OPINION: Super trawler saga – It’s “only” bait

THE fight over plans to allow the world’s second largest super trawler to fish in the Commonwealth-controlled jack mackerel fishery has united previously unaligned groups and has had the side benefit of explaining to lay people why bait fish are a crucial part of the marine ecosystem. Even Channel 10 ran an explanatory story on it.

AFMA defended its support of the Abel Tasman/Magiris by saying that stocks of jack mackerel and redbait are currently strong and the super trawler’s take will be limited, despite the fact that the monster was to range across from Tasmania to Western Australia, in effect where “no trawler has gone before.”

We’d argue that this support is both dangerous and non-precautionary, from both a contemporary and an historical perspective.

A study just released by the University of Sydney on bass and their prey may seem to be a long way from the current debate. It basically suggests that higher temperatures caused by climate change are affecting the way predators (bass) and a favourite prey species (mosquitofish) react. Mosquitofish get faster as temperatures rise, which in turn limits the ability of the bass to catch them, which in turn may affect bass numbers and the entire ecosystem. We also know that the temperatures of east and south coast waters of Australia are changing and that tropical predator species are extending further south. Has AFMA considered the longer term effects of these sorts of environmental changes and possible impacts when setting jack mackerel fishery catch limits, or just “current” stock assessments?

History warns against ignoring these factors. The Peruvian anchovy fishery looked extremely healthy until its total collapse in 1972. In 1971 it was still being touted as a model of successful fishery management. But in ’72 it collapsed completely when recruitment failed for some reason (i.e. no breeding that year) and the surviving adult stock moved inshore as a result of a severe El Nino event. There a combination of heavy fishing and the extreme environmental conditions finished the stocks off. No more anchovies, no more fishery, no more feed for a vast range of predator species.

Now AFMA would have learnt from the overfishing part of that event, surely, but it can’t control severe environmental / weather events. Think back to 1999. Our South and Western Australian pilchard fisheries ground to an absolute halt when stocks were wiped out by a herpes virus. Healthy one day, gone the next. Doesn’t really matter whether the virus was imported or broke out naturally, it still destroyed stocks and fishermen’s livelihoods, and clearly wasn’t predicted or modelled.

Those sorts of events are examples of exactly why super trawlers have no place in our fisheries, and why for once Australian anglers, conservationists and small-scale, sustainable commercial fishers are of like mind and united in opposition to this outrageous plan.

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