The threat to Australia’s oceans from supertrawlers

Fisheries Conservation Australia

Since the 1950s industrial-scale factory fishing fleets have roamed the world’s oceans looking for fish, spurred on by demand, government subsidies and advances in technology. Overfishing, illegal fishing, decimated local coastal economies and illegal activities have followed in their wake.

In the early 1980s Australia took control of its waters, limiting access by foreign fishing fleets that had been exploiting Australia’s fish stocks including tuna and prawn for decades. Access thereafter was via agreement only. There was a lot at stake – Australian waters are particularly vulnerable to overfishing due to their low biological productivity and the difficulty in detection over such remote and vast areas.

In the following decades Australia was able to develop a reputation for being one of the better managed fishing nations. The contrast between fishing intensity inside and outside Australia’s waters is stark. Fishing fleets on the high seas operate right up to Australia’s borders.

It is becoming apparent that Australia’s reputation is increasingly a beacon drawing in the industrial fishing capacity that has depleted oceans elsewhere. The unprecedented approval for two European supertrawlers (industrial fishing boats that catch, process, freeze and store on a grand scale) to fish in Australian waters in recent years – the Margiris and the Dirk Dirk – is an indicator of this.

The Australian public roundly rejected the notion of supertrawlers operating in our fisheries, but weak domestic regulation allows them to slip through into Australian waters. The two supertrawlers that have received regulatory approval to operate in Australian waters were hounded out by local communities. In response to high levels of concern, the federal government put in place a permanent ban on supertrawlers in Australian waters, but the research has found this to be ‘tip of the iceberg regulation’ – banning only a tiny subset (just six) of the world’s supertrawler fleet.

The research has also found that there have been moves for at least the last two years to bring other foreign fishing vessels into Australian waters. Australia’s fishing fleet is relatively small, with limited capital and high operating costs given the vastness and limited productivity of our oceans. Ready-to-go foreign fishing vessels with far greater capacity appear to be an attractive option for significantly increasing catch in Australian waters. This report details what is known to this point including new information that has come to light as a result of questioning in the Federal Parliament and background research. At the time of going to print, a Freedom of Information (FOI) request lodged with the Federal Government earlier this year remains outstanding. Regulator transparency is limited in this area.

Even with the limited information available, this report has found that there is both motive and opportunity – there is a push for increased commercial fishing effort in Australian waters, the industrial capacity found in foreign fishing fleets is necessary to achieve this aim, and Australia’s legal loopholes and regulatory opaqueness make this possible.

Further, this report finds that the prospect of industrialscale foreign fishing vessels becoming established in Australian waters poses an unacceptable risk to Australia’s unique and diverse marine life, its fishing sustainability, its recreational fishing lifestyle and associated tourism ventures, its ability to uphold human rights and environmental safeguards, and its international reputation.

This report makes two key recommendations – that a formal independent inquiry is now needed to investigate moves to bring foreign fishing vessels into Australian waters, and that the Federal Government must make good on its claim that supertrawlers are banned in Australia’s vulnerable fisheries.

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