Australian Wild Capture Fisheries Management

Get the run down on Australia's wild capture fisheries.

Good Fish

Who manages our fisheries?
Wild fisheries in Australia are managed either by the Commonwealth (federal) government’s Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) or by state and territory fisheries departments. Broadly speaking, state governments manage inshore waters, while the Commonwealth manages the seas from three nautical miles offshore out to the 200 nautical mile limit of our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). There are some exceptions such as the fisheries of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, which are mostly managed by the Queensland Government.Aquaculture or rather, fish farming, attracts considerable controversy. Some say it’s the most environmentally efficient food system we’ve got. Others say farmed fish are toxic, fed waste products and are polluting our precious oceans. The reality is that all of these things can be true. Let’s discuss.

Over 70% of Australia’s seafood catch by weight is caught in state waters, so state fisheries play an important role in the way that our oceans are managed. Highly migratory fish that traverse our waters and international seas, such as tuna, are managed by regional and international fisheries management organisations.

How are they managed?
Australia’s fisheries are managed through a range of measures tailored to the type of fishery. The most common include catch limits or quotas, known as ‘output controls’, which set a maximum limit on the amount of fish that is allowed to be caught from a stock in a given year or fishing season. ‘Input controls’, such as limits to fishing vessel size, specific gear restrictions and areas closed to certain types of fishing, are also common.

Traditional output and input controls have not always been effective at eliminating overfishing or mitigating the impact of fisheries on the environment. A precautionary approach is needed in setting catch limits for stocks under pressure. Many of our fisheries must also move away from their outdated focus on managing single species or stocks in isolation, as this overlooks the effects of fishing on other fish species, other wildlife and the marine ecosystem.

It is encouraging that increasingly Australian fisheries are introducing controls to protect our marine environment. For example, fishing gear modifications to reduce the bycatch of threatened species have been introduced, such as the Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) used in many prawn trawls. However, there is still an urgent need for fisheries management in Australia to move towards an ‘ecosystem-based approach’ where the full impact of the fishery on the ocean ecosystem is considered in determining how the fishery is managed. This critical shift in management is needed as the foundation for future sustainability of Australian fisheries.

How does the quality of management differ around Australia?
While a number of our high-value fisheries have significant research funding devoted to high quality stock assessments, our smaller-volume and lower-value fisheries suffer from a lack of investment in essential research. We undertake regularl assessments for Australia’s Sustainable Seafood Guide, and many fisheries continue to operate where the stock levels and impacts of fishing on stocks simply aren’t known.

Similarly, in many fisheries there is limited information on the impacts of fishing on threatened and protected species, or the extent of habitat damage caused by fishing activities. This information is crucial in order to ensure that our fisheries are sustainable.

In recent years there has been a consistent trend in some of the states to reduce funding to fisheries departments. Consequently there has been a significant loss of expertise in some jurisdictions. The main NSW fisheries research centre at Cronulla was closed in 2012; the staffing at the fisheries department in Victoria has been drastically reduced and the QLD fisheries department has closed their independent observer program across all of their fisheries. The outcome is a reduced output of publicly available information on the health of many fisheries.

Through community pressure and advocacy from AMCS, we are seeing improvements such as fisheries agencies reporting better on numbers of wildlife killed in fishing, and moves towards reducing the death toll, as well as improvements to the way in which fisheries are managed. For example, the Commonwealth Government has updated two key fishery policies in 2017; the Queensland Government has committed to a Sustainable Fisheries Strategy to reduce the risk of fishing to Queensland’s marine environment, and the South Austraian Government is taking action to stop overfishing of key species.

A note on independent observers

Fisheries observers monitor fishing activity, documenting information such as volume of fish caught and numbers of threatened or protected species killed during fishing operations. As observers are independent of the fishing industry, their reports provide valuable information on the extent of fisheries impacts on marine wildlife.

Fishers have a legal responsibility to record protected species mortalities in fishery logbooks, and fishery logbooks are important records. However, independent observer reports have identified some circumstances where fishers have not recorded instances of catching protected species such as Australian sea lions and dolphins. Without a full understanding of what is being caught and in what numbers it is not possible for fishery managers to develop strategies to reduce fishing impacts.

More recently, fishery management agencies around the country have been using Electronic Monitoring as a cheaper alternative to human observers. Cameras put on fishing boats record fishing activity, including the number of protected species killed. This has led to much better reporting in fishers logbooks. Artificial Intelligence is also being investigated to assess whether the technology can automatically record catch. It is likely that technology will be used to monitor all fisheries in the near future, improving data collection across the board.