permitted use within the park, but estimates of the level of pressure being placed on the reef are difficult to establish. I am told that it is even less certain what the long-term effects of this fishing will be on the ecology of the reef.

In many respects, existing fisheries management, I am informed, is more guesswork than science. That is why this research program has been put together. It has been put together to the background of a history of fisheries that are prone to collapsing from overfishing, without forewarning. This is the concern: that, although the evidence available from reefs that are currently fished suggests that the resource is sustainable, history demonstrates that that resource can drop away alarmingly quickly, and that is why there needs to be a comparison between reefs that have been fished for some time and reefs that have not.

There are, as you know, Madam President, some 500 conservation reefs on the reef. What will happen is that eight of those 500 reefs will be open for a period of one year. But to more than balance that, eight current reefs that are open will be closed for a period of five years. So the fishing industry is actually complaining to me that the net result of this will be a loss of resource to the industry. Nevertheless, that loss is something that will have to be borne by the industry because it is necessary to ensure that the fishing that does take place on the reef is taking place in a sustainable way and, as I have said, that we are not threatening the fishing resource of the reef by practices that are existing at the moment and that have existed in the past. So that is the background to it.

The researchers say that the way in which they have put this program together is the only way in which they can adequately assure us that the fishing levels are sustainable. After some considerable time in debate with them, they have satisfied me that that is the case and that this scientific research should go ahead. I think I certainly tried to meet all the legal prerequisites. But I am more than happy to open my books to you, Senator, and you can make that assessment for yourself.

Senator KERNOT —Madam President, I ask a supplementary question. Thank you for that answer, Minister. I just want to ask you about the validity of a research project which opens up the remaining four per cent of protected areas when you already have 96 per cent open. How valid is it to cause damage in the name of research for what you want to do—extend fishing?

Senator HILL —I am sorry, Senator, but you have missed the point, which obviously is the result of an inadequacy in my answer—and I have to concede that. The point is that I do not want to extend fishing; I want to protect the fish stocks on the reef—

Senator Kernot —By extending the fishing?

Senator HILL —and I actually want to protect them not only from an industry perspective but also from a conservation perspective. But the scientists have argued to me—and they have convinced me—that you have to have something to compare to be satisfied that the current levels of fishing are not threatening the sustainability of the species. That is the point. So it is quite the congruous of what you say. The purpose of providing this comparison is to ensure that we are adequately conserving fish on the reef, and I am more than happy to continue this debate afterwards.