The science of sustainable seafood, explained

What’s the Deal with Trawling in Australian Waters?

Trawling in Australian waters has been an environmental issue for the last few years. In December 2014, Australia banned “Supertrawlers” a designation of fishing boat larger than 130m.

A petition in favor of the ban said, “Supertrawlers are part of a global problem that has led to the devastation of the world’s fisheries, marine life and local livelihoods, and we don’t want that kind of fishing in Australia.”

A controversial point of the ban is the definition of “supertrawler”, which currently does not consider processing capacity, just the size of the vessel.

One year later, than specific ban is still in place. However environmentalists are now calling for a further ban on all “large” trawlers from Australian waters.

Adding to the controversy was the recent “all-clear to fish again” given to the Geelong Star, a “large” vessel (although it is less than 130m in length). This factory trawler caused seven albatross deaths a few months ago when they accidentally got caught in its sonar gear. Environmental organizations argue it shouldn’t have been there in the first place because ships of this size can cause harm to sensitive species (like these albatross) regardless of where they fish or how careful they are. After effectively banning “supertrawlers” environmental NGOs now seek to ban all “large vessels” from Australian waters.

Comment by Robert Kearney, University of Canberra

The fundamental objectives of fisheries management are to ensure that what is removed is sustainable and that the effect of the methods used for its removal is compatible with society’s expectations for ethical behaviour, animal rights and ecosystem sustainability, including interactions with the broad marine food-chain.

In this regard Australia has achieved tremendous success in the conservative management of fish stocks in recent years (from approximately 40% of species in Commonwealth managed fisheries being assessed as overfished in 2004 to none being subjected to overfishing in 2014). This success has been based on commitment to three fundamental principles; first, appreciation that sustainability of fishing activities and the underlying resource base is paramount and achievable, second, elimination of truly destructive fishing practices and strict control of fishing that causes even localized damage to underlying ecosystems and third, strict control of catches, including of by-catch and incidentally impacted species. But Australia has a very poor record in developing new fisheries and reducing our reliance on imports from countries with less conservatively managed resource use.

With this premise of effective fisheries management in mind, consider the following comparisons between a fishery with many small trawl vessels and a fishery with fewer, larger trawlers.

Bycatch and discards would be easier to monitor and process on a smaller number of large trawlers. All forms of trawling are minimally selective, regardless of vessel size. The advantage of individual larger trawl vessel is that these facilities are more likely to have the capacity to separate, process and store bycatch species to make them available for sale upon landing. Additionally these larger vessels are equipped with better data collection technology to properly count and assess bycatch rates for better policy making. Indeed all forms of data collection and research are facilitated on larger vessels.

Larger vessels are also better suited for high seas fishing, which could have two major advantages over a small-vessel fleet. First, it could diminish fishing effort in in-shore areas where marine protected mammals are disproportionately concentrated. Second, it would allow Australian fishing effort to exploit underutilized stocks in the more off-shore areas of the EEZ and into the high seas. This could bolster food security and serve to address the lopsided trade imbalance in seafood that currently exists. If Australians hope to eat 40% more seafood, as is prescribed by the NHMRC, new harvest practices must be adopted: a large vessel fleet is better equipped to bring greater amounts of high quality seafood to market.

The larger the fishing vessel the more stable the onboard workspace. Smaller fishing vessels are inherently more dangerous than larger counterparts that can offer more stability during harvests in poor weather conditions.

On the matter of recreational fishers in opposition of large trawlers, there is little evidence for this claim. Larger commercial vessels would not be any more disruptive to important food supplies of major sport species, such as bluefin tuna, than greater numbers of small commercial vessels. In fact fewer large vessels would be less likely to overlap with important sport fishing territory and would be easier to relocate to offshore areas if a conflict arose. Most importantly though, it is not food supply that has driven southern bluefin populations down, it is commercial and recreational fishing effort for them. To point the finger at “supertrawlers” for impacting southern bluefin tuna distribution and food supply is illogical and not supported by the scientific evidence.

When referencing the scientific input in Australia it is important to note that Commonwealth fisheries scientists – those that are responsible for the science and rationale behind large trawlers – have, largely because of their government positions, been regrettably absent from most debates on this issue. Sensationalism from uniformed advocacy groups has thus been allowed to dominate the airwaves.

Perhaps most compelling for the development of a rational approach to “supertrawlers” is the simple fact that a fishery with fewer, more data sensitive vessels, despite being larger in size, would be far easier to ensure compliance with conservative regulations than many smaller vessels with questionable data collection capacities. Australia’s advances in fisheries management have been reliant on effective compliance efforts and unjustified restriction of “supertrawlers” is in direct conflict with that successful methodology. It is also contrary to the logical objective for Australia to be at the forefront of technological development and implementation, which has been recently confirmed by the Australian Prime Minister.

Robert Kearney is a professor emeritus at the University of Canberra. Read some of his writing here.

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