ENVIRONMENT: An open letter to NSW’s new fisheries minister

New Minister for Primary Industries, Adam Marshall.

Dear Minister Marshall,

First, congratulations on your re-election and appointment as Minister. You’ve some significant challenges ahead, particularly in the country regions.

As you come to grips with where your agencies fit within the new Planning and Industry cluster, you’ll quickly see that within the Department of Primary Industries sits DPI Fisheries, and within DPI Fisheries the recreational fishing functional units. You may have some initial questions, such as: why should a recreational/sporting/tourism activity that marries lifestyle benefits and the contribution of billions of dollars into regional economies and the tackle and boating industries sit within DPI; might it not be more sensible to give it some autonomy from DPI and run it more or less independently with a board-based structure similar to the Marine Estate Management Authority?

Because, Minister, there are a few problems with the current arrangements, as highlighted by lobbyists and other political parties in the run up to the recent election.

First, there’s a question around expenditure. DPI reports and figures suggest that about 50% of the up to $15 million collected in annual fishing licence fees goes towards administrative support and assorted salaries. This is despite a promise made on the introduction of licences 17 years ago that these costs would never exceed 10% of licence revenue. It would appear that over the period core funding to the regulatory and administrative side of rec fishing has evaporated and it’s all coming out of licence trust funds…the phrase “betrayal of trust” springs to mind.

Second, there’s a question of accountability. Certainly, some of the funds held in the trust have been allocated to worthy projects, although DPI Fisheries appears to manage most of these with advice from its ministerially-appointed committees. There’s no external board structure to keep an eye on these projects, to audit outcomes and to report to Parliament.  

Third, there’s a question of representation. Around 450,000 of the state’s 750,000 anglers are required to pay fishing fees, but there’s no mechanism to seek their views on priorities for the use of those fees. There’s no acknowledged peak representative body for anglers across the state. How do we know what the bulk of anglers think if they’re not asked? Do they favour infrastructure provision, environmental projects, fish restocking, research? How about using the licence database, with proper advice on privacy provisions, to find this out?

Lastly, Minister, words of advice from a retired bureaucrat who was involved in many fisheries projects and lots of legislative and regulatory reform, particularly in the aquaculture sector, where some said it couldn’t be done. When you’re told in briefings “rec fishing in NSW is managed just fine” and change is too hard, take it with a hefty grain of salt, and ask those telling you this how they can prove it. And also ask why the Victorians, West Australians and Northern Territorians are perceived to be streets ahead in rec fishing management.

John Newbery


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