A glass house called accountability and reforms Australia desperately needs

In undertaking a 2014 Nuffield Scholarship I have so far traveled to seventeen countries researching resource management practices, commercial fishing techniques and the legislative processes in place that govern the two. These three things are linked when considering how best to regulate an industry that extracts from a self-replenishing resource to ensure that extraction never surpasses that-which is renewable.

In doing so I have witnessed industry practices performed that I have personally felt are abhorrent and in complete contravention to what needs to be achieved in order to have sustainable fisheries. I’ve also seen amazing technological developments in fishing methods that have reduced environmental impact, eliminated bird interactions, reduced carbon emissions by 50%, seen the next generation and possible future of low impact trawl technologies and witnessed first hand how Australia could benefit from many of these innovations and management practices.

I’ve met legislators, regulators and compliance officers who have been doing everything from near impossible jobs given the systemic corruption occurring in some countries to bringing about some of the most progressive management reforms to support industry that could be imagined.

Nothing however could have prepared me for the utterly absurd, politically motivated and frankly stupid policy recently legislated in Brussels over the EU’s revised Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).

The Green movement has representation in the EU parliament of 58 out of 766 sitting members. Recently however this disproportionate representation was successful in a campaign to introduce last minute legislation as part of the revised CFP, which would have made it illegal for any fisherman operating under EU guidelines to discard anything during the course of normal operations at sea.

All fisherman would have been forced to retain all by-catch on board regardless of whether it had a commercial value, could have been returned to the water alive or whether its removal would have had a net negative effect on the marine ecosystem. It was a politicized piece of legislation that offered exactly zero forethought regarding how it would be implemented, regulated or achieved. No consideration was given to the significant logistical and financial burden that would be placed on fisherman to dispose of excess or unsalable fish in landfill while they were already struggling through other difficult reforms.

Any concept of a science-based approach was completely ignored for short-term political points.

A policy advisor working for the Environmental Defense Fund actually told me that so little thought was given to this piece of legislation that before the Parliaments Christmas break they had decided that there would not be a discard policy in the revised CFP. Upon returning to work they were told that had changed and that there was now a zero discards policy.

A number of member countries including Spain, France, and Britain banded together to secure eleventh hour reforms that would see a phased, sensible reduction in discard quantities achieved over the short to medium term. Agricultural farmers the world over are seeing the benefits of returning as much organic matter to their soils as possible to increase levels of organic carbons, promote greater biodiversity in soils, minimize use of artificial fertilizers and aid in substituting nutrients that cultivating takes from the earth. To assume anything which is taken from the ocean and returned is waste is beyond logic, sound reasoning and has little scientific basis.

While reductions in by-catch should be the aim of any fishery (with zero by-catch being the holy grail) returning by-catch to the sea is not waste. In many cases it provides forage for seabirds, seals, sea lions, pelagic fish, sharks and other marine creatures that benefit directly from it. In fact it has been shown through a number of scientific studies that discards can have a positive effect on some marine ecosystems. The key is to measure all discards to ensure our extraction levels are not passing levels that are considered renewable.

What makes the recent short sighted events in Brussels appalling is that in British Columbia, Canada they have achieved the near perfect balance between maximum sustainable yield harvesting, economic viability for fisherman, public accountability, food production and care for their marine environment.

During the 1990’s Canada’s fishing industry was, by its own admission, out of control. Fortunately their Department of Oceans and Fisheries (DFO) and industry had enough internal leadership and vision to bring all the stakeholders to the table and identify a clear objective that they wanted achieved. That was to have sustainable fisheries. Simple really.

Instead of taking the EU’s or in many cases Australia’s example and implementing top down regulation that becomes prohibitive for industry to adapt to changing circumstances, they gave industry the chance to play a major role in how their fishery was to develop and much of the management structure was developed from the bottom up.

Now every vessel operating in BC’s Integrated Ground fish Fishery is fitted with onboard cameras or carries observers, this makes them answerable to each other and to the public at large. Huge amounts of data are collected, audited by an independent third party and then used to manage their fish stocks down to the very last kg.

The result is fishers working side by side on the water that no longer see each other as competition but as allies in ensuring their stocks are looked after in the best possible way. The trawl sector voluntarily closed 50% of all of BC’s EEZ to bottom trawling (90% is closed in the south-east of Australia), placed quotas on corals and sponges and is proactively pursuing a program of electronic logbooks that will minimize time spent on compliance and reduce regulatory costs to the extent of millions.

Fishermen in this fishery are still permitted to discard but any discard must be accounted for and is deducted from the fisherman’s quota for each species. This has worked so well in getting fisherman to cooperate that fishermen have left up to 70% of quotas uncaught where stocks needed rebuilding.

The results are astounding and just as importantly the fisherman love it. All of the 50 Canadian fishermen I spoke to agreed with the structure of management and over half took great pride in saying they were part of the cleanest, greenest and most sustainable fishery in the world.

It was not an easy road, didn’t happen overnight and in the end fisherman had to get an independent arbitrator in to finally agree on what was a fair structure that wouldn’t disadvantage any one fishing sector. Overall though the results speak for themselves and it was worth it.

The only reason such politicized decisions were possible in Brussels was largely because for years EU fisherman were opposed to many reforms and in conflict with each. Where there is a leadership vacuum uninformed others will fill it. In this case it was top down regulation and unworkable quota conditions that meant fisherman had no choice but to discard. They rightfully feared a public backlash over the practices and subsequently did what they could to hide the practice. In doing so they lost the trust of their consumers and environmental groups were able to implant fear in an unknowing public.

Had the EU fisherman banded together, the same as their counterparts in BC had, the result could have been so different. Instead though they still saw the person fishing next to them as their main competition.

The reason such events are so relevant to our fishing industry in Australia is that recent history has shown that our own governments are not above making politically based decisions that disregard science and cause incalculable damage to our primary industries. The controversy surrounding Australia’s Small Pelagic Fishery (aka “super-trawlers”), Australia’s network of Marine Protection Areas, some state bans on GMO farming and bans on live cattle exports are local examples.

Australia’s Offshore Constitutional Settlement is an agreement between each State and the Commonwealth dividing management by fishery, species, method or geography. In many cases it forces fishers in one jurisdiction to discard perfectly good and valuable product because the fish are managed by another overlapping jurisdiction. Most of this discarded fish goes unreported and stock assessments suffer.

Another example is spatial closures that were put in place to “protect” one fishing sector from another. This means that even if fishermen have quota or a new cheaper and more efficient method that has less environmental consequences becomes available they may not be able to utilise it. Presently the SEESF trawl sector has been reduced to operating within 13% of its original grounds. The gillnet sector has been limited to operating shallower than 183 meters while the hook sector limited to operating deeper.

These sectorial restrictions have inhibited the ability of an industry to adapt to seasonal variation, environmental conditions and economic circumstances by limiting them to a single method. Parts of industry have embraced these rules believing it provides a competitive advantage for their sector over another. In the end though these rules have divided industry and is one reason we see so many industry associations. In the shark gillnet fishery there are two competing associations. It has turned individual operators and businesses into monoculture fisherman who cannot diversify and use other methods in other fisheries without having to go through multiple regulatory hurdles that for many small businesses is simply too hard and expensive.

Our Canadian cousins have shown us that when all parties are brought to the table and work together, reforms that lead to a truly progressive, cooperative and accountable industry are possible.

The extremely precautionary approach toward fisheries management in Australia means that the sustainability of our fish stocks is not in question but the sustainability of our fisherman is. Australian fisheries need far-reaching reform if we are to have sustainable fisheries that are economically viable, provide high quality seafood to our citizens, create jobs and most importantly maintain their social license to exist.

The only way our commercial fishing industry can hope to survive going into the future is as a unified voice across all sectors that speaks loudly enough for our right to exist. This cannot be achieved when we continually see each other as competition as opposed to allies. If industry stands together as a unified force we have a far greater chance of achieving reforms beneficial to us all. Fishermen are naturally competitive but when looking to the future we must realise that whether we like each or not is immaterial. We are all living together in a very large glass house called accountability. There are people and organizations on the outside of this house that don’t like us much and often take shots at the house slowly shattering the glass. While they are doing this, we’re stupidly still throwing stones at each other.