Super trawler FAQs
Last updated 14 March 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
3 September – Letter to the Canberra Times which remains unpublished.
23 August 2012 – Letter to TARFish responding to recreational fishing concerns.
21 August 2012 - Small Pelagic Fishery: General background to the scientific issues (PDF, 676kb)
Seven of Australia’s leading fisheries scientists have produced this paper in response to the public debate about this issue.
Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences Fisheries Status Report 2010 – Small Pelagic Fishery
An assessment of the fishery and the health of its fish stocks.
United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (Fisheries and Aquaculture Department) information about midwater trawling.
Frequently asked questions
What is the issue?
What is the current status?
Why is AFMA confident that the boat’s operations would be sustainable?
What sort of rules and regulations apply to boats in the fishery?
How much fishing is happening in the fishery now?
Do we want this boat here?
Why does AFMA consider that its fisheries management is best practice?
Is the super trawler really twice as big as any boat ever to fish in Australia?
Is AFMA’s science wrong or is it too old?
Does the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s enquiry mean that AFMA’s catch limits are illegal?
What is the current status of fish stocks in the fishery?
How will AFMA limit the amount of fish that can be taken from the fishery?
What does AFMA consider in setting catches?
How do the catch limits for this fishery compare?
What are the catch limits in the Small Pelagic Fishery?
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 will AFMA do to prevent localised depletion?
Why is the SPF only split into two management zones and not more?
How would the boat be required to minimise bycatch of protected species?
What monitoring and enforcement powers does AFMA have to deal with fishing operations that break the law?
Seafish Tasmania, a fishing company in the Commonwealth Small Pelagic Fishery (SPF), intends to fish in the SPF with a large freezer trawler. The boat is coming from overseas and is larger than other vessels that fish in the Australian fishing zone.
The FV Abel Tasman was registered as an Australian-flagged boat under the Shipping Registration Act 1981 on 5 September 2012 with a home port of Brisbane. The boat is currently docked in Port Lincoln.
On 20 September 2012 AFMA advised Seafish Tasmania that its boat nomination application has been given effect under the Fisheries Management Act 1991. AFMA has no discretion to refuse a boat nomination for any Australian vessel that can demonstrate that it meets the requirements of the Fisheries Management Act 1991. This means that FV Abel Tasman is now nominated to Seafish Tasmania’s fishing concessions but it does not mean that the vessel can now commence fishing.
Also on 20 September, the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, the Hon. Tony Burke MP, made the Interim (Small Pelagic Fishery) Declaration 2012 which prevents the FV Abel Tasman from fishing for up to two years. On 19 November 2012 Minister Burke announced that under environmental law the FV Abel Tasman would be unable to fish in the Small Pelagic Fishery due to a 24 month ban on midwater trawl freezer vessels while an expert panel undertakes an assessment.
On 25 February 2013, Minister Burke signed a further interim declaration which prevents 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 is carried out.
As an independent government regulator, AFMA takes advice from Australia’s and the world’s best scientists to set sustainable catch limits. Total catch limits are less than 10 per cent of the fish stock, which are precautionary and in line with internationally accepted standards.
These catch limits are strictly enforced by AFMA using high tech systems to support compliance officers working both at sea and in ports. Australia’s fisheries management is consistently ranked among the world’s best in independent reports by international experts. AFMA has found no evidence that larger boats pose a higher risk to either commercial species or broader marine ecosystem when total catches are limited and the limits are enforced.
This type of fishing, midwater trawling, is one of the most selective which means the bycatch will be very low. AFMA works closely with fishers to minimise bycatch and they will be required to follow several rules to ensure wildlife isn’t impacted.
The science shows that localised depletion is unlikely in this fishery but if the boat does fish, AFMA will be keeping a close eye on this issue given the concerns raised.
AFMA has strict regulations in place to ensure that all fishing operations, including those with large boats, fish sustainably.
The fishery is managed through a strict quota system, meaning that there is a limit to how much fish can be caught. Individual, tradeable catch shares are allocated to fishing operators. Smaller operators in the fishery are able to fish any quota they currently hold and the introduction of the large boat would not affect their access.
The FV Abel Tasman would have been be subject to the same stringent rules as any other fishing boat. These rules include being fitted with a GPS tracking system, carrying an AFMA observer, using a seal excluder device to prevent capture of seal and dolphins and the strict catch limits. All these rules are strictly enforced. AFMA is not aware of any evidence that larger boats pose a higher risk to either commercial species or broader marine ecosystem – essentially there is no difference between one large boat and a number of smaller boats.
This resource is currently being very lightly fished because for most smaller vessels it is uneconomical to operate in this fishery. Smaller vessels without at-sea processing and freezer capacity need to constantly return to port 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 as the ability to freeze the catch straightaway preserves the quality of the fish it means the product is suitable for human consumption and not just fishmeal, thereby adding value to the product.
The issue here is that there is no reason to single out this boat. Australia’s fisheries management is well-equipped to deal with all types of fishing boats and this is no exception. AFMA makes sure that all fishing operations are sustainable and as long as the fishing industry comply with these rules, is up to the fishing industry to determine what types of boats are most economical for them to use.
Australia’s fisheries management has been consistently ranked among 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 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.
In this study, Australia was also ranked first on our performance in protecting marine mammals and the government response in mitigating or preventing human-induced damages to marine mammal populations including those from fishing.
A report by the United Nation’s Food Agriculture Organization also highlighted Australia’s effective fisheries management including actions to rebuild overfished stocks. This has been evidenced in the ABARES fishery status report where the number of fish stocks classified as overfished and/or subject to overfishing has fallen from 24 in 2005 to 6 in 2010. In contrast, the number of stocks classified as not overfished and not subject to overfishing increased from 19 to 53 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 (IPOA-IUU), adopted by FAO members in 2001.
No. The FV Abel Tasman would have been the biggest boat to fish in Australian waters but it isn’t twice as big as the next biggest boat, which was approximately 106 metres long.
The main reason the FV Abel Tasman is so big is the factory and freezer on board. For a factory vessel of around 150m length only about one third (around 50m) is ‘fishing boat’ with the remainder processing and storage. The net would not have been the biggest net currently used in Australian fisheries – and in terms of fishing impact, this is the part that matters.
AFMA uses the best available science to set catch limits. Seven world leading Australian scientists have publicly supported the science in their report titled The Commonwealth Small Pelagic Fishery: General background to the scientific issues (PDF, 673kb). The report outlines the scientist’s views on the science involved in the management of the SPF. Some key points from the report are summarised below.
Catch limits in the SPF 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. These harvest rates may be increased as improved information becomes available. Reliability of biomass estimates will diminish over time if they are not updated.
Many factors can influence the estimates and while there is uncertainty in the estimates for each SPF quota species, the general consistency indicates the population estimates are not substantially incorrect. There will always be uncertainties in the estimates and because of this, catch levels must be set at a safe level despite the uncertainties which is what the strategy ensures.
The SPF Harvest Strategy was adapted heavily from the experience gained in the South Australian Sardine Fishery (SASF) where a similar precautionary approach was taken to manage the fishery. Extensive ecological studies were conducted to investigate the potential ecosystem impacts of the SASF. Results showed that:
- no predatory species fed exclusively or predominantly on only sardine;
- availability of food did not negatively impact on the foraging habits of predatory species;
- the function of the ecosystem was not negatively affected by the growth of the SASF; and
- ecological effects from localised depletion did not occur.
The SPF is unlikely to cause impacts on the feeding patterns of predators including through localised depletion. The main reasons for this is that catch levels are set low, the food-web in the South East Australian marine ecosystem has been well studied, predators (tuna, marine animals etc) and their pelagic prey are highly mobile.
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. The food-web in the SPF ecosystem has many different forage species so it is not as sensitive. Compared to the annual consumption of some predators such as seals and tunas/billfish, the catch levels set for quota species in the SPF is low. For example, it is estimated that seals consume between 25,000 to 40,000 tonnes of Redbait alone per year.
Claims have been made that overfishing of jack mackerel in the 1980s and 1990s led to the loss of surface schools of jack mackerel. However, scientific reports suggest it was due to changes in the plankton distribution caused by warming in the waters off eastern Tasmania over the past 40 years. This warming has caused other ecological changes including the apparent increase in redbait populations and changes in zooplankton composition.
Observer data from 2001 to 2006 in the SPF found that mid-water trawl operators fishing adjacent to Tasmania caught minimal levels of non-target species. In response to the capture of dolphins in the SPF, during the years of 2004 and 2005 AFMA implemented high levels of observer coverage and voluntary measures were also put in place. Since the measures were implemented, no dolphin captures have been reported and this is corroborated by observers and trawl net video cameras.
AFMA welcomes constructive, science-based debate on the catch limits set in our fisheries, however such debate needs to be based on facts. Mathematician Dr Andrew Wadsley’s criticisms of the Neira report have been responded to by the Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies, which produced that report.
Prof Jessica Meeuwig’s criticisms similarly suggest a misunderstanding of the facts around management of this fishery. A review of the science should take place through the normal channels for peer review.
AFMA welcomes the Ombudsman’s scrutiny and is confident that the total allowable catches have been lawfully made.
The allegation is that a potential conflict of interest in the South East Management Advisory Committee discussion now means that the catch limits set at that meeting are illegal.
However, total allowable catches for this fishery were not set by the South East Management Advisory Committee, nor were they set by AFMA management or staff. It is the responsibility of the AFMA Commission, a completely non-partisan, independent statutory authority, to set the total allowable catches for Commonwealth fisheries.
In setting the catch limits for the Small Pelagic Fishery the AFMA Commission considered all available scientific information as well as the views of the resource assessment group and management advisory committee, which includes scientists, fishing and conservation representatives.
The management advisory committee’s role is to gather the opinions of various interest groups, including environmental and recreational fishing groups, fishing industry participants, scientists, economists and the states and provide advice to the Commission. The views of members of these groups are not always unanimous, and the Commission takes into consideration all views expressed by their members in the full knowledge that they will have different perspectives, different interests and different agendas. Ensuring that all interests are heard is the very purpose of the laws that require these groups to be established.
Declaring conflicts of interest is a standing agenda item discussed at all MAC and RAG meetings. AFMA has recently written to all MAC and RAG chairs to remind them of their responsibilities in declaring conflicts of interest. For more information, see the managing conflicts of interest letter.
For example, interests were declared in the recent SPFRAG meeting on 30-31 August 2012 and the SEMAC meeting on 26 March 2011 where the SPF TACs were recommended to the AFMA Commission.
The SEMAC minutes from 26 March 2012 clearly state that the MAC reviewed the standing declarations of potential conflicts of interest and noted the following declarations specific to the SPF, including:
“Mr Gerry Geen – direct conflict of interest in regard to TAC setting noting that Seafish Tasmania P/L holds approximately 60% of the Jack Mackerel SFRs, 70% of the Redbait (east) SFRs, 30% of Blue Mackerel (east) SFRs and significant quota holdings in the western zone”.
The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) Fishery Status Report 2010 lists all stocks of Small Pelagic Fishery species, except for Redbait west, as ‘not overfished and not subject to overfishing’. Redbait west is assessed as ‘uncertain’ because of limited information available to assess its status. AFMA has set a low catch limit to reflect this uncertainty.
Table 1: Status of the Small Pelagic Fishery stocks from ABARES Fisheries Status Report 2010
AFMA sets catch limits for the fishery each year, which are sustainable amounts of fish (by weight) that can be taken from the fishery. The best available science is used to set these limits, and due to the important place of small fish in the food chain, the limits are set at precautionary levels in the SPF.
The total allowable catch is divided up between the operators in the form of quota. The total allowable catch doesn’t change simply because the number or size of boats change. Operators must inform AFMA of all catch landed and AFMA checks this information. If operators are found to have caught more than their quota holdings, strict penalties apply.
In setting the total allowable catch each year, the AFMA Commission considers advice from the Small Pelagic Fishery Resource Assessment Group (SPFRAG), South East Management Advisory Committee (SEMAC), AFMA Management and other relevant information. Agreement amongst RAG and MAC members is not always unanimous and the AFMA Commission takes into consideration all views when making its decisions.
SPFRAG is made up of scientific members and members from fisheries management, industry, states and the environmental and recreational sectors. It provides its advice after considering an 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 SPFRAG and makes its own recommendations of total allowable catch to the AFMA Commission.
The SPF Harvest Strategy, in place since 2008, specifies decision rules for setting sustainable catch limits based on the level of information known about the 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 catch limits for species in the Small Pelagic Fishery are all at or below 10 per cent 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 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.
|Species||TAC (t) 2008-09||TAC (t) 2009-10||TAC (t) 2010-11||TAC (t) 2011-12||TAC (t) 2012-13||% of estimated spawning
biomass in 2012-13
|Blue Mackerel East||5,400||4,300||2,500||2,500||2,600||<7.5|
|Blue Mackerel West||8,400||7,000||4,200||4,200||6,500||7.5|
|Jack Mackerel East||5,000||4,900||4,600||4,600||10,100||<7.5|
|Jack Mackerel West||5,000||4,900||5,000||5,000||5,000||7.5|
|Australian Sardine East||2,800||1,600||400||400||200||<7.5|
The catch limit was increased because of research, based on surveys conducted in 2002-2004, that was published in 2011. The research indicated Jack Mackerel (East) had a higher spawning biomass than previously thought.
Based on this information, the majority of the resource assessment group recommended a take of 7.5 per cent of the estimated spawning biomass. This was reduced by 500 tonnes to account for other factors (such as state catches) to give a final catch limit of 10,100 tonnes.
The views of the environmental and recreational sectors were taken into account when developing the SPF Harvest Strategy and setting catch limits for small pelagic species. Environmental and recreational members sit on the Small Pelagic Fishery Resource Assessment Group and the South East Management Advisory Committee, which provide advice to the AFMA Commission about Small Pelagic Fishery catch limits.
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.
AFMA continues to facilitate the annual stock assessment of this fishery, which is used to assist in making catch limit decisions and is funded by the fishing industry through levies.
AFMA understands that there is a proposal for the South Australian Research and Development Institute to undertake a daily egg production method survey later this year. AFMA also understands that Seafish Tasmania had offered to fund this work but this work is not currently expected to proceed.
The Small Pelagic Fishery 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. Catch limits for these species are set at precautionary levels that take into consideration both the species’ productivity and broader ecosystem impacts.
At the moment, the total allowable catch in the fishery for all species is less than 10 per cent of the estimated spawning fish population and therefore, at least 90 per cent of the fish remain in the ecosystem.
Fisheries science and experience in other similar fisheries both here and overseas suggests that localised depletion is a very low risk in this fishery. 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 through out 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 catch limits are set for each zone and this ensures that the quota for each species can not all be taken from one zone.
AFMA and fisheries scientists will monitor the issue and if localised depletion is detected additional management action will be taken.
The SPF used to be split into four separate management zones, however unanimous 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 caches of target species was reviewed in a study published in 2008 which suggested that there is likely to be two major subpopulations 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. The findings of the report suggested the fishery should be managed as having stocks east and west of Tasmania 146°30′E. There was some evidence that separate stocks occur in the far west of the fishery, but there was no strong basis upon which to recommend a meaningful boundary to further split the western zone.
The AFMA Commission agreed, based on the findings of the report, and the based on knowledge of oceanographic, bathymetric, biological and fishery-dependent information, 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 Protected Area network.
Midwater trawling, which is the method that was proposed to be used by the FV Abel Tasman, is relatively selective, which means it has low levels of bycatch.
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 catch limits.
AFMA, in consultation with the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Population and Communities, has implemented conditions to reduce the risk of bycatch for any large scale midwater trawl operation in the SPF.
All SPF midwater trawl boats must develop, carry and abide by seabird management plans that are tailored to each boat to minimise interactions with seabirds. In addition if a large scale midwater trawl boat was to operate in the fishery, it must also carry and abide by seal and dolphin management plans.
AFMA also requires midwater 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 and if the FV Abel Tasman was to fish in a Commonwealth fishery AFMA would ensure the device is effective and require modifications be made if necessary. In addition AFMA understands that the Abel Tasman proposed to process whole fish so expects that there would have been little offal discharge to attract seabirds.
What monitoring and enforcement powers does AFMA have to deal with fishing operations that break the rules?
All Commonwealth-endorsed fishing vessels (concession holders) are subject to AFMA’s domestic 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 $220 “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.
- Changes in the Gillnet, Hook and Trap Sector of the Southern and Eastern Scalefish and Shark Fishery to Protect Dolphins
- Draft Shark Plan 2
- Changes in the Gillnet, Hook and Trap Sector of the Southern and Eastern Scalefish and Shark Fishery
- Eastern Tuna and Billfish Fishery Management arrangements booklet 2011
- Freedom of Information