Stop sucking up our fish stocks

Aquaculture is the lifeblood of my little village perched on the edge of the Shoalhaven River. 

The estuary is the base for the fishing trawlers that roam the continental shelf, it’s home to hectares of oyster farms and it’s a favourite haunt of recreational anglers.

In recent years all those who cast a net, throw a line or harvest molluscs have been bound by quotas, bag and size limits, and stringent water-quality testing.

It’s the new world of sustainable fishing and is vital to prevent the depletion of this finite resource.

It was not so long ago that it was open slather on the high seas and our fish stocks were hard hit. Take the eastern gemfish, which was almost fished to extinction in 1992.

One old salt tells the story of a night in 1978 when the last box of gemfish was being loaded into the semi-trailer. Suddenly the wharf gave way, spearing the truck and its cargo into the water.

“Word went out and you’ve never seen the pub empty so quickly as people came to gawk,” my storyteller said with a chuckle. But dragging truckloads of gemfish out of the water was not sustainable. By 1993 stocks had fallen to such low levels that stringent restrictions were imposed and continue today. 

Boundless fishing is a relic of the past, reinforced by the introduction of quotas and the roll-out of the fishing licence buyback scheme. 

 Or is it? The arrival in our waters of the 142 metre super trawler the MV Margiris with its licence to catch 18,000 tonnes of small pelagic fish, in particular red bait and jack mackerel, seems to turn the notion of sustainable fishing on its head. 

Earlier this week the Dutch-owned trawler got the green light from Environment Minister Tony Burke to begin sucking in the fish all the way down our eastern coast, around Tasmania and across to Western Australia.

The 18,000-tonne catch is said to represent just five per cent of total stocks, although analysts claim this data is 10 years old and seriously flawed.

The concerns go beyond the pillaging of our fish stocks. There is the issue of bycatch being caught in the 600 metre-long net (with its 100 metre by 200 metre- wide mouth) which includes dolphins, seals and seabirds.

Then there is the disruption to the food chain – if there are no little fish for the big fish to feed on, eventually there will be no fish.

And there are questions about the economic viability of the project, with returns of about $1 per kilogram of fish. 

What does the Australian public get out of this deal? 

Another resource plundered and sent overseas to be used as feed in tuna farms and turned into pet food.

The pillaging concerns are not new. The super trawlers have already wiped out West Africa’s commercial fish stocks, they have been banned by Senegal after depleting their stocks, and last year they were ordered out of  Western Sahara’s waters for breaching international law.

Closer to home they have been blamed for over-fishing the South Pacific to such an extent that the jack mackerel fishery has collapsed to 10per cent of healthy stocks.

Daniel Pauly, an eminent University of British Columbia oceanographer, sees jack mackerel in the southern Pacific as an alarming indicator. 

“This is the last of the buffaloes,’’ he says. “When they’re gone, everything will be gone.’’

Do we want this super monster trawling our waters, sucking up our fish stocks? I think not. There is nothing to gain and everything to lose.

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