Australian Sea of Controversy – Super Trawler Abel Tasman
Super trawler Abel Tasman– Bad Press or Bad News?
Guest Post – by Lauren McGrath
The recent passage of legislation through the Senate banning Dutch owned super trawler Abel Tasman from operating in Australian waters for up to two years has divided public opinion.
Pressure from environmental lobbyists led to the ban and called for tougher regulation of trawl fisheries. The decision has come despite recommendations from the government funded Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) that the vessel’s operations would be sustainable and localised depletion of fish stocks unlikely. Those in opposition of the banning believe the decision is based on political agendas rather than sound science whilst conservationists remain sceptical of the sustainability of this type of harvesting.
The massive trawler ‘factory ship’ was set to operate in Australia’s Small Pelagic Fishery, extending from Tasmania, north throughout NSW to QLD and as far west as WA. At 142 metres, it is the second largest super trawler in the world and would be the largest ever to operate in Australia. Prior to the banning, the trawler had been granted an 18,000 tonne catch quota of redbait and jack mackerel for the 2012/13 season. It is capable of freezing up to 4,000 tonnes on board which would be shipped to Asia and Africa for human consumption. The vessel previously trawled the West African coast and there are concerns fish stocks have been depleted in that area, creating the need to seek out new reserves.
Trawling is one of the most popular means of fishing in the world. It has also been described as one of the most indiscriminate methods. Super trawlers tow a weighted net either through the water column (mid-water trawling) or along the ocean floor (benthic trawling) which is cast wide allowing for fish to be caught in large numbers. They are then suctioned on board via pipe to be sorted, packed and frozen. Concerns have arisen that this technique will lead to overfishing due to the sheer size of the nets used. The Abel Tasman with a net 600 metres long and 200 metres wide is certain to catch everything in its path. Concerns also surround the numbers of incidental ‘by-catch,’ that is, fish and mammals that are not specifically targeted by fishers.
Supporters of the super trawler believe these concerns are unwarranted. A strict quota proposing the 18,000 tonne limit of fish caught for the trawler’s first season was set using egg surveys to estimate the size of spawning stocks. When criticised for using ‘old data’ to set the limits, that AFMA responded by claiming that the catch limits were significantly lowered to accommodate variation over time.
They also claim that the target species are currently lightly fished due to their highly mobile nature and the inability of smaller vessels to cover large distances to harvest them. Redbait and Jack Mackerel are economically a low value species and therefore are currently only being used as fishmeal. The size and freezing capabilities of the vessel mean that large quantities of the catch can be frozen and shipped to Africa for human consumption, adding value to the product.
The size of the vessel and scale of its capacity have also been a controversial talking point. Supporters say the processing and freezing sections on board the boat mean that only one third of the vessel is utilised as a fishing boat. The AFMA state on their website that there is no evidence to suggest that a larger vessel such as Abel Tasman would pose higher risk to the environment than smaller boats. This is hard to accept considering the scale and force at which it can operate.
The AFMA additionally claimed modifications to the vessel were to be strictly enforced to prevent incidents of by-catch. A seal excluder device would be fitted to mitigate mega-fauna by-catch along with cameras to monitor the effectiveness of the device.
The delay has also received criticism being responsible for laying off 50 Australian workers already employed by the trawler’s operator Seafish Tasmania.
For those who oppose the super trawler, this number is just a drop in the ocean. Scientific concerns relating to overfishing and consequential localised depletion of fish stocks are apparent due to the huge capacity of the trawler. The track record of the vessel alone should be grounds to banish the floating giant from our waters. Having already pillaged West African fisheries, it seems likely (pending approval) that the Australian coast would be its next conquest.
The vast scale of the ship is another concern that cannot be overlooked. Common sense would suggest that a giant net cast hundreds of metres into the ocean will indiscriminately collect everything in its path. After all how do you pluck a weed without taking the flower blossoming in the centre? Yes there are measures taken to mitigate the numbers of by-catch, but how effectively are they reported? How easy is it to distinguish non-target and target fish species amongst the thousands that are caught?
The huge capacity of the vessel has also prompted fears that it will strip entire ecosystems and decimate fish stocks that provide a vital food source for higher predators. Again common sense (or basic science) should prevail. The enhanced removal of key species such as redbait and jack mackerel is going to affect predator species in the food chain.
This is particularly concerning due to the inaccuracy of current pelagic fish stock levels due to the age of the studies. There is also likely to be flow on effects to local fisheries as specific areas have not been assigned separate quotas allowing the most populous fisheries to be exploited. It also seems just a little too convenient that quotas for jack mackerel have doubled upon arrival of the massive floating factory.
It appears that the expert body setup to advise the government on sustainable levels of catch are badly underfunded and the data they are using is out-dated. Thus it may not provide a sound basis for allocating fishing quotas. The decision to ban the Abel Tasman for two years will provide time to properly assess the likely impact on fish stocks and the flow on effects through the ocean food chain.
Regardless of the findings, this is a good result for our priceless marine life.
Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) 2012, Super Trawler FAQs (online), Available: <http://www.afma.gov.au/2012/08/super-trawler-faqs-3/> (27 September 2012).
Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) 2012, Midwater Trawls (online), Available: <http://www.fao.org/fishery/geartype/207/en> (26 September 2012).
Greenpeace 2012, People Power Wins! Super Trawler Banned (online), Available: <http://www.greenpeace.org/australia/en/news/oceans/People-power-wins-Super-trawler-banned/> (26 September 2012).
Wright, L 2012, The Super-Trawler Margiris Should be Banned from Australian Waters (online), Available: <http://yourview.org.au/issues/23-The-super-trawler-Margiris-should-be-banned-from-Australian-waters> (26 September 2012).
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