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Questions raised over super trawler's quota

Date

Andrew Darby, Linton Besser

THE federal Environment Minister, Tony Burke, is seeking urgent advice about whether he can try to stop the super trawler MV Margiris fishing off the Australian coast.

His announcement follows concern about the integrity of the process that boosted the allowable catch of the giant trawler, which is expected to operate off south-eastern Australia.

The key backer of the Margiris, the director of Seafish Tasmania, Gerry Geen, outlined plans to an advisory committee to raise the jack mackerel quota, before joining other members of the committee to support the proposal, according to confidential records obtained by the Herald.

Recreational fishing and conservation representatives have strenuously rejected proposals to double the quota, which they say are based on old and unreliable data.

A recreational fishing representative involved in the approval, Graham Pike, told the Herald the decision was a ''perverted process''.

The Dutch-owned Margiris is due in Australian waters in the next few days to fish for 18,000 tonnes of redbait and mackerel - a quota awarded by the Australian Fisheries Management Authority to Seafish Tasmania.

The Commonwealth Ombudsman is scrutinising the process the authority used to decide quotas for the Margiris, the biggest vessel yet allowed to fish Australian waters.

The independent MP Andrew Wilkie alleges the authority has failed to comply with legislation. He said Mr Geen was improperly allowed to remain at an authority advisory committee meeting on March 26 without explicit authorisation.

Draft minutes of a meeting on February 28 of a small pelagic fishery resource assessment group, which remain unpublished but which the Herald has obtained, also show Mr Geen was present.

He outlined the freezer trawler venture, and sought backing for a doubling to 10,600 tonnes of the jack mackerel quota.

The minutes said an increase in the allowable catch was supported by all members, except Mr Pike and conservation member Jon Bryan.

An authority spokesman said Mr Geen and other members of the assessment group disclosed his interest at the meeting.

It was up to the assessment group to decide who should be excluded from discussions, and none was.

Mr Geen acknowledged he was present but said the authority rules defined how quotas were set and the group's meeting was at the lowest level of decision making. He said all the rules had been followed properly to make the final decision.

When the group meets again this week, it is to hear a proposal that a member be excluded from providing advice on any agenda item on the basis that they have a conflict of interest.

Meanwhile, Mr Burke is taking advice on whether the super trawler may breach endangered species legislation.

''The principal thing that I'm looking at is whether at the same time they're targeting the particular bait fish … what other marine species get taken as bycatch and get swept up in the nets at the same time,'' he told the ABC yesterday. He was seeking further information from Seafish Tasmania.

The 9600-tonne Margiris is to be based in Tasmania and 45 jobs are to be created at its processing factory. But last week the state's three political parties joined in a parliamentary motion against it.

However, six Australian fisheries scientists, led by Colin Buxton of the University of Tasmania, say quotas are more conservative than the best global practice for the species.

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