Australian fish stocks are not in decline

| June 14, 2018

I read with considerable concern the statements made in recent media stories surrounding the research paper by Graham Edgar, Trevor Ward and Rick Stuart-Smith which claimed there had been rapid declines across Australian fishery stocks.

The claims are not supported by the weight of evidence published by AFMA, the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation (FRDC), the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES), scientific publications, and information available on data.gov.au.

AFMA with the support of CSIRO introduced an ecological risk assessment framework to regularly assess over 1,000 species, so we could manage across the marine ecosystem, rather than just focussing on commercial target species. This was done to further ensure ecological sustainability of the Australian Fishing Zone.

The Edgar et al. research paper generally confines its data collection to finfish surveys in shallow waters in temperate reef areas, and then incorrectly applies their data to the entire Australian Fishing Zone, which stretches out to 200 nautical miles from the coast.

A large portion of the Commonwealth fisheries catch is harvested from the tropical prawn fisheries, and sub-Antarctic fisheries, and our pelagic fisheries operate well offshore. We also manage migratory species which can be impacted by ocean conditions outside of our waters.

The researchers’ methodology failed to include the majority of the environments that are home to Commonwealth commercial fisheries.

They have then linked catch, so the number of fish recorded as caught, with stock size which is simply wrong.

There are many reasons why the catch levels rise and fall over time, including the natural fluctuations in stocks, market demand for a particular species, adjustments to the sustainable catch levels as directed by AFMA, and management action to address historic overfishing.

Dr Edgar and his colleagues make statements about fisheries management which are very dated and misrepresent current fisheries management practice. A lot has happened in fisheries management since 2005, which is frequently used in the research paper as the baseline year.

Since 2006-07 the Commonwealth government and AFMA have implemented robust and extensive fisheries management measures, including a buyback of commercial fishing licences, reductions to the total allowable catches and the introduction of harvest strategies.

This work has been supported by years of research and science-based decision making by the independent AFMA Commission to ensure Commonwealth fisheries remain sustainable.

The paper claims there are poorly documented stock assessments with limited public accessibility, but that’s far from true. Decisions made by AFMA based on its stock assessments are reviewed by ABARES and the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation (FRDC), through the Status of Australian Fish Stocks reports, as well as other third party reviewers. AFMA’s stock assessments, summaries and outcomes are publicly available.

The paper claims fisheries management decisions are made by committees dominated by industry aligned members. None of AFMA’s committees are decision making bodies, they are advisory only. The independent AFMA Commission has no industry members and is the responsible body for making all key management decisions.

It’s questionable whether the analysis and conclusions drawn by these researchers could be applied to Commonwealth fisheries at all, despite the suggestions by the researchers they do.

The management of our Commonwealth fisheries is underpinned by world-leading scientific research and a strong legislative and policy framework. For the fourth consecutive year, there has been no overfishing in fisheries managed solely by the Commonwealth.

AFMA isn’t ignoring the challenges that lie ahead. We are investing in research into the impacts of climate change, we are investigating why some species are not being caught by fishers, and we’re increasing the kinds of monitoring equipment that is mandatory on-board Commonwealth commercial fishing vessels, to ensure we are making decisions based on informed, accurate and timely fisheries data.

We work hard to ensure that Australians can be confident when they’re at their local fish and chip shop or buying wild-caught fish at their supermarket, that buying Australian wild-caught seafood is sustainable both now and into the future.

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Dr. Nick Rayns has been involved in fisheries management and research for more than 25 years. He holds a PhD from Otago University and has held senior fisheries roles in the Northern Territory, New South Wales and Australian governments.  He is currently the acting CEO of the Australian Fisheries Management Authority.

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