Australia is about to have one of the world’s largest fishing vessels enter its waters. At 142m long, a capacity of 9,500 tonnes and a 600m long net, the FV Margiris is one of only a handful of supertrawlers in the world. And it sails on an ocean of controversy.
The Dutch-owned ship has been approved for re-flagging and moving to Tasmania, in a joint venture with SeaFish. It’s scheduled to be roaming from Queensland to the Tasman Sea and across to Western Australia by Spring, in pursuit of 17,500 tonnes a year of small baitfish.
The target fish – jack mackerel, blue mackerel and redbait – are prime food for endangered albatross and critically endangered southern bluefin tuna. They are a vital part of the Southern Ocean food chain. There are also concerns about the sustainability of fish stocks, accidental bycatch of seabirds and mammals, and the availability of current scientific evidence to support catch quota.
But instead of being afraid of the damage it could cause, the Australian Fisheries Management Authority has doubled the quota of mackerel to accommodate the vessel.
The move has caused a furore from environmental groups, as well as recreational and commercial fishers around the country.
History of destruction
The Margiris is part of the European Association of Pelagic Freezer Trawlers (PFA): the association responsible for “some of the worst fishing excesses on the planet”, according to Greenpeace. The PFA grew from Dutch companies fishing North Sea herring – a stock which collapsed in the 1970s, and its fishing banned. Technological advances, bigger ships, and the introduction of freezers allowed a move to West African waters in 1995, where the PFA stands accused of overfishing and leaving locals catchless. As recently as 2005, the PFA further expanded to fish off the coast of Chile, where wholesale oceanic plunder ensued, causing the reduction of jack mackerel stocks by 90%. In March, Greenpeace activists painted the word ‘Plunder’ on the side of the Margiris and other factory trawlers of the PFA in protest as they fished off Mauritania.
Ironically, the majority of the Margiris’ catch from Australia will be destined for West Africa.
Sea of opposition
Desperate for new fishing grounds after plunging fish stock after fish stock to its knees, the Margiris is now destined for Australia. But many oppose the move.
“There has never been a trawler of this scale in Australian waters to my understanding before and that is a serious concern that we just don’t know what effect it will have on the food chain,” Greens MP Kim Booth said.
Tasmanian Conservation Trust spokesman Jon Bryan said there was “no strategy in place to ensure that local stocks are not overfished”.
“To accommodate the vessel, the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) has doubled the quota for small pelagics and watered down its harvest strategy so that there is no longer a requirement for the regular science-based stock assessments needed to ensure sustainable fishing,” Mr Bryan said.
Braddon Greens MP Paul O’Halloran said the vessel would plunder local fish stocks and have an unacceptable level of by-catch.
“It is a floating factory ship which stands accused of moving from fish stock to the next, collapsing them and then moving on, like a voracious predator, without a care about its impact on people, communities and fish stocks,” Mr O’Halloran said. “Local fishing industry, recreational fisherman, environmentalists and the general public understandably want the Margiris out of Tasmanian ports and out of Australian waters.”
The fishermen are worried too. Chief executive of the Tasmanian Association for Recreational Fishing (TARFish) Mark Nikolai said the group’s main concern was about local area depletion of mackerel stocks, by allowing the vessel to sit in one spot to attain its quota, rather than being required to disperse its fishing efforts. He said concerns put to the AFMA had not been satisfactorily answered. Tasmanian Seafood Industries Council chief executive Neil Stump said that some commercial fishers had expressed deep concern, while others were satisfied that the degree of supervision would mean that the trawler would not be as destructive in Australia as elsewhere.
So what will happen?
Coalition fisheries spokesman Richard Colbeck said the super trawler catch will be heavily scrutinised, and the opposition spokesman Rene Hidding called on the state government to ensure best practice was used.
SeaFish director Gary Geen said he was comfortable with the scientific data, and that the quota was less than 5% of the stock size. He said he was not concerned “whatsoever” by media reports of the vessel’s record overseas, because the vessel’s operation in Australia would be strictly managed and quota-controlled.
By the way, Mr. Geen is also a member of the AFMA advisory committee.
Meanwhile, Tasmanian ministers and the Maritime Union of Australia are talking up the potential employment opportunity of the Margiris – of around 40 people. The local economy of Devonport is also set for a boost.
However, Mr. O’Halloran said any new jobs created aboard the vessel could simply replace jobs with local commercial operators.
A coalition of global, national and state environment groups has written to Fisheries Minister Joe Ludwig, calling for the Margiris to be banned unless it can guarantee adequate assessment of fish stocks; an observer aboard the vessel at all times to ensure it is not exceeding quota or excess bycatch; and a process to prevent localised overfishing. The ship has not yet applied for its licence to operate in Australian waters, because it is not yet considered an Australian vessel.
Update: do more
After receiving the below request from a reader, I updated this post to show some things that you can do in response to this issue:
- You can sign this online petition, with nearly 8,000 signatures already.
- If you want to distribute a petition to local stores or others without internet, you can print one off here.
- Also, the Greens in Tasmania have announced a public meeting they are organising in Devonport on July 8th if anyone is in the area. Info is available via Facebook