The Supertrawler is Coming
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 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.
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.
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.
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?