Illustration: Cathy Wilcox
Federal environmental protection laws will be changed to prevent a super trawler fishing in Australian waters.
Environment Minister Tony Burke and Fisheries Minister Joe Ludwig made the announcement today following criticism from crossbenchers and environmental groups.
Existing environmental laws do not legislate for vessels of the Abel Tasman’s size and haul potential.
Federal cabinet will consider extra powers to impose stricter conditions on boats that use ''new fishing methods'' to vastly increase their catch.
The super trawler's operator had indicated it would still fish around the east coast despite the toughest conditions Mr Burke was able to impose under existing environmental law.
The move has pre-empted a Labor backbencher's private member's bill aimed at stopping the ship, which appeared likely to be supported by caucus today.
''One way or the other the government wants to stop this,'' a senior source said.
Mr Burke had encouraged caucus to agitate against the super trawler but Senator Ludwig has defended the Australian Fisheries Management Authority's handling of approvals for the ship, on the basis that the authority has been doing its job properly within the limitations of the law.
The minority of caucus members who support the super trawler's activities say the authority's scientific processes to set fishing quotas are sound and it would be a dangerous precedent for them to be overturned on the basis of lobbying by Greenpeace and Get Up!
The issue was further complicated at the weekend when the former prime minister Kevin Rudd backed the private member's bill proposed by Melissa Parke from Western Australia to stop the super trawler, originally named the Margiris but now renamed the Abel Tasman.
If new laws are not passed quickly the ship is likely to be able to start fishing under its licence to take 18,000 tonnes of mainly mackerel and red bait fish.
The authority says that once it receives a ''survey certificate'' from Maritime Safety Queensland, because technically the trawler is now based in that state, it is likely to grant final approvals within 48 hours.
A week ago Mr Burke imposed new rules aimed at limiting the bycatch of seals, dolphins and sea lions the ship took, conditions he suggested might make its operations unviable. But the trawler operator, Seafish Tasmania, said it would comply and proceed with its plans.
''I've gone to the limit of what I can do under current law,'' Mr Burke said yesterday. ''Decisions on further steps will be considered soon.''
Senator Ludwig said he was ''always open to improvements in our laws and processes''.
The Transport Minister, Anthony Albanese, has backed Mr Burke's attempts to stop the trawler, which environmental and recreational-fishing groups argue will overfish stocks because it has a 600-metre-long net.
Yesterday Ms Parke received a Greenpeace petition with 50,000 signatures calling for the trawler to be banned.
Her bill proposes to amend Mr Burke's Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and Senator Ludwig's Fisheries Management Act, although it is possible that only one would need to be amended.
''If there is no other way to stop the super trawler, I will proceed with this private member's bill and I am getting great support from my caucus colleagues,'' Ms Parke said last night.
Seafish Tasmania says it is the size of the quota, not the size of the boat, that matters, and that the quota will still be fished, whether by one large boat such as the Abel Tasman, or several smaller ones.
It says it has worked with Commonwealth officials for seven years and has met every rule, regulation and request and that rules should not be changed because of ''emotive campaigning and trial by media''.
- with AAP