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Standing Committee on Agriculture, Resources, Fisheries and Forestry
Role of science for the future of fisheries and aquaculture

DAY, Associate Professor Robert, Department of Zoology, University of Melbourne

DEMPSTER, Dr Timothy David, Senior Lecturer, Department of Zoology, University of Melbourne


CHAIR: I welcome the witnesses from the Department of Zoology at the University of Melbourne. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is regarded as a formal proceeding of the parliament and warrants the same respect as proceedings of the House. Giving false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. I also note that we now have a quorum and therefore this is no longer a subcommittee but a committee.

The committee has your submission, which it has numbered No. 18. I invite you to make some introductory remarks and then, I am sure, the committee will have some questions for you.

Prof. Day : Thank you. We have actually prepared a short summary, which we have distributed, and I will just speak to that. We feel that there are some serious issues that need to be addressed in terms of the way that the funding of science for fisheries and aquaculture is organised.

The first thing we feel is important is that funding should nurture future research expertise, which relates to the evidence you just heard. High-quality students are attracted to the top research universities all around Australia, but the consequence is that very few good students are available in any one institution in this particular field of fisheries and aquaculture research. The concentration of funding—as a result of the RDE strategy that has been put in place—in a few institutions endangers Australia's ability to train sufficient numbers of high-quality students in research in this area. Our recommendation is to introduce an FRDC scheme to support PhD student projects working with fishery or aquaculture industry organisations, open to any university, state based or other research institution in Australia. We suggest 10 grants per year of about $10,000 per year for three years, to cover the PhD, solely for operational costs. We feel that any good student would be able to attract a scholarship to support themselves, so this money would be spent on ensuring that students had a project in the fishery and aquaculture sector. Selection of students should be based on peer review.

CHAIR: I know it is on the record, but could you just repeat that figure again?

Prof. Day : We are suggesting $10,000 per year to support the operational costs of these projects to the students.

Dr Dempster : And it would be for each individual student. That would give them a pool of $30,000 over three years.

CHAIR: I understand. It is not very much money; that is all.

Prof. Day : No. We do not think we need that much money, but we are talking about training, and students need to cut their teeth on something small. Unless you pull them into this area, they are really not going to be trained in working with industry. We think the record for Australia is actually very good for students working with industry, particularly students of researchers working with industry. But, unless that contact between students and the industry is maintained, it is not going to continue.

The outcome of this measure would be to drive greater collaboration between industry, universities and state based fishery agencies and create a pathway to attract students who are interested in this from anywhere in Australia and train them in the fisheries and aquaculture fields.

The second issue we feel is important is that bodies that distribute federal research funds should not have real or perceived conflicts of interest in allocating funds. At present, federal funds are distributed after pre-filtering of applications by state advisory bodies to create research priorities, and those bodies are very often run by the state based research providers. This is widely perceived to have favoured those state based research providers over a very long period. I have been in this field for 15 years, and that has certainly been the case over that time. Now this funding has been even further concentrated, I think there is even more danger of that. The same sort of problem occurs with the Seafood CRC and NCCARF because there are relatively few research provider institutions that are involved in those agencies. But, now that the funding is being concentrated down further, there is more danger of this. The same sort of problem occurs when you have the seafood CRC or the NCAF system, because there are relatively few research provider institutions that are involved in those agencies. So our recommendation is to implement an open and competitive process whereby federal research funding is distributed by boards which are independent of research providers. We feel that the outcome would be to ensure that fisheries and agriculture industries had access to the highest quality research providers and infrastructure, with the relevant expertise for each project being available. Expertise for projects depends on the project and it is very difficult to predict what kind of expertise you are going to need, so you need to be able to draw on expertise from institutions right across Australia when they are required for a particular project. It is very unlikely that the few institutions which are specifically targeted for fisheries and agriculture are going to have that sort of expertise in every case.

The third issue is that the key fisheries and agriculture industries require local research expertise. The implementation of the fisheries RDE strategy has focused funding to Tasmania and South Australia, which have very good research institutions; but this appears to have led to disinvestment in research expertise in Victoria, New South Wales and—to some extent—Queensland by the state fisheries institutions, to the detriment of the key industries in those states. The industry contexts in which research needs to be done vary between areas, so work based in one state is not necessarily going to be applicable to the other states. Our recommendation is that we require that the large projects on nationally significant fisheries or aquaculture industries, such as rock lobster, involve research collaborators in each affected state. We think that the outcome of that would be to drive retention of key research expertise in each state and a collaborative approach between states related to major fisheries and agriculture industries in each state and that that would be to the benefit of industry in each state.

That is my summary. I am very happy to take questions, and I am sure that Tim is as well.

CHAIR: We will receive your submission there as a supplementary to your submission. Can somebody move that?

Mr TEHAN: Yes.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. Dr Dempster, would you like to make any comments?

Dr Dempster : I think I will leave that to the questions. I think Rob has covered our submission. We made a joint submission.

Prof. Day : Yes, we both put this summary together.

CHAIR: Thank you. It was very good evidence for us. The industry and the students that you spoke about in saying that there are these linkages—can you tell us how they come about? Is it a case of somebody having a problem and putting up a scholarship or some money at university for somebody to do the research? Does it work at that level? You probably heard me when the previous witness gave evidence.

Prof. Day : Yes, I was listening to your questions.

CHAIR: Looking for drivers, how do we give students opportunities? I am very conscious of what you say: 10 people at the right level can drive a hell of a lot of work below them over a period. But how is the present system working? You mentioned that in your submission.

Prof. Day : I have been training students in fisheries and agriculture research for something like 15 or 20 years now, and one has to wait for the right student. When you get a student who is interested and you try to find the situation in which they can work, that is where sometimes you sit down and write a proposal. Sometimes you go to people who already have money which could be used for the student to do the work. Finding students to work in fisheries is extremely difficult because usually you need a combination of mathematics and biology and there are very few students anywhere who have those qualifications. That is something where we need a very specific way of attracting those students anywhere in Australia to be involved. I have found relatively few of them. I have been able to link them in straightaway and with CSIRO when I have found them.

In aquaculture it is easier because the students who are interested in biology can immediately see the benefit of working with aquaculture and what it can provide but in Australia, because we are an industrialised country, our aquaculture is focused on high-value species rather than feeding the world. Students need to come down to earth from the idea that you mentioned earlier in your questions—that they felt they could solve the feeding the world problems by working in aquaculture. Probably, for Australia it is better to focus on high-value, low-production species and generate the profits that allow us to import food from elsewhere. It is very difficult to compete with prawn production in China if you are a prawn farmer in Australia, unless you are producing a much higher quality product which has a much higher price. I am not sure whether I have answered your question exactly about how to get the students involved, but I have tried to give you some examples.

CHAIR: Good science done in Australia can still feed the world in some other way.

Prof. Day : Yes. I have had students who have worked in Bangladesh with carp production in small communities. At the moment, we do not have very good funding avenues to do overseas work with our students.

Dr Dempster : Most students, when they are beginning to think about taking a research route, are making decisions among many different options. As you heard from the Chief Scientist, most of them nowadays have come through the environmental science route as opposed to the agriculture route, so they have a broad range of options available to them. I have had no problem in attracting students into aquaculture projects when I have been able to offer inducements of research funding. If they know they have a secure project and a very clear pathway, and that the research will be well funded, that is a large carrot in front of them to take that particular pathway. Both Rob and I, and certainly many other academic supervisors, will not put our best students onto projects that are not well funded because it is not in their best interests. It really comes back to the base level: do we have a project which gives us sufficient funding so that a student has an opportunity to produce a good PhD thesis?

At present, most of the research funding for PhD students in aquaculture and probably in fisheries as well comes through larger projects where the state-based agencies collaborate with universities or the universities themselves attract and build students into the project. That relies on getting a very large project to have a piece of funding you can then give to your PhD student for them to do a component of the work. They require a significant amount of time and investment on our part and we cannot run too many of those large projects. In a sense there is a good bit of a bottleneck. I certainly see that we would have the capacity to attract and train more students into the area if we had a separate mechanism that was specifically funded and not linked to larger projects.

Prof. Day : And that comes back to our suggestion in the summary.

CHAIR: So you are saying there is a better model or there could be other models which could assist us in getting more people. As I said, I was looking for ways to drive it.

Dr Dempster : Driving research training.

CHAIR: And where it is presently state based at agency level, I think we could do a lot better as a nation by having some sort of driving force at the national level. We are looking for evidence along those lines. You are giving us some direction that we could find better drivers or better ways. Do you have any experience in the area of getting the national fisheries and aquaculture rules and regulations legislation in some standardised form so that we can get a seamless approach to that side of things? Could you add to our knowledge in that area?

Prof. Day : Can I clarify the question? Are you talking about the regulations of how aquaculture and fisheries are regulated in the various states?

CHAIR: Basically, yes.

Prof. Day : I think that the industries all around Australia would benefit from uniform legislation; there is no doubt about that. The science would probably be facilitated to some extent, but I think the key problem in the science is the way in which at the moment funding is directed towards projects by vested interests in states. That is really the block that I see at the moment. If we could get a more open process that was available to all research institutions nationally, I think that would open the gates a bit more.

CHAIR: We are very focused on a few species with high value, but there are probably other species, to come back to the feeding-the-world view, that we could do at a lower level if we had the mindset or somebody who wanted to go in that direction.

Prof. Day : Yes. It is the example of discovering that octopus are actually a valuable commodity in some Asian places and we have basically been using them for bait. We could sell them instead. There certainly is that kind of market research aspect to looking for opportunities for industry. I do not think that is a very good role for universities, but certainly establishing the way in which you can do aquaculture of a new species, if you are starting something new like that, requires you to know a lot about the biology of that new species, and that is an absolutely excellent role for university research. Usually that is not going to be something where there is established expertise in a dedicated fisheries institution, because they will have been working on the species you already have as industries.

CHAIR: So it would be somebody's life work if they wanted to go down there.

Mr LYONS: We talked about attracting people and getting pockets of money. When I look around some of the research and student facilities, they look to me like they have been cobbled together with not huge amounts of money—plastic pipes running across into various tubs, recycle bins and things like that. I am not knocking that, because it obviously happens, but have you thought about having better facilities in areas that might attract more students? You would know more about the facilities than I would.

Prof. Day : We probably work with not the best facilities for aquaculture research, but I think the way to do useful aquaculture research is to work with the industries' facilities. If you are working with them and solving problems that they see as important, for them it is very easy to provide at least some of the kinds of facilities that you need, and that is the best place to do the research. So I am less worried about the facilities than I am about access to the good-quality people.

Dr Dempster : I might have a slightly different viewpoint on that, but I agree with that to an extent. I should say that before starting at Melbourne University I worked at a Norwegian research institution called SINTEF Fisheries and Aquaculture. I was in Norway for approximately six years. As Mr Adams probably knows, Norway is essentially the inventor of salmon aquaculture and they now farm close to a million tonnes a year. I am not exactly sure how much it is worth, but it may be something like €10 billion a year. It is a massive industry.

CHAIR: It is probably the second-best in the world, then!

Dr Dempster : Second-best in the world to Tasmania, correct. The Norwegian government has invested in major research facilities. They have entire salmon farms that are simply for research. They are able to do so because the industry is so large there is enough money to go down that route. I am not sure that Australia is quite at the point where it would have the capacity to invest in something similar, but at some point it should certainly be something that is looked at more seriously. There are various models by which that can occur. There are actually four of these facilities in Norway. Some of them are completely state run. Some of them are a consortium whereby the industry runs the facility as a for-profit farm and the researchers conduct research in a dedicated way around that facility. So it is a mixed model. Most of the cost and the risk is borne by the industry, but usually they do make good profit out of those farms.

So that is a very good model by which Australia could develop something similar, because our industry is obviously much smaller but is growing rapidly. As Mr Adams would know, Tasmania also has its own unique research challenges related to the environment and diseases, which may be able to be addressed in that kind of facility. You may be able to do something similar with the major tuna aquaculture industry in South Australia. It does not currently exist in that form, but that kind of model might also be productive to look into.

Mr LYONS: My question is really about how we would improve those facilities and whether that would be an attractor.

Prof. Day : Yes. I think you need to do that in one or two 'winning' industries in which you want to focus a lot of large-scale investment; but, as far as the small-scale, bringing-something-new-into-aquaculture kind of question which we were talking about earlier, I think that is where using industry's existing facilities is a good idea. But certainly I agree with Tim that, where you have those kinds of obvious potential winners, putting that sort of mixed-model research facility in place is really a good idea.

Mr TEHAN: You mentioned China before. Do you have any knowledge or sense of what is happening in China in the research and development area?

Prof. Day : I have spent a little while in China at one of the international abalone symposia that was held there. We went to look at some of the Chinese aquaculture facilities et cetera. China is a society where they are willing to take big risks. Labour is incredibly cheap, which is much different from the Australian situation. They do not have any issues about the marine environment being kept pristine for any other uses than aquaculture or other industry like that. Their production in the abalone area, which is what I know, has skyrocketed and then crashed at various times due to disease. Disease is the major issue that you need to worry about in aquaculture.

I think that is one of the places where Australia has an enviable reputation. We have good regulation to try to ensure biosecurity of our aquaculture is maintained, and that gives us a good edge in the market because we can ensure that we always produce high quality. But there is no way that we can produce the kind of quantity that China could do. We would have to be willing to take huge risks to be able to do that. That is my feeling.

Mr TEHAN: Do you get a sense that the way they are going about it—taking these huge risks—if they can get the quarantine and disease risks down, could pay off?

Prof. Day : In China you have the added advantages of low labour costs and easy access to China, which is the major market for a lot of aquaculture seafood. Whether you could do the same things in Australia if you were willing to take those huge risks, I do not know.

Dr Dempster : They have a very-high-production, low-cost model. A lot of it is freshwater based, so most of their production is in farm dams and ponds spread right throughout the country. We do not really have that kind of production in Australia; most of our production is marine. They are also expanding into the marine sector as well, but it is mostly high-production, low-value species, primarily growing food to feed their population. So that is their primary driver. As Rob said, some of the things that may block that in terms of environmental regulation are simply not very strong in China, so it expands.

That is almost the opposite of the Australian regulatory framework. It is very difficult to establish new farms in our coastal environment. As I am sure many of you are aware, Australians are very protectionist of their coastal waters. They own a lot of coastal land. They do not like to look out upon things that interrupt their view. That can be the simple driver that stymies aquaculture in many cases even if you can show that it has very low impact.

Prof. Day : But on the other hand there is also the regulation for biosecurity, which is absolutely essential to protecting the industry itself.

Mr TEHAN: What is the balance between our R&D in this space for food production versus more conservation-style R&D?

Prof. Day : I have not been funded to do any conservation research. I cannot really tell you what the spend is on that sort of research versus research that is focused on productivity of the industry. I would not have those figures.

Dr Dempster : I do not have those figures either, but generally most of the funding is towards greater growth rates and specific industry problems related to production. I guess the environmental sphere is more public benefit research. When you have a body where the industry is providing its funds through levies into that body, they are perhaps a little less interested in doing that research rather than the research that is directly related to their production and their bottom line. It does occur, obviously; but, as a proportion, I am not sure but it would certainly be in the minority.

Prof. Day : There is a mixture in fisheries as opposed to aquaculture. What you are trying to do is maintain the stocks of the fish, and to some extent that is the conservation objective. But the real objective there is to maintain the productive capacity of that stock to support the industry that is fishing it. You need to support far more fish to support the industry than you need to keep the species around. So, as far as that sort of fisheries research goes, the objective of preventing extinction is almost never an issue; you are focusing on trying to maintain the industry.

Mr TEHAN: How are the numbers going at the moment in terms of attracting scientists to the area? Do we have a demographic a bit like the priesthood? Are we getting younger people coming through in reasonable numbers?

Prof. Day : I think the priesthood problem is more characteristic of where you need mathematics to do fisheries, because in fisheries you need to actually forecast the future to manage the stock correctly. That takes mathematical expertise. Finding students who have that interest as well as biology is very difficult, so that becomes much more like a priesthood. Every single student that I have supervised who has had that sort of capacity has either got a job before they finished their PhD or been snapped up here or overseas the moment they have passed their PhD. On the other hand, in other areas which just require biology, there are a wide range of students who are very willing to get into this sort of field, and I do not think there is a priesthood thing there at all.

Dr Dempster : The other point there, as we come down to point 3 of our submission, is that the state based agencies which are a major career pathway for graduates in this area are being downsized. The students know this. It is something they look at and think, 'Well, if I go into that area, my chances of secure employment are perhaps less than if I go into this area.' At the point they are making decisions about what to do their PhD on, these factors are quite telling.

Mr TEHAN: On that point: are they being downsized as part of this budget-tightening climate or is it more because there is not a perceived sense of value in the work which is being done?

Prof. Day : I think the research and development strategy has changed the perception of DPIs in those states where they are not the focus of funding for fisheries and aquaculture. Because they were able to, if you like, milk the system to get funding for those people in their research facilities and get the overheads that went with them, and because that is no longer the case, they have been downsizing massively in the last few years as a result of this RDE strategy. We have seen in Victoria a huge decrease from hundreds of people before to something like 25 people now working in fisheries in DPI.

Mr TEHAN: Are we talking in the last 12 months, the last five years—

Prof. Day : No, it is since the RDE strategy has been developed—so the last four or five years.

Dr Dempster : Right—and accelerating in the current budget climate. I think it is fair to say there is an interaction.

Prof. Day : That is certainly true.

CHAIR: Let's go to the wild fisheries and how having a good, healthy wild fishery assists bringing some of those species into aquaculture. Abalone is a prime example. You may have some knowledge on that, professor.

Prof. Day : Yes. I think one of the issues that I have realised is that doing aquaculture in close association with wild stocks is not a good idea. You actually want your aquaculture to be a little bit removed from where there are wild stocks. That having been said, running aquaculture on species that are local to Australia is absolutely essential. Bringing species in from overseas is a recipe for bringing in new diseases. That can be done sometimes—it has been done successfully with salmon, obviously—but you have to be really careful. Salmon has been associated with some very severe diseases in aquaculture that have spread to wild stocks of salmon. The same sort of problem has occurred with almost every other major form of aquaculture, so there is a real need to be careful about how you mix and match the fishery and the aquaculture. But bringing in new species is an issue where you suddenly need to go back to your basic biological knowledge about these new species and generate specific knowledge about how you improve growth rates, how you maintain the immune capacity of those animals as they are putting into a farm so they do not get sick—there is a huge amount of that sort of basic information to learn, and that is where you need a lot of research to provide the basis for building up a new aquaculture area.

CHAIR: Is it the quality of the science in Australia that has kept us away from some of the disasters in other parts of the world like the Chile salmon industry or the prawn industry in Thailand from time to time?

Prof. Day : I think we have had better biosecurity regulations. That has been a major factor. I think those better biosecurity regulations have been based on better scientific knowledge in Australia. It is certainly true there is a better basis for that.

CHAIR: All right.

Mr MITCHELL: I am curious about what sort of work you have been involved in that is looking at the effects of water temperatures on species like rock lobster or abalone and the shift in the recruitment of young ones coming through. When you look over the last few years, the TAC in particular has been pretty savage because of the low recruitment.

Prof. Day : Yes. What is interesting too is that the recruitment of rock lobsters appears to have moved south. Interestingly, this also matches a similar pattern seen in South Africa. It is very difficult to know whether this is to do with a shift in current patterns and, if so, whether those current patterns are related to climate change or not. I think this is still an area where science is trying to understand and answer those sorts of questions. But there certainly have been those shifts in recruitment you are talking about.

Mr MITCHELL: Is it predominantly affecting water column species? I know there have been issues with mussels.

Prof. Day : I think that is outside my competence. I am not sure I can answer that question.

Mr MITCHELL: But you think there should be more work put into that?

Prof. Day : Certainly that is a question that needs work, but it is often very difficult to know which kind of work is going to be best to answer the question—whether you should be focusing, for example, on the life cycle of larval rock lobsters in order to see what is happening in that particular situation or whether you should be doing more general oceanography to understand the currents. So I cannot propose a solution—'Fund this research to answer the question'—either.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for your time and your submission. We appreciate it. It is very good evidence for us. We will send you a copy of the Hansard.

Prof. Day : Thank you very much for the opportunity.