Environment News: Bait safe for now as Supertrawler sails

WELL, at last it looks like the super trawler Margiris/Abel Tasman has left town, and a good job too.

Whether there really were enough bait fish to support this sort of industrial-scale fishing, and whether endangered species were really threatened by the trawler’s operations, remain unanswered questions. But the answer to the question of allowing super trawlers to operate at all in our waters looked to be a pretty resounding “no” from the Australian public. So what happens now?

Let’s recap the situation. At varying times over the last 20 years it became quite lucrative to target Australian sardines, blue mackerel, jack mackerel and redbait, particularly in the mid-2000s. Then something happened to dramatically reduce the attractiveness of the targeting of these species. Fuel price increases? Wage increases? Licence buy-outs? Low market prices? The high dollar? The GFC? A mixture of some or all of these? A resource economist out there could possibly enlighten us.

The Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) of course didn’t reduce its total allowable (TAC) catch levels by much, but in 2009-10 only 2,525t was taken out of a TAC of 35,600t. In 2010-11 the harvest dropped to 535t out of a TAC of 30,300t; most of that was blue mackerel (400t). No wonder the Margiris operators were keen … there was hardly any active competition. Only five small vessels were active in the fishery in each of those two years.

But … and it’s a big but … even though only five vessels fished, there are 70 active fishing permits in the Small Pelagic Fishery. That would explain, I guess, how the Margiris boys were able to come up with plan B, that is to use their big ship as virtually a factory vessel supplied by smaller licensed operators. We don’t how many licence holders were interested, or what the deal was, but clearly there were some willing to come on board with the scheme proposed.

So I guess the message is “we won the battle, but the war may not be over.” Game and sport fishers may have some great seasons ahead while the bait stocks stay largely untouched. Pelagic predators … fish and mammals … might be fat and happy. But the big TAC is still there, as are around 65 “sleeper” licences, and you can bet someone, somewhere is right now trying to work out how to make a quid out of that situation.

The figures above come from Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) Fishery status reports 2011. As always, this annual review of Commonwealth-controlled fisheries contains hundreds of pages of fascinating information and data if you’re into (1) statistics and (2) fish.

In coming months we’ll look at fisheries management issues it identifies and trends and developments in fisheries targeting tuna, billfish and other species of particular interest to anglers.

John Newbery is Fishing World’s Environment Editor.

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