BILLS;Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment Bill 2014, Second Reading – 02 Oct 2014

I would like to thank Senator Ludwig for introducing the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment Bill to the Senate. It has been on the list for quite some time, so I am pleased to be able speak to it today.

In introducing this bill, Senator Ludwig is seeking the parliament’s approval for measures to address a threat that faces Australia’s oceans and the sustainability of our fisheries for future generations of commercial and recreational fishers. That is the threat of the large factory trawlers fishing in our oceans when little certainty exists about their impact on our marine environment. The Abbott government has done nothing to address this issue or to allay the fears of the thousands of recreational fishers in my home state of Tasmania or the fears of concerned Tasmanians who care about the future preservation of our marine life.

My Labor colleague in the other place the member for Franklin, Julie Collins, received more constituent correspondence on this issue in the lead-up to the last federal election than on any other issue. Literally thousands of voters in Ms Collins’s electorate of Franklin in southern Tasmania contacted her to express their concerns about the future preservation of our fisheries for environmental and recreational purposes.

My Tasmanian Labor Senate colleagues and I also received representations from thousands of concerned constituents from across our state who want to see our fisheries sustainably managed for future generations. Without revealing any names, I will just read a few lines from some of the correspondents who have written to me about this issue. This one is from a recreational fisherman: ‘As a recreational fisherman, ex-commercial fisherman and marine farm owner-operator, I have an above average awareness of the marine environment from which many seek recreational enjoyment and employment. I have lived, fished and farmed in Tasmania for over 40 years. I am supportive of a permanent ban on supertrawlers in Australian waters for many reasons.’ From another constituent, I received this:

Despite its crucial importance for the survival of humanity, marine biodiversity is in ever-greater danger, with the depletion of fisheries among biggest concerns.

According to a Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimate, over 70 percent of the world’s fish species are either fully exploited or depleted.

The dramatic increase of destructive fishing techniques worldwide destroys marine mammals and entire ecosystems.

FAO reports that illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing worldwide appears to be increasing as fishermen seek to avoid stricter rules in many places in response to shrinking catches and declining fish stocks.

And I will read one more to you: ‘I implore you all to put in a permanent ban on supertrawlers which take unsustainable fish quotas and bycatch which will inevitably lead to the decimation of fish species and harm, if not destroy, entire ecosystems in our oceans. Other countries have already done this—their fishing industries are ruined and may never recover. That is why they are now attempting to fish here. It is not just the fish that we lose—it will impact our corals, our reefs, birds and ultimately our climate when we destroy the links in the food chain. We need to protect our oceans and understand the way they work so we can sustain them into the future. We need to look beyond the short term gains sought by some.’ The common themes in these letters and emails included concerns about employment in the fishing industry, concerns about the marine environment, and an observation of the impact that large factory trawlers have had on the fish stocks in other countries.

Many of the constituents who have written to me are recreational fishers who have spoken of the joy they have of fishing with their children or their grandchildren. Indeed, although I am not a fisher, I have a number of family members who love going out with their children or their grandchildren to go fishing. They all talk about how they want to ensure that that joy can continue to be preserved for generations to come, so that their children and grandchildren will also be able to enjoy fishing with their kids.

There are often issues where commercial and recreational fishers are at odds with marine conservationists, but what is unusual about this issue is that it has brought industry, environmentalists and the broader community together. Several of the community groups in these sectors who are opposed to supertrawlers came together to form the Stop the Trawler Alliance. They include Environment Tasmania; Greenpeace; the Tasmanian Conservation Trust; the Tuna Club of Tasmania; the Australian Marine Conservation Society; the Australian Conservation Foundation; Ocean Planet Tasmania; Game Fish Tasmania; the Wilderness Society; Humane Society International; the Surfrider Foundation Australia; the conservation councils of Western Australia, New South Wales and South Australia; the Victorian National Parks Association; and Fishers For Conservation. This alliance of environment and fishing organisations is calling for a permanent legislated ban on supertrawlers, backed in Tasmania by the state branches of the three major political parties—Liberals, Labor and the Greens.

So, in introducing this private senator’s bill to this place, I believe that Senator Ludwig and the Labor caucus are on the right side of public sentiment and, hopefully, the right side of history. Senator Ludwig’s bill would amend the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, the EPBC Act, to repeal a sunset provision, and to enable the Minister for the Environment to establish an independent expert panel to conduct an assessment of the potential environmental impacts of a declared commercial fishing activity and prohibit the declared commercial fishing activity while the assessment is being undertaken. Basically, this means that any supertrawler that seeks to operate in Australia would be treated in the same manner as the first supertrawler.

The bill would enable the minister, with the agreement of the minister administering the Fisheries Management Act 1991, to declare a commercial fishing activity to be a ‘declared commercial fishing activity’ on an interim basis if both ministers agree that: there is uncertainty about the environmental impacts of the commercial fishing activity; it is appropriate to consult with fishing concession holders who consider themselves to be detrimentally affected by the making of a final declaration for the same fishing activity; and the declared commercial fishing activity should be prohibited while consultation occurs.

The ministers, by agreement, could also issue a final declaration, declaring the activity to be a ‘declared commercial fishing activity’ for a period no longer than 24 months if: there is uncertainty about the environmental impacts of the commercial fishing activity; it is appropriate to establish an expert panel to conduct an assessment of the commercial fishing activity; and the declared commercial fishing activity should be prohibited while the expert panel conducts its assessment of the commercial fishing activity. The minister must first make an interim declaration about a commercial fishing activity before issuing a final declaration. To ensure procedural fairness, the minister must consider written submissions from persons affected before making a final declaration.

The bill contains civil penalty and offence provisions to give force to the minister’s declarations. The bill also provides for the publication of the expert panel’s report and its tabling in parliament.

To understand why this bill is important, I think it helps to examine some of the history of the issues and how we got to the point we are at now. It started with a proposal by Tasmanian company Seafish Tasmania to bring a Dutch vessel named the FV Margiris—a 9,500-tonne, 142-metre trawler—to Australia from overseas to fish in an area known as the Small Pelagic Fishery. Seafish Tasmania intended to use the Margiris to catch pelagic fish, such as redbait and jack mackerel, for sale to overseas markets, using her onboard freezing capability to extend the range of their fishing activities into waters that other fishing vessels could not practically reach.

The agency responsible for approving commercial fishing activities in Australia, the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, approved Seafish Tasmania’s proposal and its 18,000-tonne quota. In August 2012, the Stop the Trawler Alliance delivered a petition with 35,000 signatures—each one written on a paper fish, I might add—to Senator Ludwig in his then role as Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.

In September 2012, the then environment minister, the member for Watson, Mr Tony Burke, announced on ABC’s Q&A that he had imposed tough conditions on the Margiris to deal with the taking of other marine species which should be preserved—a concept known as bycatch. He explained on Q&A that he was not empowered by current legislation to ban the supertrawler. By this time, the Margiris had been reflagged as an Australian vessel and renamed the FV Abel Tasman.

Later that month, Minister Burke introduced legislation to parliament to give him new powers to stop the supertrawler. The bill provided a power whereby the environment and fisheries ministers could declare that a fishing activity could not take place for up to two years while further scientific work was undertaken to assess the impact of that activity. The bill passed both houses of parliament and then Minister Burke issued the interim declaration on 20 September 2012, followed by a final declaration on 24 November.

Then, on 6 February, Minister Burke announced the appointment of a four-member expert panel to assess the environmental impacts of large midwater freezer vessels in the Small Pelagic Fishery under national law. The expert panel comprised people with strong experience and expertise across a range of fisheries management disciplines. The members of the panel are: the chair, Ms Mary Lack, director of fisheries management consulting company Shellack, with 25 years’ experience in Australian and international fisheries management and governance; Professor Peter Harrison, who has more than 30 years’ experience in marine science research; Associate Professor Simon Goldsworthy, who has been undertaking research in marine biology for more than 20 years; and Dr Cathy Bulman, a senior fisheries biologist with CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research.

The expert panel is due to report to the Minister for the Environment by 22 October 2014. Seafish Tasmania launched a Federal Court bid to have the Commonwealth ban on the supertrawler overturned and lost their appeal on 21 February this year. The FV Abel Tasman left Australian waters on 6 March 2013 and has now resumed her original name of Margiris. The two-year ban on the supertrawler is due to expire in November 2014.

There was good reason to subject Seafish Tasmania’s proposal to further scrutiny, as Labor chose to do. There is significant uncertainty around fishing in the small pelagic fishery. We lack accurate and up-to-date estimates of the population or biomass of the species. The latest estimates for the biomass of small pelagic fish are about a decade old. The latest data for jack mackerel was taken as early as 2003. We are unsure about the potential for recovery of the species from localised depletion.

There is also some doubt as to the effectiveness of exclusion devices that are added to large trawler nets to minimise bycatch. It is worth noting that, even if bycatch was not a threat to marine mammals such as dolphins and seals, localised depletion would be. Small pelagic fish are a key species in the food chain and therefore depletion of their biomass could place pressure on species such as bottlenose dolphins, Australian fur seals, sea birds and other fish such as sharks and bluefin tuna. While there are some marine scientists who have defended the sustainability of the supertrawler, others have raised serious doubts.

Professor Jessica Meeuwig, Director of the Centre for Marine Futures at the University of Western Australia, said in an article for The Conversation in August 2012 that the scientific case for introducing a supertrawler into Australian waters was weak. She noted that while pelagic fish tend to be more resilient to exploitation because of high growth rates, short life span and high reproductive output, the species targeted by the supertrawler are typically twice as large, grow 30 per cent more slowly and have maximum life spans 60 per cent longer. She also pointed out that there is increasing evidence that many species are not as mobile as previously thought, which means there is a greater threat of localised depletion.

Dr Susan Lawler, head of the Department of Environment Management and Ecology at La Trobe University, noted that there was a lot of guesswork involved in trying to determine the yields of the fishery sought by the Margiris. Dr Lawler agreed that more research on the issue was a good idea, noting that similar activities had led to the collapse of pelagic fisheries in other countries. It is because of this scientific uncertainty that deep concern has arisen in the community about supertrawlers, concern that is shared by recreational fishers and marine conservation advocates, but extends beyond these communities to the broader Australian community to ordinary Australians who care about our future.

You see, Australia’s marine environment is one of our nation’s greatest economic, cultural and environmental assets. This is why Labor has worked so hard to defend our marine environment, by establishing the world’s largest network of marine parks and taking action on climate change to preserve the Great Barrier Reef. It is also why the issue of supertrawlers has so much potency. That is why Australians, particularly Tasmanians—the residents of Australia’s only island state—are so passionate, so vocal and so concerned about this issue.

For those in the community who have concerns, Labor has the runs on the board when it comes to protecting our marine environment from supertrawlers. Let us not forget that those opposite—the Liberal and National parties—opposed Mr Burke’s bill in 2012. By contrast, it was Labor that put in place strong protections against supertrawlers in 2012. It was Labor that sought clarity over the very uncertain science before allowing this proposal to go ahead. And it is Labor today, through Senator Ludwig’s bill, that is taking action to put protections in place against any other supertrawlers that would seek to operate in Australian waters.

By contrast, the coalition voted against the legislation which allowed the original supertrawler ban and it was the coalition who said, through Senator Colbeck, that they would not rule out allowing the Margiris to return to Australia to fish in Australian waters. It is interesting that Senator Colbeck has been described by recreational fisher and Stop the Trawler Alliance member, Todd Lambert, as being the ‘last man standing’ in supporting supertrawlers.

Senator Colbeck was even contradicted by the Prime Minister, Mr Abbott, who said in the other place—those on the other side should listen very carefully—that the supertrawler was banned and would stay banned, although we know we cannot necessarily rely on the Prime Minister’s words. On this side, we are curious as to what the true position of those opposite is on supertrawlers or whether it is yet another case of the coalition saying different things to different audiences.

Today the coalition are being presented with an opportunity, through this bill, to show where they stand on supertrawlers. Do they really stand for the protection of Australia’s marine environment? If their record to date on other marine issues is anything to go by, the indication so far would be no. After all, this is the government which sneakily reversed the management plans for the world’s largest marine park network. Twenty years of work through governments of both persuasions went into the creation of the Commonwealth Marine Reserve network—20 years of work, started by the Keating government, continuing through the Howard government and ending with the previous Labor government. This Abbott government has managed to unravel that in the blink of an eye and has failed to take serious action to address climate change, has failed to protect our world-class marine environment from the threat of climate change and has failed to protect the Great Barrier Reef, one of the seven natural wonders of the world, which has suffered from coral bleaching because of rising ocean temperatures.

This government pretends to care about business, to care about the economy, yet the Great Barrier Reef was estimated by a recent report to contribute over $5 billion annually to Australia’s economy with the creation of 69,000 full-time equivalent jobs. If their record on the marine environment is not bad enough, marine research has taken a hit with 18 research jobs to go at Hobart’s Marine and Atmospheric Research Division as a result of the Abbott government’s savage cuts to the CSIRO. With their poor record so far on the marine environment, this is the chance for the Abbott government to redeem themselves. It is a chance for them to stand up for recreational fishers, for the sustainability of our fisheries and for the thousands of Australians who care very deeply about preserving our marine ecosystems. I commend the bill to the Senate.