What we do

Frequently Asked Questions

What is trawling? (an answer from New Zealand)

Watch the video on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2tCsgKzAufw

Is trawling bad for the environment? (and how much trawling is occuring?)

A report completed by CSIRO scientists titled, Predicting benthic impacts & recovery to support biodiversity management in the South-east Marine Region has found that trawling only touches 6% of the south east seafloor and has not had a major effect on groups of invertebrates (animals without backbones such as corals, sponges and sea-squirts). These invertebrate groups are now recovering, due to positive actions of industry and management.

The South East is also home to the world’s largest network of continental shelf and deep-water marine parks. The 14 parks in the 388,464km2 South East Marine Reserve Network are about the same size as the landmass of the state of South Australia.

During this work CSIRO scientists integrated many data sets to produce three types of maps for the south-east:

1) Maps of where habitat forming bottom invertebrate (animals without backbones) groups occur based on previous surveys and computer modelling with depth, sediments, currents, temperature, nutrients and others.

2) A map of 15 different seafloor habitat types, or assemblages, obtained from existing survey data for all fishes, using invertebrates as indicators of different types of habitats and by again using computer modelling of things like depth.

3) A map of the trawl fishery’s swept area. Deep-water trawl fishing vessels log their position and width of their gear each time they shoot and haul their net and record the width of their fishing gear.

Existing research about the damage that trawl fishing gear causes to these invertebrate groups, and their recovery afterwards, was also considered.

CSIRO research calculated the effect of various management interventions including the removal of 86 trawl licences (which is now 107 but only 86 were considered), establishing the South East Commonwealth Marine Reserve and other fishery area closures.

Key findings of this work were:

1) Only 6% of the seafloor is currently trawled annually because trawling is aggregated into a small area.

2) Some assemblages of invertebrates are not ever trawled because the area of seafloor where they live is either closed by fishery closures, protected by marine parks or is not trawled because it is unproductive or too rough. Large areas (44%) of the region are closed through fishery closures (39%) and marine parks (9%) with some overlap.

3) All 10 groups of seafloor invertebrates declined after trawling started to a low point around the year 2005 when these invertebrates reached 80-93% of their un-trawled abundance.

4) Closures, marine parks and licence buy-backs contributed to the recovery of invertebrates by 1-3% to 82-94% of their un-trawled abundance. Licence buybacks improved the status of all groups and closures contributed for most groups. However, most fishery closures and marine parks had little detectable influence on the abundance of invertebrates.


100 years of the south-east providing healthy seafood in relation to the loss of 6-18% of the SE region’s invertebrate abundance contrasts favourably to the loss of 40% of Australia’s forests and 50% of its wetlands. The trawl fishing of 6% annually of the south-east seafloor compares very favourably with the farming of 26% of the Australian landmass.

How are Australian fisheries managed?

There are two fishing methods within the South East Trawl Fishery: Danish Seining and otterboard trawling.  There are requirements for by-catch reduction devices and also net designs that reduce bycatch and the catch of small fish.

There are 36 trawl permits in the fishery.  Around 85% of the trawl fishery is closed by fishery management closures, marine parks (388,000km2 in south-east Australia) and oil and gas exclusions.  The Illawarra, Gippsland, Northern Tasmania, and Southern Ocean windfarm zone proposals are all within the trawl fishery and will likely cover an additional 30,000km2 with trawl fishing most likely not possible where windfarms are built within these zones over the coming decades.  In addition to these ‘hard’ closures there are many areas of low fish abundance and a large amount that are too rough to fish.  With very few vessels and most grounds closed the fishery’s catch is the lowest ever and with-it the risk presented by trawl fishing to stocks, habitat and the environment is lower than ever before.

All trawl vessels operate a satellite-based vessel monitoring system or VMS which ensures that vessels do not fish in closed areas.  Given the confidential nature of fishing VMS data is only seen by AFMA and this is why most trawl vessels chose to not use AIS (the optional public vessel tracking system that most international shipping uses).  

The fishery has more than 30 fish stocks managed under quotas (also known as total allowable catches or “TACs”). These TACs are based on sustainable catch levels set under the framework of the Commonwealth Fisheries Harvest Strategy Policy.  Assessments of fish stocks are completed by researchers under contract to AFMA. The South East Resource Assessment Group (RAG) and the South East Management Advisory Committee (SEMAC) consider these and provide advice to the AFMA Fisheries Commission.   These two groups are composed of fisheries scientists, assessment scientists, Government Agencies, recreational fishing and conservation representatives commercial fishing industry representatives (including SETFIA).

An ecological risk assessment (ERA) is completed on all trawl caught species, this includes those not under management and/or discarded at sea.  This identifies ‘at-risk’ species of marine creatures (not just fish) and is designed to return ‘false positives’.  High risk species are investigated further and if required management is put in place to protect them..  

Some South East Trawl fish stocks extend beyond the fishery’s boundaries into state waters. Under Offshore Constitutional Settlement arrangements, those jurisdictions have largely ceded control of south-eastern Commonwealth quota-managed species to the Commonwealth Government for management by the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA).  New South Wales retains jurisdiction over catches by non-trawl fishers along the New South Wales coastline out to 80 nautical miles (nm), and trawl fishers out to 80 nm north of Barrenjoey Point (the South East Trawl Fishery boundary).  All state catches of fish stocks managed by the Commonwealth are subtracted from South East Trawl Fishery quotas before they are issued to ensure that the total catch volume remains sustainable.  States relevant to the South East Trawl Fishery include a little of South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and the southern part of NSW.

The AFMA Commission takes advice from the SE MAC, the SE RAG, AFMA and other sources before making final decisions about managing the fishery in line with the Fisheries Management Act 1991.

Is Orange Roughy going extinct?

Orange Roughy the fish

Orange Roughy are widely distributed across the temperate latitudes of the world and are most common in depths between 800m and 1,000m. Orange roughy live for more than 100 years and mature at around 30 years. In Australia they are only caught by trawl fishing.

Orange roughy has a very white flesh with a mild delicate flavour and holds together well after cooking meaning that it can be used in a variety of ways. Boneless fillets retail for $30-$40 per kg.

The Fishery and its Management

There are several stocks of orange roughy across south-East Australia. The stock being certified is the Eastern Zone stock. The eastern stock is mostly caught in two hot spots called Orange Roughy Management Areas (ORMA’s), one to the east and the other to the south of Tasmania. There are very few fishing areas in each of those management areas.

Orange roughy congregates every year in Winter in a few areas making them easy to catch. This makes them vulnerable to overfishing where there is no management.

In Australia catches are limited by quota. The sustainable catch or quota is set based on a stock assessment. The eastern zone quota in 2020/21 is 1,276 tonnes (which equates to around 425 tonnes of fillets). The quota will move up and down according to the stock assessment to ensure that catches remain stable.

Quota for Commonwealth fisheries are set by the AFMA Commission – a group of impartial experts without conflicts who take advice from a variety of places and rely heavily on scientific advice. Quotas are not set by politicians, environmental groups, or the fishing industry.

Stock assessments are sophisticated models of the number of fish, their reproduction, the arrival of young fish, their natural rates of death, their growth, the age at which they mature and to some extent whether catch rates are increasing or decreasing.

History of Orange Roughy fishing in Australia

Orange Roughy was discovered in the eastern zone off St Helens Hill in 1989. By 1990 landings had increased to an unsustainable 53,000 tonnes a year. By 1994 TACs (total allowable catches) were dropped to 4,000 tonnes and in 2003 dropped again to 2,000 tonnes. In 2007 grounds deeper than 700m were closed to trawling and TACs were set at low levels so there was enough quota for unavoidable by-catch to be landed but not enough to target the stock. Small but increased TACs began in 2015.

Investment in recovery

In 2009 the industry association started work to turn the eastern zone orange fishery around.  Over this period in partnership and with co-investment from with AFMA, FRDC and CSIRO, the fishing industry has invested around $5m in surveys, observers, assessments, ageing and general management. 

In 2009 CSIRO Tasmania and SETFIA partnered in a survey tool, known as the net-attached acoustic optical system (AOS). The AOS is towed from a fishing vessel through schools of orange roughy to 'snapshot' the biomass of winter-spawning populations.

The AOS measures the sound reflectance, or 'target strength' of fish at multiple frequencies − including an extra low frequency needed to identify orange roughy schools in some cases − while also photographing fish with two cameras as they are herded into the trawl net. This allows for the acoustic frequency of the fish to be visually verified, so species identification and biomass estimates are more accurate than in the past.

Thousands of lengths and otoliths (fish ear bones) are taken from fish.  Rings in otoliths indicate the age of fish. These allow for age classes of fish to be imputed into assessment models and as fish is caught scientists can see the age classes change.

AFMA at-sea observers validate catches and collect samples. Vessels record their catches using online reporting software that automatically enters the location of their fishing.

This significant investment in data, assessment and science led to an understanding of the size of the stock, the ecosystem and the sustainable catch.

The most recent investment in MSC certification by six major catchers and quota owners over the past two years are the final steps in the journey to sustainability.

Why some eNGOs fight so hard to discredit sustainable fishing

Environmental groups rely on donations to operate. 

These groups must spread misinformation to generate concern and maximise donations. Some of these eNGO’s operate their own fish sustainability guides that are in competition esteemed standards like the Marine Stewardship Council. Very few of these 2nd tier guides have stated standards, public input or any transparency. The guides are weaponised to drive donations.

Some eNGOs have the goal of shutting down fishing altogether. Doing so would plunge the world into famine given most of the world’s animal-based protein comes from seafood.

How much of the South-East is open to trawling?

Most grounds available to the trawl fishery 20 years ago are now closed by marine parks, fishery closures and most recently to make space for future windfarms. 

The chart below shows area closed to all trawl fishing (red), closed to board trawling and open to Danish seining (orange), the proposed Gippsland Renewable Energy Zone (windfarm zone) (yellow).  The smaller green slivers squeezed in between these closures are the only areas that remain open - they are likely to be further impacted in western Victoria and South Australia by the currently proposed Southern Ocean Windfarm Zone (not pictured). 

In the South-East bioregion, an area smaller than the entire fishery because it does not include grounds off NSW, calculations show that the trawl industry has lost 85% of the grounds listed in fishing permits 20 years ago.

Are there plastics in Australian wildcaught fish?