Federal Politics

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Angling for power

The nation's recreational fishers are flexing their not inconsiderable muscle in Canberra, as the row over super-trawler Margiris shows.

The grizzled old grandpa sitting at the end of the jetty. The young tradie with 100 horsepower at the back of a cabin cruiser bristling with a rod armoury, his eyes on the horizon. Surely these people are into anything but politics.

Turns out that as the row over the super-trawler Margiris grows into a defining national resource battle, it’s not the green groups who are holding the whip; it’s the recreational fishers.

They were the ones courted by the federal government to find a way to let the Dutch ship fish in Australian waters. The vessel is being brought to Australia to trawl for 19,000 tonnes of small pelagic fish.

The recreational fishers' decision to quit that working group, rejecting industrial trawling instead, is clearly a blow to the venture.

Such is the strength of their lobby that the question is raised: has the ground shifted? Is the Margiris fracas one of those moments when Australians turn 180 degrees and just say "no"?

This is not the first time recreational fishers have flexed their muscles. Their influence is growing and it’s time the hand on the rod was seen for the strength it has.


Recreational fishing is an important leisure activity for more than 5 million people in Australia and a multibillion-dollar industry, according to the federal Department of Agriculture, Forests and Fisheries.

There is a huge trade in boats and equipment built on wetting a line. And anglers have also just formed a  national peak council, the Australian Recreational Fishing Foundation, of which you should expect to hear more.

The issue that really brought them off the water and into Canberra was the planning process that resulted in a national network of marine reserves. When the lines for reserves were drawn, the federal government was at pains not to affect recreational fishers.

Both Environment Minister Tony Burke and Fisheries Minister Joe Ludwig are keen to reinforce this.

Mr Burke told question time yesterday: "Whenever we were given a choice to deliver the same environmental outcome but minimise the impact on recreational fishers we took that option."

Senator Ludwig, a proud angler himself, told the National Recreational Fishing Conference at the Gold Coast last weekend: "The network of marine reserves will have little to no impact on recreational fishing ... The bottom line is that for 96 per cent of the ocean up to 100 kilometres offshore, access for recreational fishing remains unchanged."

That’s why, for example, when marine reserve lines were drawn over the many thousands of square kilometres of Commonwealth waters from Fraser Island to southern New South Wales, just two specks of inshore water, north of Coffs Harbour and near Port Macquarie, got full national park status.

It’s not quite the power of the National Rifle Association in the United States, but you get the drift.

In official deliberations for mackerel and redbait to be taken by the Margiris, green and recreational fishing representatives were against lifting one key jack mackerel quota. They did not prevail, initially, and the 10,000-tonne quota was set.

Now as the venture draws nearer, recreational fishers have become increasingly organised in a protest that is spreading nationally.

Senator Ludwig’s attempt to satisfy them with extra conditions on the Margiris fell over when they pulled out of the working group. They said answers were lacking to basic questions about the target fish.

The Margiris venture is under attack on several fronts. An Ombudsman’s inquiry into the quota-setting process, spurred by independent MP Andrew Wilkie, is looking increasingly troublesome for the Australian Fisheries Management Authority.

But in the final analysis, the venture will depend fundamentally on confidence in its regulation. Recreational fishers are the bedrock of that confidence, and they have shifted.