How do Victorians want their fish?

By Ross Winstanley*

In a previous article I advocated for the interests of domestic seafood consumers to be considered alongside those of recreational, commercial and indigenous fishers when resource allocation decisions are made. I used the current Victorian Government’s phase-out of commercial net fishing in Port Phillip Bay as an example of what’s happening around Australia in the closure of demonstrably-sustainable commercial fishing, in favour of recreational fishing, at real costs to consumers.

The earlier article elicited a number of responses, one of which pointed out that netting in the Bay supplies a very small part of Victoria’s seafood consumption. While that may be so, setting aside the 75% of imported canned, packaged and frozen products, the Bay net fishery has been, until now, a major source of Victoria’s fresh seafood, contributing around 600 tonnes of community-owned and highly-valued seafood and bait annually. In 2014/15, this net fishery provided 41% of the Victorian commercial landings of snapper, whiting and calamary.

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Closures of commercial fishing are quite legitimate decisions when made transparently after genuine community consultation and consideration of all interests. However, in the lead-up to the 2014 State election there was no evidence of such due process when both the Coalition Government and the Labor Opposition announced their intentions to close commercial net fishing in the Bay. There was no sign that the rights of Victorian seafood consumers and the impacts of closures on seafood supplies had been given any consideration. Nor was there any indication that 20 years of Victorian government stock assessments, showing commercial net fishing to be sustainable, had been recognised.

Aside from these stock assessments, just what information did both political parties have access to when formulating their policy decisions? In fact, they had two previous government-commissioned surveys of the Victorian community’s preferred ways of accessing their common property fish resources. If asked, Fisheries Victoria could have offered the results of the two community attitude surveys that dealt specifically with this question.

The first survey was commissioned under a Coalition government and conducted in 1997 by Roy Morgan Research. It asked individuals how they preferred to have access to snapper, whiting, bream, calamary, garfish and flounder: from recreational, commercial or other forms of fishing or through “non-consumptive” paths such as under-water observation and nature appreciation. For every species the results showed clear preferences for access through commercial fisheries: snapper 65%, whiting 70% and calamary 75%, for example.

The second survey was commissioned under a Labor government in 2005 and conducted by Quantum Market Research “to obtain information on community preferences for alternative types of access to, or benefits from, the use of five marine and estuarine fish species”. Victorians were surveyed in two waves, in March-April and August-September. In both waves there were clear community preferences for buying each species “from a fish shop, fish market, supermarket, take-away or restaurant.”

The following figure shows the community preference percentages for snapper, whiting, calamary and black bream in the 1997 and 2005 surveys. It shows that around twice as many Victorians want to access each of these popular “shared” species through Victorian commercial landings, compared to those preferring to access them through recreational fishing.  These findings are especially significant in terms of the Bay fishery which has been the major source of Victorian snapper (90%), whiting (55%) and calamary (55%) sold on the fresh fish market.

So, how did the Coalition Government and the Labor Opposition rationalise their policy positions in late 2014?  Then-premier Napthine stated that the removal of net fishing would be “a huge boost to 750,000 recreational fishers who will be guaranteed a better catch”. He went on to say that it would also be “a huge boost to the marine environment because there are real risks to the bay from the netting processes” – a claim that lacked any foundation in the light of major environmental studies, ongoing monitoring and a 70% reduction in commercial licence numbers since the early 1990s.

Opposition Leader Andrews linked Labor’s matching policy with the goal “to increase the number of recreational fishers to one million by 2020”. He explained that the netting closure was intended to increase fish stocks for recreational fishers and went on to say “We’re on the side of recreational fishers”.
Neither policy referred to impacts on Victorian consumers, nor was there any attempt made to justify either policy in terms of alternative sources of seafood.

Returning to the small cut in total seafood availability or the ~40% cut in Victorian commercial landings of snapper, whiting and calamary, the real significance of the decision to phase out netting was the way in which it was made. On the Coalition’s part, the policy was announced five days after the Minister responsible for fisheries had met with the statutory Fisheries Advisory Council where he neither referred to nor sought advice on this proposal. Both the Coalition and Labor policies were founded on the strategy of removing commercial netting in order to increase recreational fisher numbers and catches while fairly compensating commercial fishermen. Both policies seem to have been developed from discussions held solely with recreational and commercial fishing sector representatives. Neither process showed any attempt at transparency, community consultation or open consideration of the impacts on fresh seafood supplies.

In effect, both policies were sure to reduce sustainable supplies of popular local seafood, push consumer prices higher and increase reliance on interstate whiting and calamary and New Zealand snapper, and on offshore fisheries and imported seafood. The implied policy position was that, without having any say in the matter, consumers should be happy to switch to blue grenadier, mirror dory and basa fillets or pay a premium for snapper and whiting.

A 2002 Victorian Parliamentary inquiry into fisheries stated that “the largest group of stakeholders (apart from the community as a whole) are seafood consumers who rely on the commercial fishing industry for their access to Victorian seafood”. It went on to indicate that consumers make up 91 to 92% of the total community; today, that’s 5.5 million Victorian consumer-stakeholders. FRDC’s 2012 resource access and allocation study observed that consumers “drive the need for seafood production through an expectation of purchasing and consuming locally caught fish”.

Until governments start to actively include them as legitimate stakeholders in resource sharing, consumers will continue to lose access to locally caught fish from Australian inshore fisheries.

Ross Winstanley is a fisheries consultant and a current member of the statutory Victorian Fisheries Advisory Council & Recreational Fishing Roundtable Forum.  He has been the chair of Fisheries Victoria’s fisheries assessment workshops and is a former Director of Victorian DPI’s Marine & Freshwater Research Institute, Snobs Creek fish hatchery and Queenscliff Institutes