Fishy stuff

Federal fisheries policy is … um … all at sea.

By Lyle Dunne

When the government announced its interim decision about the Abel Tasman, the now-notorious “supertrawler”, I was ambivalent. Although this “squeaky wheel”, tweet-driven approach to policy-making seemed less than ideal, I could see the argument that a new and very large vessel could have a negative effect on our fishing industry – an industry that historically has not been managed well, with various fish species exploited to near-extinction. It has seemed at times that fishing quotas have been in effect licences to rape and pillage, with no incentive on the licensee to conserve resources, and not much interest on the part of the government for doing so.

In the intervening weeks, however, a more complex picture has emerged.

The initial reaction seems to have been based on the visuals: “Geez it’s a big bugger isn’t it? Mate, if we’d known it was gunna be this big…”

But in fact the owners have explained – and as far as I’m aware no-one has contradicted this – that the nets the vessel uses are no larger than those used on conventional vessels, and thus the number of fish it can catch in a given time are no greater. The larger size is largely the result of increased storage capacity, it seems, so that it can take advantage of the economies of scale (so to speak) of being able to stay at sea for longer periods.

But doesn’t that mean it can catch more fish?

No net fished

Well, no, because the number of fish it can catch are set by quota.

And that brings us to the nub of the matter.

Fisheries in Australia are limited by quota. And the quotas the Abel Tasman uses were purchased on the open market.

So there is, in fact, no net increase (so to speak) in the number of fish which can be caught in Australian waters – it’s simply a matter of transferring the quotas from their previous owners to the owners of the Abel Tasman.

There is of course an argument of Capital Xenophobia to be dealt with here: is foreign investment a good thing? Do we want a bunch of foreign investors coming in and buying up our rural properties, developing our wilderness, creating jobs in depressed areas, and so forth? That’s a bigger argument than I can deal with here, although more astute readers may pick up which way I’m leaning. Let me be a shade more explicit: either we want to participate in the international free market, or we don’t – but as a major exporting nation in the middle of a minerals boom which is insulating us from an international financial crisis, I think we should be aware which side our iron ore is buttered on.

There is, in fact, no net increase (so to speak) in the number of fish which can be caught in Australian waters.

Further, if we want to – suicidally, in my view – curtail foreign investment, the place to do it is the Foreign Investment Review Board, not the administration of fishing quotas.

Now, it may be the case that we’ve over-allocated our fishing quotas, at beyond sustainable levels. Heaven knows we’ve done it often enough in the past.

But am I the only one who thinks that the idea that this has been discovered immediately after a bunch of quotas have been bought up by the owners of a Bloody Big Boat (BBB) smells, well, a little bit fishy?

OK, though, let’s be generous. Let’s suppose for argument’s sake we have discovered, purely by coincidence at the exact moment a bunch of foreigners with a BBB turn up, that we’ve over-allocated our quotas. Whoops, sorry, turns out there’s lots more fish in the sea – but not quite as many as we thought.

What would be the rational, fair policy response?


It seems to me the appropriate strategy would be to reduce quotas across the board, without fear, favour or consideration of the nationality of the quota-holders. Or whether they were driving a BBB.

(Somewhere along the line you might even want to consider a spot of compensation, given that you’ve seized people’s property rights, what with the Constitution and all.)

So, know that we’ve had time for reflection, did the government announce this week that it had All Been a Terrible Mistake, that they’d perhaps over-reacted to the BBB effect in the light of hard data?

Did they mention an across-the-board cut?

Did they heck.

They went for the cheap-shot, short-term, shamelessly populist approach: shaft the rich foreigners. Some thing you might expect in a third-world banana republic, to coin a phrase.

And what happened when the owners, who one might’ve thought were justified in feeling a touch peeved, tried – with really exemplary patience — to find out what the new rules were?

Could they perhaps use their quotas on a not-quite-so BBB, if it was the size that was frightening the horses?

Well after a quick round of pass-the-parcel between the Environment and Fisheries Ministers (and Departments, but we can’t really blame them), the answer came back, quick as a flash:

We’ll Get Back to You on That.

Anyone hear the sounds of small feet scurrying down what I believe are called, appropriately enough, the ratlines?

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