Super trawler FAQs

Last updated 23 May 2013

The recent debate about the entry of a large boat to fish in the Commonwealth Small Pelagic Fishery (SPF) has sparked significant public interest. We hope the following information will help to inform those who would like to know more about this fishery and AFMA’s role.

Helpful documents and publications

Frequently asked questions

What is the issue?
What is the current status of the FV Margiris (FV Abel Tasman)?
How does AFMA ensure that fishing in the SPF is sustainable?
What sort of rules and regulations apply to boats in the fishery?
How much fishing is happening in the fishery now?
Why does AFMA consider that its fisheries management is best practice?
What is the state of the science used for managing the SPF?
What is the status of fish stocks in the fishery?
How does AFMA limit the amount of fish that can be taken from the fishery?
What does AFMA consider in setting catches?
What are the total allowable catch limits in the Small Pelagic Fishery?
How do the total allowable catches for this fishery compare?
Why did the Jack Mackerel (East) catch limit increase for 2012-2013?
Do environmental and recreational sectors have a say in the catch limits?
Are State issues considered?
How is research funded and are their stock assessments planned for the coming years?
What is the effect of small pelagic catches on predator species such as tuna?
What does AFMA do to prevent localised depletion?
Why is the SPF only split into two management zones and not more?

What is the risk of SPF boats interacting with non-target species?
How are SPF boats required to minimise bycatch of protected species?
How do AFMA  deal with fishing operations that break the rules?

What is the issue?

Seafish Tasmania, an Australian fishing company, intended to operate a large mid-water trawl freezer vessel in the Commonwealth Small Pelagic Fishery (SPF). The vessel was brought in from overseas and is larger than other fishing vessels operating in the Australian fishing zone.

What is the current status of the FV Margiris (FV Abel Tasman)?

When the Lithuanian-flagged FV Margiris was registered as an Australian-flagged vessel, under the Shipping Registration Act 1981 on 5 September 2012, it was re-named the FV Abel Tasman.  The boat was docked in Port Lincoln for approximately six months.

On 20 September 2012, the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, the Hon. Tony Burke MP, issued the Interim (Small Pelagic Fishery) Declaration 2012 under section 390SD of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. The Interim Declaration prevented the FV Abel Tasman and similar vessels operating in the fishery for a 60 day period while consultation was undertaken. On 19 November 2012 Minister Burke announced a 24 month ban on mid-water trawl freezer vessels, like the FV Abel Tasman while an expert panel undertakes an assessment of certain impacts of the activity.

On 25 February 2013, Minister Burke made a further interim declaration which prevented the FV Abel Tasman from operating as a freezing and processing vessel in the Small Pelagic Fishery for an initial period of 60 days while consultation with affected parties was carried out. On 26 April 2013, Minister Burke signed the Final (Small Pelagic Fishery) Declaration (No. 2) 2013 which prohibits declared mid-water trawl activities and fish processing activities in the SPF for a period of up to 24 months while an expert panel assesses the environmental impacts of those activities.

The FV Abel Tasman was de-registered as an Australian boat on 28 February 2013 and has since left Australian waters.

How does AFMA ensure that fishing in the SPF is sustainable?

As an independent government regulator, AFMA takes advice from Australian and internationally recognised scientists to set sustainable total allowable catches (TACs). TACs for target species in the fishery for the 2013-14 season are set at less than 7.5% of stock size. This is considered a precautionary approach and is more conservative than internationally accepted standards.

TACs are strictly enforced by AFMA using high tech systems to support compliance officers working both at sea and in ports. Information on compliance tools can be found on the Compliance page of the AFMA website (

This type of fishing, mid-water trawling, is a selective fishing method which means bycatch will be low. AFMA works closely with fishers to minimise bycatch and ensure wildlife isn’t impacted. All Commonwealth operators are required to report any interactions in their fishing logbooks.

Scientific information shows localised depletion is unlikely to occur in the fishery. However, AFMA will continue to monitor the issue closely given the concerns raised in the community.

What sort of rules and regulations apply to boats in the fishery?

AFMA has strict regulations in place to ensure that all fishing operations, including those of large boats, are undertaken sustainably.

The fishery is managed through a strict quota system, which restricts the catch of each target species to sustainable levels. Operators in the fishery are allocated a share of the TAC limits for each target species, which can be transferred between operators. Smaller operators are able to fish the share of the quota they currently hold and the introduction of a large boat into the fishery would not affect their access.

All fishing vessels operating in the SPF are subject to rules including: being fitted with a GPS tracking system, carrying an AFMA observer, using a seal excluder device to prevent capture of seal and dolphins and strict TACs.

How much fishing is happening in the fishery now?

This resource is currently being lightly fished and over the past three fishing seasons, only 3% of the combined SPF TAC has been taken. This is because for most smaller vessels it is not economically viable to operate in the fishery. Smaller vessels without at-sea processing and freezer capacity need to return to port more often which increases fuel costs, reduces fishing time, affects product quality and also reduces their fishing range.

As small pelagic species are highly mobile, the ability for boats to move throughout the area of the fishery is important. Small pelagic species are a low-value product and the ability to freeze the catch straight away preserves the quality of the fish, so the product is suitable for human consumption and not just fishmeal. This adds value to the product.

Why does AFMA consider that its fisheries management is best practice?

Australia’s fisheries management has been consistently ranked amongst the world’s best in independent reports by international experts. One of the world’s best known critics of fisheries management, Dr Daniel Pauly of the University of British Columbia, ranked Australian fisheries second out of 53 countries for environmental sustainability in his comparative assessment report.

This report included an assessment of a variety of areas of fisheries management including compliance with the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries and compliance with international conventions for the conservation of seabirds and marine mammals, ecological and socio-economic aspects, quality of fisheries statistics and managing marine protected areas.

Australia was also ranked first for performance in protecting marine mammals and the government response in mitigating or preventing human-induced damage to marine mammal populations including those from fishing.

A report by the FAO also highlighted Australia’s effective fisheries management including actions to rebuild overfished stocks. This has been evidenced in the ABARES fishery status reports where the number of fish stocks classified as overfished and/or subject to overfishing has fallen from 24 in 2005 to 4 in 2011. In contrast, the number of stocks classified as not overfished and not subject to overfishing increased from 19 to 56 in the same period.

Australia was also a driving force behind the development and implementation of the International Plan of Action to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing, adopted by FAO members in 2001.

What is the state of the science used for managing the SPF?

AFMA uses the best available science to set TACs. Seven world leading Australian scientists have publicly supported the science in setting TACs in the fishery in their report titled The Commonwealth Small Pelagic Fishery: General background to the scientific issues (PDF, 673kb).

Recently, the science used to assess the stock size of jack mackerel in the fishery was independently reviewed. An ecosystem modeling study by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation indicated that spawning fish stock size used to set TACs was plausible given existing information and ecological understandings of the system.

SPF TACs are set according to the SPF Harvest Strategy. The strategy uses a tiered approach which recognises that where information on a species is limited, harvest rates should be set at a lower level. The strategy identifies that, once improved and more recent species information becomes available, primarily through stock assessment, harvest rates may be increased.

There will always be uncertainties in the biomass estimates and because of this, catch levels must be set at a safe level despite the uncertainties. This approach for dealing with uncertain information is precautionary and is applied in the SPF Harvest Strategy.

What is the status of fish stocks in the fishery?

The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) Fishery Status Report 2011 lists all stocks of SPF species, except for Redbait west, as ‘not overfished and not subject to overfishing’. Redbait west is assessed as ‘uncertain’ because limited information is available to assess its status. AFMA has set a low catch limit to reflect this uncertainty.

How does AFMA limit the amount of fish that can be taken from the fishery?

AFMA sets TAC limits for the fishery each year. TAC limits are restrictions on the total amount of fish (by weight) that can be taken from the fishery each season. The best available science is used to set these limits, and due to the importance of lower order species in the food chain, the TACs are set at precautionary levels in the SPF.

The TACs set for each target species in the fishery are divided up between the operators in the form of quota. The TAC doesn’t change simply because the number or size of boats changes. Operators must inform AFMA of all catch landed. AFMA checks this information, to verify compliance with TACs for species and the quota holdings of operators. If operators are found to have caught more than their quota holdings, strict penalties apply.

What does AFMA consider in setting total allowable catches?

In setting the TAC each year, the AFMA Commission considers advice from the Small Pelagic Fishery Resource Assessment Group (SPFRAG), SEMAC and AFMA Management. Agreement amongst Resource Assessment Group and Management Advisory Committee members is not always unanimous and the AFMA Commission takes into consideration the views of all members when making its decisions.

The SPFRAG is made up of scientific, government industry and state members, as well as representatives from environmental and recreational sectors. The group provides its advice following consideration of the annual stock assessment prepared by scientists led by the South Australian Research and Development Institute, catch and effort trends, risks and other relevant factors.

SEMAC includes representatives from AFMA, resource assessment groups, states, industry bodies, scientists and economists. It also has representatives from the environment and recreational sectors. SEMAC considers the recommendations of the SPFRAG and makes its own TAC recommendations to the AFMA Commission.

The SPF Harvest Strategy specifies decision rules for setting sustainable TACs based on the level of information known about stocks. It uses a three tiered approach which allows higher potential catches where there is a higher level of information known about a stock. The SPF Harvest Strategy has been in place since 2008 and was last reviewed in 2012.

What are the total allowable catch limits in the Small Pelagic Fishery?

The table below outlines the total allowable catches (TACs) for the current season (1 May 2012 to 30 April 2013) and for previous seasons. The percentage of estimated spawning biomass also indicates what proportion of the fish population is allowed to be caught in the current fishing season.

Table 2: 2011-12 and 2012-13 TAC and estimated proportion of spawning biomass
Species TAC (t) 2008-09 TAC (t) 2009-10 TAC (t) 2010-11 TAC (t) 2011-12 TAC (t) 2012-13 TAC (t) 2013-14 % of estimated spawning biomass in 2012-13
Redbait East 14,800 10,300 8,600 8,600 6,900 5,200 10
Redbait West 5,000 5,000 5,000 5,000 5,000 5,000 7.5
Blue Mackerel East 5,400 4,300 2,500 2,500 2,600 2,700 <7.5
Blue Mackerel West 8,400 7,000 4,200 4,200 6,500 6,500 7.5
Jack Mackerel East 5,000 4,900 4,600 4,600 10,100 9,800 <7.5
Jack Mackerel West 5,000 4,900 5,000 5,000 5,000 5,000 7.5
Australian Sardine East 2,800 1,600 400 400 200 270 <7.5
TOTAL 46,400 38,000 30,300 30,300 36,300 34,470

How do the total allowable catches for this fishery compare to other Commonwealth Fisheries?

The TACs set for species in the SPF for 2013-14 are all at or below 7.5% of the estimated spawning fish population. This is low compared to other Commonwealth fisheries, and is also considered conservative when compared to international standards for small pelagic fishes.

The TACs for 2013-14 are similar those set for 2012-13. The TACs for Blue Mackerel East and Australian Sardine East have increased slightly due to lower average state catches. TACs for all other species are the same or below the level set for 2012-13.

Why did the Jack Mackerel (East) catch limit increase for 2012-13?

The catch limit was increased because  research that was published in 2011, based on surveys conducted in 2002-2004,  suggested the spawning biomass of jack mackerel in the eastern zone was approximately 141,000 tonnes. This estimate of spawning biomass was higher than previously thought.

This new estimate has been confirmed as plausible by independent reviews and ecosystem modeling undertaken by CSIRO. A summary of this supporting information can be found in the report, Estimates of biomass and sustainable catch levels for the Eastern Jack Mackerel stock in the Small Pelagic Fishery.

Do environmental and recreational sectors have a say in the catch limits?

The views of the environmental and recreational sectors were taken into account when developing the SPF Harvest Strategy and setting TACs for small pelagic species. Environmental and recreational members sit on SPFRAG and SEMAC. Both bodies provide advice to the AFMA Commission on Small Pelagic Fishery TACs.

Are State issues considered?

State catches are incorporated into the catch setting process. State representatives also attend meetings of the Small Pelagic Fishery Resource Assessment Group and the South East Management Advisory Committee to provide advice on state issues.

How is research funded and are there any stock assessments planned for the coming years?

SPF research is primarily funded by the fishing industry through fishing levies. Certain SPF research projects may be funded by the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation or the AFMA Research Council.

The Fisheries Research and Development Corporation are considering a proposal from CSIRO to review the current harvest rates at different tiers in the SPF Harvest Strategy.  This project will ensure that the individual species’ productivities, life histories and roles in the food chain are taken into account.

In addition, AFMA continues to facilitate the annual stock assessment of this fishery which is used to assist in making catch limit decisions. This assessment is funded through fishing levies.

What is the effect of small pelagic catches on predator species such as tuna?

The SPF is unlikely to cause impacts on the feeding patterns of predators including through localised depletion. The main reason for this is that catch levels are set low, the food-web in the South East Australian marine ecosystem has been well studied, and predators (tuna, marine animals etc) and their pelagic prey are highly mobile.

The SPF Harvest Strategy recognises that small pelagic species like mackerel and redbait are an important component of the wider ecosystem, providing food for a range of species including larger fish, marine mammals and seabirds. TACs for these species are set at precautionary levels that take into consideration both the species’ productivity and broader ecosystem impacts.

For the 2013-14 fishing season (from 1 May 2013) the TAC in the fishery for all species is less than 7.5% of the estimated spawning fish population. A study of the exploitation of small pelagic species by the international Lensfest Forage Fish Taskforce has indicated that fishing at levels less than approximately 20% of the stock’s spawning biomass does not show evidence of negative effects on predator species or the broader ecosystem. The Lensfest report, Little Fish, Big Impact: Managing a crucial link in ocean food webs can be accessed on the Lensfest website.

Recent ecosystem studies concluded that, at the current catch rates in the SPF, the ecosystem impacts of fishing on small pelagic fish populations and their predators are low and the food-web in the SPF ecosystem has many different forage species. Compared to the annual consumption of some predators such as seals and tunas/billfish, the catch levels set for quota species in the SPF are low. For example, it is estimated that seals consume between 25,000 to 40,000 tonnes of Redbait alone per year.

What does AFMA do to prevent localised depletion?

Research and experience in similar fisheries both here and overseas suggests that there is a very low risk of localised depletion in the SPF. Given the highly mobile nature of small pelagic species any localised reductions in abundance are likely to be short term and impacts on local ecosystems are likely to be very limited.

The risk of localised depletion may be reduced by the introduction of larger boats that can range more widely throughout the fishery which stretches from southern Queensland to southern Western Australia (see map below).

The area of the small pelagic fishery is split into two management zones, east and west of longitude 146°30’ East (roughly through the middle of Tasmania). Separate TACs are set for each zone which ensures that the quota for each species can not all be taken from one zone and reduces the potential for localised depletion to occur.

AFMA and fisheries scientists continue to monitor  localised depletion in the fishery. Should evidence of localised depletion be detected additional management action will be taken.

A map of Australia showing the area of the Small Pelagic Fishery, as decribed in the text.

Why is the SPF only split into two management zones and not more?

The SPF used to be split into four separate management zones, however scientific advice from three fisheries experts concluded that the four fishery zones were unlikely to reflect the natural delineation of these stocks.

An analysis of the literature on the biology, habitat and catches of target species was reviewed in a study published in 2008. This review suggests there is likely to be two major sub-populations of SPF species, one on the eastern seaboard including east Tasmania and another west of Tasmania across the Great Australian Bight and the Western Australia region. Based on these findings the report recommends the fishery should be managed as two separate stocks east and west of Tasmania separated by a line north and south directly through the center of Tasmania at 146°30′E longitude. The AFMA Commission agreed that the fishery be split into two zones, east and west of 146°30′E to more effectively manage the stock structure of SPF species.

In addition to the two management zones, there are specific areas within each of these zones that are closed to commercial fishing under the Commonwealth Marine Reserve network.

What is the risk of SPF boats interacting with non-target species?

Midwater trawling, is relatively selective, which means it has low levels of bycatch. This is evidenced by SPF observer data from 2001 to 2006 that found that mid-water trawl operators fishing adjacent to Tasmania caught minimal levels of non-target species.

AFMA implemented high levels of observer coverage in response to the accidental capture of dolphins in the SPF during 2004 and 2005. Voluntary measures were also adopted by operators to minimise the risk of interactions with dolphins. Since the measures were implemented, no dolphin captures have been reported by operators or observers.

How are SPF boats required to minimise bycatch of protected species?

When requested by AFMA, Commonwealth fishing boats must carry independent AFMA observers to monitor fishing activities and any impact on the marine environment. Observers collect biological data about fish and bycatch, which forms part of the scientific assessment used to decide sustainable TAC limits.

All SPF mid-water trawl boats must develop, carry and abide by vessel management plans tailored to each boat to minimise interactions with seabirds, seals and dolphins.

AFMA also requires mid-water trawl boats to use seal excluder devices to protect species such as seals and dolphins. AFMA routinely assesses and monitors seal excluder devices used on Commonwealth fishing boats.

How does AFMA deal with fishing operations that break the rules?

All Commonwealth-endorsed fishing vessels (concession holders) are subject to AFMA’s national compliance and enforcement programs and monitoring arrangements.

AFMA has in place a range of monitoring programs and technologies which are used to monitor the activity of each of the vessels in the Commonwealth fleet:

  • Vessel monitoring systems (VMS) – All Commonwealth-endorsed fishing vessels are required to fit and maintain a satellite based electronic VMS unit, which reports a vessel’s position to AFMA in near-real time on a regular basis to ensure vessels are not fishing in closed areas.
  • Electronic monitoring systems – AFMA has implemented electronic monitoring systems in a number of fisheries. These systems comprise both cameras and sensors which record and monitor all fishing activity.
  • Observers – Commonwealth fishing boats must carry independent AFMA observers, when required, in order to monitor fishing activities and any impact on the marine environment.

AFMA has a program of inspections and at-sea patrols that focus on targeting identified high risk ‘key’ fishing ports, vessels/operators and fish receivers relevant to Commonwealth jurisdiction. These inspections are carried out by uniformed AFMA fisheries officers and are conducted based on risk analysis and relevant intelligence information.

The Fisheries Management Act 1991 and Regulations allow for a range of enforcement measures. These measures can be used in combination or separately depending on the severity of the offence and include:

  • Warnings & cautions
  • Commonwealth Fisheries Infringement Notices – a $340 “on the spot” fine
  • Amendments to fishing concession conditions – to prevent the offence being repeated
  • Directions by fisheries officers – such as ordering a vessel to port
  • Suspension or cancellation of fishing concessions
  • Prosecution – Maximum penalties under the Act which can be imposed by a court include:
    • fines up to $55,000 for an individual or $275,000 for a corporation
    • forfeiture of vessel, catch and fishing equipment
    • suspension or cancellation of fishing concessions or prohibiting a person from being on a boat either within or outside the AFZ for a period prescribed by the court, and
    • up to 12 months imprisonment in the case of obstructing, threatening, assaulting or impersonating an officer.
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