What has happened to fisheries co-management in Victoria?

By Ross Winstanley*

Since 1995, Victoria has see-sawed between structured co-management and “fit-for-purpose” arrangements, depending on the government of the day.  Coalition governments have twice introduced broad-based statutory co-management councils while Labor governments have twice turned to less-structured arrangements.

From the 1960s, Victoria was at the forefront of sharing responsibilities between government and the commercial and recreational fishing sectors.  In 1995, this led to the adoption of co-management as the cornerstone of fisheries management in the State.

During 2000 and 2001, the all-party Environment and Natural Resources Committee (ENRC) reviewed the effectiveness of the Fisheries Co-Management Council, concluding that “Co-management is a worthy concept and the Victorian model should be retained and improved.”

Then during the 2000s, fisheries ministers turned away from the co-management model which had become established in all other Australian jurisdictions; instead they adopted “fit-for-purpose” consultation.

Today, Victoria stands alone in having no statutory advisory body drawn from fishing and aquaculture interests, advising the Minister on strategic policy and management issues.  Further, it stands alone in having no standing body representing all recreational fishers to advise the Minister on recreational fisheries issues.

‘Co-management’ in the 70s and 80s

The Fisheries Act 1968 established the basis for commercial fishing sector partnerships in licensing and management decision-making.  Agreement between the government and industry led to appointments to the Fisheries Management Committee, Commercial Fisheries Licensing Panel and Licensing Appeals Tribunal.

In the area of recreational fishing, the Victorian Recreational Fishing Advisory Council provided formal advice to the Minister while wider consultation was conducted through the Amateur Fishermans Consultative Committee of Victoria.

The level of decision-making responsibility devolved to fishers was in the “consultative” middle-ground area of the spectrum of stakeholder engagement.  Government interactions with recreational fishers and the commercial sector were separated and other stakeholder interests were excluded.


1995 Fisheries Act

In 1994, Kennett Government Minister, Geoff Coleman, proposed:

  • a Statutory Authority to manage fisheries
  • an independent body to represent all recreational fishers
  • a Fisheries Advisory Council to advise on fisheries management
  • all-waters recreational fishing licence.

The Fisheries Act 1995 provided for the establishment of the Fisheries Co-Management Council (FCC, commenced 1996), recreational fishing peak body (VRFish, 1996) and the Recreational Fishing Licence (RFL, 1999).  The far-sighted proposals foreshadowed the Fisheries Advisory Council (FAC, 2015) and the Victorian Fisheries Authority (VFA, 2017).


Fisheries Co-Management Council

The 1995 Act specified the broad-based FCC comprising members drawn from commercial fishing and aquaculture industries, recreational fishing, traditional fishing, conservation, fisheries management and science.  It also provided for specific Fisheries Committees whose members were drawn from similar fields to advise the FCC and the Minister.

The FCC’s role included a wide range of delegated responsibilities, representing a clear shift towards the “collaborative” government-stakeholder partnership area of co-management.

For the first time, the FCC and Fisheries Committees were expertise-based and co-involved commercial, recreational and traditional fishing, aquaculture and conservation interests.

Underpinning this broad partnership version of co-management, the Act recognised four organisations as representing State-wide recreational fishing (VRFish), commercial fishing (SIV), aquaculture and conservation interests.


Review of consultative arrangements

In 2007 the Brumby Government launched a “consultative arrangements review” aimed at achieving a new flexible framework that “provides for performance-based, fit-for-purpose consultation and engagement overseen by key stakeholder representatives“.

The review concluded that the FCC arrangements were too rigid, and raised concerns over efficiency, complexity, accountability, stakeholder representation and governance.

New arrangements were designed to ensure that all fishery interests could have an input into fisheries management decisions. To that end, consultation was broadened beyond the ‘peak bodies’.  The new framework centred on stakeholder consultation plans based on “principles of effective consultation.

The review stated that, at the completion of each future consultation process, “decisions made will be communicated to stakeholders” confirming that this form of co-management was consultative in name but with decisions firmly in government hands.

To implement the review, the Act was amended in 2009 and featured the inclusion of eight “consultation principles”.  While stating that consultation should be “clear, open, timely and transparent“, the principles made it clear that consultation would be targeted at commercial sector, recreational fishers, aquaculture operators, conservation groups and indigenous groups.

The Act amendments repealed references to co-management and “recognised peak bodies”.


Fisheries Advisory Council, 2013-2017

Prior to succeeding at the 2010 election, the Coalition committed to “legislate to reinstate a consultative process that involves all the peak bodies in the industry“.  Debate on the 2013 Bill indicated confusion regarding the distinction between consultation and genuine involvement of stakeholders in strategic fisheries management decisions.  The 1995 Act was amended to establish a cross-sectoral Fisheries Advisory Council whose role was to “advise the Minister on strategic matters relating to management of fisheries“.  The Brumby Government’s “principles of effective consultationremained, with no constraint on continued “fit for purpose” consultation.

In 2013 and 2014, an “Interim FAC” met to prepare for the FAC’s eventual work plan.  The FAC was appointed in October 2014, then met twice in 2015 under the newly-elected Labor Government.  At the second meeting, the Government clarified the FAC’s immediate priority: help with delivering the Target One Million recreational fishing policy commitments.

One of those commitments was to replace Fisheries Victoria with a statutory authority and further FAC meetings were suspended in mid-2015; it was discontinued in 2017.

Thus ended Victoria’s most recent co-management entity.  Since 2015, co-management in Victoria has reverted to sector-by-sector arrangements, much as existed prior to 1995.  Prominent longer-running examples include:

  • the Fisheries Cost Recovery Standing Committee
  • annual TAC and quota-setting negotiations for quota-managed fisheries
  • the Statewide Recreational Fishing Roundtable
  • development of fisheries management plans
  • annual discussions of the coming year’s fish stocking plans
  • advice to governments on annual RFL project funding allocations.


A touch of irony

The pre-legislation Interim FAC was chaired by Peter Neville, who was the lead author of the report “Co-management: managing Australia’s fisheries through partnership and delegation.

The report said that “fisheries co-management is an arrangement in which responsibilities and obligations for sustainable fisheries management are negotiated, shared and delegated between government, fishers, and other interest groups and stakeholders”.  It described the spectrum of decision-making arrangements, ranging from centralised government control to the “delegated model” where decisions were made jointly by government and stakeholders, and agreed actions were delegated to fisher bodies.


Productivity Commission comments

In their 2016 inquiry report on marine fisheries and aquaculture in Australia, the Productivity Commission observed that “the process of involving stakeholders in the management of fisheries has centred on co-management“.  They described the various forms fisheries co-management around Australia and noted nine preconditions for success, including “a legislative basis to delegate powers.”

The Commission recommended that all governments should have clear policies and guidelines on the application of co-management in marine fisheries.  They noted that Victoria was the only jurisdiction lacking a legislative basis for “the delegation of certain powers to non-government third parties.


Victorian Auditor-General comments

In its 2015 better practice guide, the Victorian Auditor-Generals Office (VAGO) stated “Public participation is a critical input to government activity, and developing effective strategies, programs and projects.”  Noting the absence of government-wide guidance, the Auditor-General announced his intention to use the guide’s principles to benchmark public participation performance.

In fact the VAGO report identified Victoria as the only Australian jurisdiction without guidelines to agencies on better practice involvement in decision-making.  It set out the stepwise increments in “levels of public participation:”
inform → consult → involve → collaborate → empower.

This parallels Peter Neville’s description of fisheries co-management models ranging from centralised “command-and-control” to delegated partnerships.  From what is publicly, accessible, Victoria’s co-management arrangements have reverted to the “inform” or central control end of these scales.

The VFA consults with fisheries and aquaculture interest groups and allied industries and complies with mandatory requirements to invite public input on management proposals.  However, there is no trace of community-wide “involvement” in decisions involving publicly-owned fish resources, consistent with the mandated consultation principles.  Nor is there any standing cross-sectoral body to advise on strategic fisheries issues.


Victoria’s fisheries consultation principles

The Labor Government terminated the FAC in 2017, based on the establishment of the VFA with its statutory obligations to community and stakeholder participation in fisheries management.  As the current state of co-management in Victoria is at the ‘inform’ and ‘consult’ end of the scale, it is critical that the VFA rigorously addresses its consultation obligations.  Section 16 of the Victorian Fisheries Authority Act 2016, titled “Principle of stakeholder engagement and community participation” commits the VFA to comply with the consultation principles set out in the Fisheries Act 1995.

However, Hansard records (VFA Bill 2016, 25 October 2016) indicate that the Government takes a narrow view of who has an interest in the use of community-owned fish resources: certainly not the Victorian public or seafood consumers.  Upper House debate on the “principle of equity” moved from equity between “different classes of fishers” to equity between those who can catch their own fish and those who depend on access through commercial fisheries.  Moving to the “principle of stakeholder engagement and community participation,” Agriculture Minister, Jaala Pulford, was asked who the Government believed to be stakeholders and how it would ensure equal consideration would be given to all.  Her answer: “The same approach … that it currently does.  We certainly engage with the commercial fishing industry … and with recreational fishers.

The Minister was asked, specifically, did the Government consider seafood consumers to be stakeholders and would it engage with Victorian seafood consumers?  The answer: “There is no change proposed, in the same way that consumers of cheese are not high on our list to engage when we talk to people about the dairy industry.

The Minister either ignored – or was unaware – that cheese is a privately produced and owned commodity while fish are a community-owned resource.  This distinction has profound implications for governments’ obligations to consult and for the community’s rights to be involved.

The crucial point is that the current Government dismisses six million Victorians, the majority of them seafood consumers, as valid stakeholders when it comes to fisheries policy and management matters.


Where now for the VFA?

Still in its first year of operation, the VFA board has some serious thinking to do regarding stakeholder engagement and community participation in fisheries management.  Both the 1995 Act and the 2016 VFA Act specify principles that bind the VFA to far more inclusive engagement and open participation than has been evident recently.

Will Victoria sea-saw between cross-sectoral co-management partnerships and narrowly targeted fit-for-purpose consultation, depending on the government of the day?

Or, will the VFA board take the lead in developing co-management and community engagement arrangements that will serve government and stakeholder interests over time without interruption whenever Victoria has a change of government?

The 2001 ENRC review of co-management in Victoria found that “co-management is about a partnership with the community, as well as with particular sectors.”  Will we see the likes of that again?


* 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.