The Supertrawler is Coming

The 'supertrawler' FV Margiris. Source: Sydney Morning Herald.

Much to my horror the infamous FV Margiris has recently docked in Port Lincoln, South Australia, and is still on route to Tasmania, despite passionate outcry from conservationists, recreational fishermen and the general public.

I thought I had better educate myself on both sides of the debate before posting about it, but found the majority of coverage was from activist groups and Seafish Tasmania itself. Nothing I read sounded unbiased.

After several hours trawling through the masses of hyperbole, and the much smaller amount of expert information, this is what I have come up with.

The Facts

The FV Margiris is a colossal fishing trawler 142m long and capable of carrying 6200 tonnes of fish. It employs a net that is 600m long, with a mouth that is 100m x 200m.  It is capable of processing 250 tonnes of fish each day. It flies a Lithuanian flag, is Dutch owned and is being brought to Australia by Seafish Tasmania, to fish the Small Pelagic Fishery that extends from southern Queensland to Western Australia.

The FV Margiris has been approved by the Australian Fisheries Management Authority to take 18,000 tonnes of small, ocean-dwelling fish per annum. This is within the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) set by the AFMA in accordance with the Small Pelagic Fishery Harvest Strategy. The ships quota is 10% of the population for each of these species within the fishery. This quota is supported by Australian and international fisheries guidelines.

Australian Fisheries Management

Australia’s fisheries are among the best and most sustainably managed in the world. We have a wealth of expert fisheries and sustainability science going on, and a strong public interest in the welfare of our oceans helps to keep fisheries accountable. Although FV Margiris and other trawlers have been implicated in the decimation of fisheries in Africa and Europe, this may have just as much to do with poor fisheries management, as the ships themselves. Could Australia use a ship of this size sustainably?

We currently import over 75% of our seafood. Though the FV Margiris’ catch is initially destined for export, the aim is for more of the harvest to eventually end up on the Australian market, hopefully reducing the demand for overseas produce.

Bycatch

Seafish Tasmania asserts that their targeted style of fishing means that there is only 1% bycatch by their boats. They state that the use of ‘excluder devices’ will keep marine mammal mortality at a minimum. These devices work by preventing entry of larger animals into the depths of the net and directing them to an escape hatch. Excluder devices have been used successfully on trawl nets in recent history (see video here), but although they prevent the animal being drawn into the net proper, I wonder if the animal can always escape through the device before it drowns. The excluder device to be implemented on the FV Magiris has not been used before, and I struggle to believe marine life will be able to escape a net whose mouth is 100 by 200 metres.  Seafish Tasmania also asserts that a seabird strategy is in development and since the fish will be frozen for process on land there will be no trail of fish guts to lure seabirds into danger.

The FV Margiris is twice the size of the largest trawler to fish Australian waters

There are fears that, because of the sheer size of its net, the FV Margiris may cause local depletion of fish by literally scooping them all up in one go. However because of its size, this ship is able to travel further than others, giving it the potential to spread fishing effort over a larger area and avoid overfishing local areas. Whether it meets this potential remains to be seen.

The fish that this boat targets have a high oil content, and so have to be processed and frozen soon after capture for them to be fit for human consumption. This means that most of the time the fish harvested are destined to become fishmeal and fish oil. The FV Margiris is able to freeze and store huge quantities of fish while at sea, which means that they can now be used for human consumption, a much more efficient use.

What about local fishing industries?

Apart from the obvious concerns for the ecosystem consequences of employing this ship, there are also concerns for local fishing communities. In its first year, the FV Margiris is set to catch 6 times what all 70 license holders caught in the SPF last year! What will happen to the smaller boats with in the industry, and the families that depend on this fishery?  The FV Margiris employs a crew of only 46, and despite Seafish Tasmania and the AFMA’s assertions, I doubt that it will be fully staffed by local Australians. Even with an Australian crew, employment will be greatly reduced compared to the numerous smaller boats it may displace.

Conflict of Interest?

Stuart Richey, the director of Seafish Tasmania, was the founding chairman of AFMA and was chairman for 9 years. Seafish Tasmania’s employment of the FV Margiris is strongly supported by the AFMA. During Richey’s time as chairman, two other members of his family received appointment to committees within AFMA.

Dr Bob Kearney, the strongest voice of support for the FV Margiris, has been an AFMA director for 6 years, with three of those years under Stuart Richey. He has produced a number of papers on the matter, it would be interesting to see where his funding has come from.

For me, the jury is out. Supertrawlers have a horrendous history, but Australia has some of the best fisheries science happening in the world. If we were able to sustainably employ this boat within our fishery, without displacing local fishermen, does it really matter which boat we use? I feel we aren’t being given the full story.

What I want really to know is, why have we heard so little from the federal fisheries minister, Joe Ludwig? Tony Burke, Andrew Wilkie and backbencher Melissa Parke have all thrown themselves into action. Why so quiet Joe?

The boat cannot fish within Australia without being registered by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, so there may still be time to sort out the facts. What do you guys think about the situation?


5 Responses to “The Supertrawler is Coming”

  1. Cathy Cavallo says:

    I’m certainly glad we have another 2 years to conduct research on the sustainability of this kind of fishing method within our fisheries. The debate really annoyed me for the lack of transparency and actual science talked about. The emotive language used by both sides caught me, but though everyone asserted they either had or didn’t have faith in ‘the science’, I couldn’t actually find any mention of the reports or peer reviewed papers for me to look up.
    I went back and looked at the press releases for the Australian Fisheries Management Authority at the time and saw that in one they stepped back from ‘the quota’ and said that an independent body the ‘AFMA Commission’ set these. They stated that the AFMA Commission had ‘They include five who are fisheries and scientific experts’. However after a little sleuthing I found that there was actually only two on the board that state they have fisheries or marine science qualifications, the others are Bachelors or Masters of Economics and Law. Interesting to see that a number of people that are Director of Fisheries or similar don’t mention any actual scientific background.

    The media release
    http://www.afma.gov.au/2012/09/afma-chair-hits-out-at-unlawful-quota-claims/

    The Commission
    http://www.afma.gov.au/about-us/who-we-are/the-commission/

  2. frankie says:

    On Seafish Australia’s website:

    “The relatively large size of the vessel enables long duration fishing trips to be undertaken and economies of scale to be achieved in relation to the efficient production and marketing of abundant but low unit value fish species”

    I’m always concerned when nature is described in these terms.

    Low unit value fish species: Are they saying there is no value in these fish species apart from monetary value?

    Economies of scale for efficient production and marketing: I’m wondering how these economies of scale are actually going to be received by the consumer? Cheaper prices? More produce for the same price? More marketing? I’m not convinced that such “efficiencies” will benefit more than a select few whilst causing significant stress on a number of marine ecosystems.

  3. Justine Philip says:

    Who really benefits from this trawler? The people that work on it? The consumers? OR the person that owns the boat and does not have to watch it scoop up entire communities of aquatic life in one huge and inescapable net? At least the smaller fishing companies have a vested interest in maintaining continuous supply of fish for their businesses, and investing in a level of environmental sustainability. Is the owner of the supertrawler really interested in how this huge net will function in 10-20 years time? Of course not. They will be long gone by then.

  4. Claire Hollier says:

    Unfortunately this beast has docked in Tasmania already. There was a good story on the conflict of interest on late-line:

    http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2012/s3579036.htm

    It talks about some of the science too.

    As a recreational fisher and environmentalist I certainly find it disturbing that such a conflict of interest can be “let fly” in Australia!

  5. Marco Papageorgiou says:

    This was a really intresting piece.
    Besides the 75% of seafood that we import, relying less on overseas imports wont be such a bad thing. But when i read the enormous size of their nets and the damage they can cause to marine life AND since it most likely isn’t locally staffed, it seems that you have raised a really good point with this issue. The cons outweigh the pros in this case!