Dr Tanya Kings’ Formal Message To Four Corners

21 Nov

Dr Tanya King – Maritime Anthropologist, Deakin University sent a formal message to Four Corners in response to their report on the Margiris.

The message to Four Corners can be read below:

Dr Tanya King – Maritime Anthropologist, Deakin University

Four Corners’ report last night on the unfolding of the debate around the super-trawler, the Margiris, ran aground of the paradox of contemporary fisheries management. As in other media accounts, we heard that Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) minister, the Hon. Joe Ludwig, had a limited capacity to do what environmental groups and amateur fishing lobbyists around the country demanded: that the Margiris be prevented from fishing Australian waters. What was not discussed was that the Australian system of policies, legislation and legal precedents actively promotes the use of such vessels, with the assumption that such a system is environmentally beneficial.

Australian fisheries are managed by the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) according to the Fisheries Management Act (1991), which has as one of its key legislative objectives, the ‘economically efficient’ management of fisheries. According to the policy document informing the Act, New Directions for Commonwealth Fisheries Management in the 1990s, ‘Management controls which maximise economic efficiency involve a lower level of fishing effort and lower costs than in an uncontrolled situation, and in virtually all cases are also consistent with the biological sustainability of the resources’. This claim that ‘economic efficiency’ leads to ‘biological sustainability’ is, at best, unsupported and, at worst, spurious. As this link remains unchallenged, however, AFMA has diligently pursued their legislative objectives to maintain economically efficient fisheries for over two decades.

In the majority of cases, economically efficient management has meant the introduction of some form of fishing quotas, a tool championed by environmental groups and amateur fishing lobbyists as rightfully restricting the activities of professional fishers. It is supposed that fisheries will ‘voluntarily adjust’, with smaller operations selling out to the larger, so that only the most economically efficient remain. In other words, fewer, larger operations are preferable to a greater number of small-scale fishers. Taken to its logical extreme, boats like the Margiris are the desired consequence of a quota managed fishery.

This assumption was put to the test in the early 1990s, when the fishing company, Bannister Quest Pty. Ltd., sought to increase the size of their boat in order to catch their allocated quota more efficiently. While AFMA initially rejected the idea, they were challenged all the way to the Federal Court. In 1997, Judge Drummond announced that not only did AFMA have no right to restrict vessel size, because doing so would be to hamper the economic efficiency of the fishery as a whole, but that the 1991 Act did not ‘permit the [AFMA] Board to take into account the human costs of [fisheries] restructure’. This ruling has been the guiding precedent used by AFMA in the execution of their statutory objectives ever since.

In this perfect storm of legislation and legal precedent, it is hardly surprising that Minister Ludwig had a hard time finding a reason to reject the Margiris. The legislated protection of dolphins and seals – ‘charismatic megafauna’ – came as a lifeline to Ludwig in a political gale. The overwhelming public outcry against the super-trawler on the basis of its size, particularly by environmental groups and amateur fishing lobbyists such as those interviewed on Four Corners last night, is at odds with the very policies advocated by these same groups in the past.

The September 11th announcement by Minister Ludwig that there would be “a root and branch review of the Fisheries Management Act”, is welcome. Let’s hope that it is more comprehensive that DAFF’s 2003 review of the New Directions document, ‘which re-enforced the principles of the [original] policy’.

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