Joe Ludwig ... Fisheries Minister. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
TWO disaffected members of the fisheries management committee that paved the way for the super trawler Margiris to come to Australia wrote to the Fisheries Minister, Joe Ludwig, in June pleading that he investigate approval processes to make sure fish stocks were protected.
Senator Ludwig replied in July, writing that the Australian Fisheries Management Authority had advised him the Margiris's allowable catch had been ''based on research'' and declined to hold an inquiry.
The revelations came as the government was poised to pass by a razor margin its legislation to ban the super trawler for up to two years.
Announcing on Tuesday the ban and a review of fisheries management, Senator Ludwig said AFMA advised him about negotiations over catch approvals only ''when the issue becomes relevant to me for consideration. So that's only just come to the surface … about the same time the vessel appeared.''
But at least two months before the Margiris arrived in Australia in late August, two members of AFMA's ''small pelagic fishery resource assessment group'' wrote to Senator Ludwig raising ''serious questions about irregularities and conflicts of interest … in AFMA processes''.
In letters dated June 19 and June 25, they asked for an investigation of AFMA's decision to double the allowable catch of jack mackerel so ''the management issues surrounding this fishery'' could be resolved before a super trawler operated in Australian waters and so ''fish stocks can be protected.''
Jon Bryan, the conservation member of the committee, and Graham Pike, the recreational fishing representative, raised concerns about the science behind that decision, and also allegations of conflict of interest because Gerry Geen, the director of the trawler operator Seafish Tasmania also sat on the approval committee.
''The management issues surrounding this fishery need to be resolved before any approval of large scale industrial fishing … to prevent catastrophic mackerel stock collapses,'' they wrote.
But Senator Ludwig told the Herald yesterday the fisheries review he announced on Tuesday would only ''go to issues of management and administration'' and to his own decision-making powers, but would not change scientific assessments. ''There has been no problem with the science in this instance, there is no deficiency in that regard … AFMA continues to have my confidence for the way it manages and assesses fisheries,'' he said.
Terms of reference will be released within days. Senator Ludwig said Mr Geen had declared his interest at the management committee as required.
The government bowed to pressure yesterday from former Labor MP Craig Thomson and narrowed its legislation aimed at banning the super trawler for two years. The bill would have given the environment and fisheries ministers broad powers to intervene in fishing operations deemed to create environmental, social or economic ''uncertainties''.
Under Mr Thomson's amendments, which should pave the way for the legislation to clear the Parliament, recreational fishing and existing commercial fishing activities will be protected from such interventions by the ministers.
The Environment Minister, Tony Burke, said he was confident his decision to ban the vessel would withstand any legal challenge.