Time to Recognise Seafood Consumers as Stakeholders

By Ross Winstanley*

In July this year, the 8th World Recreational Fishing Conference in Victoria, BC, will feature the theme Allocation issues in fisheries: recreational, commercial, aboriginal, subsistence and artisanal. As part of that discussion, I’m proposing to introduce a proposition that I’ve put forward in co-management and seafood industry forums and, most recently, in a response to the Productivity Commission’s draft report on marine fisheries and aquaculture. It’s not an anti-recreational or pro-commercial fishing theme – it’s a case for governments to recognise the rights of domestic seafood consumers alongside these other interests when it comes to resource allocation decision processes.

As the outline of the WRFC8 session indicates, resource allocation is commonly considered in terms of various fishing interests. My basic proposition is that, as our fish stocks are a publically owned resource, domestic consumers of locally-caught seafood should be recognised as primary stakeholders in resource allocation processes. For any stock that is fished commercially to supply domestic markets, local consumers generally form the largest stakeholder group. Further, in terms of numbers, they roughly equate to “the community” – the owners of the resource. Why then are they not ranked in equal terms to recreational, commercial, aboriginal, subsistence and artisanal interests in relation to recognition of “rights” and a clear position in allocation policy processes?

Too often, governments are prepared to terminate demonstrably sustainable commercial fisheries in favour of recreational fishing when the overall community benefits from both sectors are perfectly sustainable. Too often, on-water conflicts between anglers and commercial fishermen are “resolved” by eliminating commercial fishing instead of seeking negotiated resolutions or drawing on the range of fisheries management tools. Too often, commercial fishers must accept publicly-funded compensation packages to quit sustainable fisheries. Sometimes, compensation packages are funded from recreational fishing licence revenue; this effectively reduces resource allocation to a commercial transaction between commercial and recreational fishers.

Why does this happen? The traditional contestants are usually well represented by vocal and effective advocacy groups who promote their interests, capturing media and political attention. Domestic consumers rarely have any direct representation and are totally unaware that their access to community-owned, i.e. their resource is being negotiated away through processes in which they have no part. In theory, consumers should be able to rely on their elected representatives to recognise and protect their interests. However, in practice governments respond to strident lobbying and consumers are quietly consigned to alternative seafood sources. Consumers are, thus, excluded from what may otherwise be quite legitimate decision processes.

Typical of what is happening in Australian inshore fisheries, the 2014 Victorian Government decision to remove a proven sustainable commercial net fishery in Port Phillip Bay is disenfranchising five million Victorian consumers in order to benefit perhaps 100,000 regular anglers who already enjoy enviable fishing. The political decision process took no account of 20 years of State-funded stock assessments all of which demonstrated that commercial and recreational fishing, combined, continue to be sustainable. No advice was sought from the statutory Fisheries Advisory Council, established to provide balanced advice on such policy issues.

no fresh fish today

The Victorian Government ignored Fisheries Victoria’s reporting that 27% of Victorians eat fish weekly and that most prefer to buy locally caught fish. At no time did the Government consider consumers’ interests in the fishery or consult with the broader community, nor did it explain why the community should not continue to enjoy the combined benefits from commercial and recreational fishing. All in all the Government seems to have abandoned one of the key objectives of the Fisheries Act 1995, namely “to promote sustainable commercial fishing ..for the benefit of present and future generations”.



Photo: SETFIA (inserted)

Commercial fishermen in Victoria’s two significant remaining inshore scalefish fisheries – in Corner Inlet and the Gippsland Lake – can expect the same sort of pressures to intensify as anglers push the government to eliminate all forms of commercial net fishing from these inlets, effectively ending these fisheries. Unless there’s a turnaround in government thinking, “present and future generations” of Victorian consumers face the real prospect of losing access to their local snapper, whiting, bream, calamari and other inshore fresh fish.

*  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