Flathead quota down but it could be worse…

18th April 2017

Every year AFMA’s Fishery Commission sets Total Allowable Catches (TACs or “quotas”) in the trawl fishery.  These quotas are set based on stock sizes derived from scientific assessments.  Through something called a harvest strategy these quotas aim to manage fish stocks at a set level called maximum economic yield (MEY).  MEY maintains more fish in the water than the target called maximum sustainable yield that readers may be more familiar with.  This means that under MEY management less fish is taken from a larger stock.  The idea behind MEY is that leaving more fish in the water makes them easier and cheaper to catch and means that fishing vessels make more profit even though they catch less fish.

Quotas start on May 1 and AFMA recently announced the quotas for 2017/18.   21 of the 30 trawl stocks managed under quota did not change or only very small changes occurred.  Of the stocks that changed there were increases in blue eye trevalla, elephant fish, jackass morwong, school whiting and silver trevally.    There were decreases in western gemfish, mirror dory and silver warehou.  The decrease that will hit the industry most is the movement of tiger flathead quota from 2,860 tonnes to 2,690 tonnes – a 170 tonne decrease.  Flathead is the main target species in the fishery and a key driver of economic performance.  It is a choke species meaning that when flathead quota is limited fishing stops and other quotas that are caught with flathead are not caught either.

Under instruction from the CSIRO and AFMA the Association will conduct a survey of mesh sizes in south-east Victoria.  Vessels voluntarily moved to larger mesh and this may be affecting the model’s estimate of how many young fish are entering the fishery.  When this work is done the model will be re-run and new TAC calculated for 2018/19.

Following the Victorian Government’s decision to close most of its commercial finfish fishing and move the resource from seafood consumers to recreational anglers this year’s trawl quota decrease will put more pressure on Victorian retailers and restaurants.   Victoria does not operate formal harvest strategies nor complete stock assessments on most of its finfish fisheries.

In 2014 the Victorian Government sold rights in the Port Phillip Bay hand harvest scallop fishery to Port Phillip Bay Scallops for $180,000.  In 2014 Port Phillip Bay Scallops paid nearly $70,000 to Victoria for a stock assessment of scallops.   The survey found that there were 3,629 tonnes of scallops in the Bay and that this should be the basis of a 585 tonne scallop TAC.  However, after failing to set a new quota the company took the Minister to the Supreme Court –  Justice John Rush found the Minister (Pulford) had shown “a complete disregard for the legitimate interests of the plaintiff”[1]  and ordered her to set a quota.  In 2015 a 250 tonne TAC was set.  However, a few weeks ago  Minister Pulford reduced this to a permanently capped at 60 tonnes without possibility of increase.  Read judgment here.

Commonwealth licenced trawl fishermen accept that quotas go up and quotas go down and that the long-term health of fisheries is more important than short term financial loss.  Over the last 10 years there have been five overall quota increases and five decreases in the trawl fishery.

The Victorian hand scallop fishery experience is a reminder to Commonwealth fishermen that even when the harvest strategy reduces quotas that we should still be grateful that our businesses, and seafood consumers’ rights, are secure with quotas being set at predetermined levels using science and because we do not have to rely on expensive legal action to overturn political decisions.

[1] Sydney Morning Herald April 1, 2017