Principles?  What principles?

18th September 2017

By Ross Winstanley*

Victorian seafood consumers are paying the cost of a political winner-take-all approach to bay and inlet fish resource allocation.  Victoria’s major parties have abandoned commitments to consumers’ right to access local bay and inlet species through the commercial supply chain.

In Australian inshore fisheries, defining fair shares among competing interests has challenged governments for decades.  In Victoria the trend towards market-based allocations has simplified things, leaving it largely to transactions between recreational and commercial fishers.  Whether a considered or unintended consequence, this has enabled governments to shed their responsibilities to the largest stakeholder group – domestic seafood consumers.  Also lost is the long-held commitment to community engagement in decisions directly affecting community-owned resources.

Victorian governments have taken the extra step of moving beyond a market-based approach to a populism-based hand-over of most Port Phillip Bay scalefish to recreational fishers.

Competition between recreational and commercial fishers in bay and inlet fisheries was nothing new in 1987 when Minister Joan Kirner, declared to the Director of Fisheries “We must resolve this issue once and for all – please advise on appropriate action”.  This led to the parliamentary Natural Resources and Environment Committee (NREC) inquiry into the “Allocation of fish resources in Victorian bays and inlets”.

1991 NREC review

Starting in 1991, the NREC was asked to review the current allocation of fish resources and the impacts of fishing.  Ministerial instructions noted how the community expects these resources to be used: “we expect that they should support regular supplies of high quality fresh seafood” as well as recreational, traditional and subsistence fishing and “passive enjoyment”.  These were all to be “accommodated in a balanced fisheries management framework”.

The Minister emphasised the “vital principle” that “the bay and inlet fish resources are common property resources” and that present and future generations have “the right of access to those resources”.  The main task was to set out resource allocation principles ensuring effective resource conservation while meeting the community’s expectation of regular supplies of high quality fresh fish.

The NREC’s report set out eight allocation principles but concluded that the information available to them was “insufficient to show any major misallocation at the moment”.  They recommended that any future reallocation should only be made where a cost-benefit study showed an overall net benefit – and that those affected should be involved in the decision.  The Minister specified three key parties in such allocations:

  • recreational fishers,
  • commercial fishers and their customers, and
  • the community.

1998 FCC Review

The issues underlying Joan Kirner’s concerns were unresolved and, in 1997, Coalition Government Minister Pat McNamara asked the Fisheries Co-Management Council (FCC) to review commercial fishing in the bays and inlets.  His aim was “achieving a balanced approach between commercial netting practices, recreational fishing, consumers and environmental matters in Victoria’s bays and inlets”.  Several scientific and economic studies were commissioned to inform the review.  Among those studies was a survey of Victorian seafood consumers showing that “75% of the ‘preferred species’ comprised bay and inlet species”.

One major finding of the review was that scalefish catches were evenly balanced between commercial and recreational fishers.  A detailed analysis showed that any reallocation would only produce “minor” economic benefits.  Consumers were again recognised as stakeholders with “legitimate expectations to a share of access to … bay and inlet scalefish resources“.

The most significant finding was that the major threats to the bays and inlets and their fisheries were from ongoing environmental damage – not fishing practices.

Refusal to accept the review findings led anglers to continue pressing for removal of “unsustainable” commercial fishing from bays and inlets.  In response, Minister McNamara announced that a voluntary buy-out of commercial bay and inlet fishing licences would be funded from the sale of the new all-waters Recreational Fishing Licences (RFLs) to be introduced in 1999.  He stressed that the Government’s intention was to benefit recreational fishing and tourism without affecting fresh fish supplies.

In the lead-up to the 1999 State election, the Labor Opposition announced their intention to implement a $5M buy-back of commercial bay and inlet licences “to increase fishing opportunities for recreational anglers“.  Labor expected this to remove about 60% of licences in order to reduce commercial fishing pressure.

2000 ENRC Inquiry

On coming into power in 1999, the Bracks Labor Government asked the (renamed) Environment and Natural Resources Committee (ENRC) to conduct “An inquiry into fisheries management across Victoria”.  This committee again identified resource allocation as the most urgent and complex task facing fisheries management.  They identified the absence of consumer involvement in co-management and consultation processes as an obstacle to determining consumer “needs“.  As with previous inquiries, the committee found that “Allocation of fishery resources is primarily an issue for the whole community”.

The all-party committee noted the similarities between the 1991 NREC resource allocation principles and the principles of Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD).  They took particular note of the study showing clear community preferences for accessing bay and inlet species through the commercial supply chain.  They noted that the commercial bay and inlet fisheries are important suppliers of fresh local fish to domestic consumers.

Commenting on the ad hoc nature of recent allocation and adjustment processes, the ENRC recommended that resource allocation should follow the principles of ESD, emphasising individual and community wellbeing, equity within and between generations and involving all affected stakeholders.

Commercial licence buy-outs

The RFL-funded voluntary buy-out promised by Minister McNamara and Opposition Leader Bracks resulted in the removal of 52% of the bay and inlet licences from operators responsible for 20% of commercial landings.  In the lead-up to the 2002 election the Bracks Government committed to establishing recreational-only fishing zones consistent with “an overall resource allocation policy” based on the work of the FCC.  But, having already reduced reallocation to a transaction between recreational and commercial fishers, how could this Government claim any commitment to the FCC’s balanced consumer-inclusive recommendations?

By launching the 1999-2000 buy-out, the Government had freed itself of any direct involvement in bay and inlet fish resource allocation.  In effect it had distanced itself from any responsibility to consumers and from engagement with the owners of the resource – the Victorian community.  The long-held belief that consumers’ elected representatives would protect their interests was history.

This was the start of an eight-year period when resource allocation became a series of market transactions between recreational and commercial fishers, to the exclusion of any input from consumers and the community.  In effect, successive Coalition and Labor governments denied any responsibility for the wider community interests.  Ironically, the conclusion of the first buy-out occurred when the all-party ENRC were finalising recommendations on ESD-based allocation processes involving all affected stakeholders.

A second RFL-funded voluntary buy-out removed more commercial licences from bays and inlets in 2006/07.  The Labor Government followed this by disbanding Victoria’s FCC – the foremost co-management body in Australia – replacing it with a “fit-for-purpose” consultation model which meant whatever the Government wanted it to mean.

Populism rules

The next “development” in resource allocation leapt beyond a market-based process to purely populism-driven political decisions.  The first of these was the 2007 ban on commercial netting to create a “recreational fishing haven” in Western Port Bay.  This occurred without any prior consultation with fishers or the wider community.  The $5M “fishing adjustment package” was funded by the Victorian community – essentially the consumers whose access to bay and inlet fish had been progressively withdrawn since 1999.  Over those eight years the number of commercial licences for Port Phillip Bay alone had been reduced from 115 to 44 and the average commercial landings there had been reduced by 64%.  But, for these consumers there was worse to come.

Disenfranchising consumers and denying community involvement in allocation decisions reached their current low-point at the 2014 election when both the Coalition Government and Labor Opposition promised to remove commercial net fishing from Port Phillip Bay.  While initiated by persistent and spurious angler claims about the unsustainability of netting, these policy commitments were developed with recreational fishing-related business interests, not the recreational fisher body, VRFish.  In 2015, the Labor Government announced its $27M package to buy out commercial Bay licences.

This brought the total public funding of buy-out commitments since 2007 to $32M, all in order to improve recreational fishing opportunities and political support from recreational fishing interests.  As seafood consumers make up 92% of Victorians, in effect consumers unwittingly paid for the privilege of surrendering access to seafood they valued highly.

What happened to the broad-based ESD-style resource allocation principles developed with all-party support in 1991 and repeated in 2002?  What happened to maintaining “equitable access for all Victorians” and “regular supplies of high quality fresh seafood” from the Bay?  Where did this leave the rights of future generations?  Over this same period, substantial cuts to Victoria’s fisheries research capabilities seemingly reflected successive governments’ rejection of evidence-based policy.

What would Joan say?

Back in 1988, Minister Joan Kirner was weighing up options for reviewing policy on bay and inlet fish resource allocation.  One option was the formation of a task force comprising departmental, commercial fishing and recreational fishing interests.  My written advice to her was to guard against a compromise between commercial and recreational fishing interests at the expense of wider community interests.  Today, Victorian consumers would probably settle for such a compromise while a Director of Fisheries might tell Joan “We’ve fixed your problem”.

* Ross Winstanley is a keen angler, fishing writer and fisheries consultant.  For 30 years he worked with Fisheries Victoria in policy, management and research and assisted with drafting the ENRC’s 2002 Inquiry into Fisheries Management report.