Policy fails fishing communities and sharks

17 March 2009

Federal Government attempts to manage and regulate southern Australia's shark fishing industry fail to ensure the sustainability of either the species or the fishing communities, a team of academics from Deakin and Melbourne Universities believe.

The team, Drs Tanya King from Deakin University's Faculty of Arts and Education and Peter Dwyer and Monica Minnegal from Melbourne University, investigated the introduction of Individual Transferable Quota (ITQ) controls on commercial shark fishermen in South East Australia by the Australian Fisheries Management Authority.

Dr King said that the implementation of the ITQ policy was deeply unpopular with fishermen. They noted, for example, that the use of ITQs restricts the ability of fishermen to respond to changing environmental conditions and to fish accordingly, a rigidity in the system which has potentially disastrous environmental consequences.

"Eventually our shark fishing communities – those with a vested interest in maintaining the viability of the resource – will just dwindle away, to be replaced by fewer, but larger, fishing operations," she said.

"The experience of fishermen has been one of instability, uncertainty, unequal power relationships, tension and the creation of social disadvantage. The 'partnership approach' envisaged never eventuated and has left many cynical and frustrated."

Dr King said the idea behind the introduction of the quotas was that it would make the shark fishery more economically efficient and, hence, more environmentally sustainable.

"Within the quota policy economic efficiency equated to bio sustainability," Dr King said.

"In this view quota management would encourage the inefficient operators to leave the industry thus reducing the perceived problem of too many fishermen chasing too few fish.

"Quota fishing was aimed at protecting school shark, which is thought to be in trouble and at risk and which makes up 8 per cent of the catch," she said. "The gummy shark which makes up 80 per cent of the catch is doing well. The trouble is that there is uncertainty about whether or not fishermen are able or willing to avoid school shark, which they can and are, and so restrictions are placed on the gummy shark as well as the school shark just in case school shark is accidentally caught in the hunt for gummy shark!"

One of the problems with the policy was that the number of fish, in this case shark, had never accurately been established, Dr King said. For example, though shark are known to migrate across the Tasman, Australian and New Zealand fish stocks are determined independently.

"Also, the quota system doesn't allow for fish stocks to increase and creates a high-grading or dumping issue, because should stocks grow plentiful and be caught fishermen are still only allowed to 'land' the fish they have or can buy or lease quota for. It drives fishermen crazy all over the world – Newfoundland, the US and EU all have this problem in quota managed fisheries – that they have to throw perfectly good fish away because of an administrative situation. This is an administratively driven tragedy, not an environmental one."

Furthermore, Dr King said the analysis of the policy by the researchers had shown that while the number of licenses issued to fishermen had reduced from 169 to 75, 83 of the 94 licenses relinquished were handed back during two government buy backs – one coinciding with the introduction of the quota system and the other during the proclamation of two large Marine Protected Areas.

"The reduction in the number of fishing boats was in spite of the quota policy not because of it," she said.

"These results are complicated by the fact that at no time before or since the introduction of the quota system has the government been clear about the projected number of boats, licenses and quota holders that demonstrate that it has accomplished its goals of either biological sustainability or economic efficiency in this fishery.

"It has applied a technical economic fix to a problem which has human and environmental dimensions and it failed."


Media contact

Rebecca Tucker
Media and Corporate Communications
03 5227 8568, 0418 979 134
Email Rebecca

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