Environment Minister Tony Burke is considering intervening in the approval process for a massive "super trawler" to start fishing in Australian waters in coming weeks, amid concerns about the trawler's impact on fish stocks.
Mr Burke is understood to be furious that the Australian Fishing Management Authority publicly dismissed his concerns that the FV Margiris, a Dutch-owned, 9500-tonne super trawler, could have a major impact on local fisheries.
The authority gave the green light for the trawler to catch 18,000 tonnes of baitfish, mostly mackerel and redbait. The Margiris will be based at Devonport, Tasmania, and will be the largest fishing vessel ever to operate in Australian waters.
Mr Burke this week flagged his concern and made clear he believed such a large vessel could create additional problems that needed to be examined.
"I don't want to pretend it's easy or there's no extra complications with a large vessel," he told ABC radio. "There are and they'll have to be worked through."
Mr Burke is understood to be worried that the super trawler could effectively empty sections of Australian waters of baitfish, which are food sources to larger fish such as bluefin tuna. He believes more work needs to be done on the localised impact of such a large trawler.
But the authority subsequently retorted that there was "no evidence to suggest that larger boats pose any greater risk to either the target species or the ecosystem".
"Fisheries science and experience in other similar fisheries both here and overseas suggests that localised depletion is a very low risk in this fishery," the authority told the National Times in a written statement.
"Given the highly mobile nature of small pelagic species, any localised reductions in abundance are likely to be short term and impacts on local ecosystems are likely to be very limited."
The National Times understands that Mr Burke was fuming about the authority's response and is now exploring options to suspend approval for the super trawler while a more detailed examination of its impact is carried out.
The sheer size of the Margiris has green groups worried. The 142-metre trawler can process 250 tonnes of fish per day and has freezer facilities and a cargo capacity of 6200 tonnes.
Critics of the trawler say that it can have a greater impact on local areas because, unlike smaller boats, it does not have to return to shore regularly to offload its catch.
The Australian company that will operate the trawler, Seafish Tasmania, told the National Times that the quota of 18,000 tonnes was less than 5 per cent of the stocks in the pelagic fishery, which actually stretches from Western Australia to NSW.
"Seafish Tasmania is committed to sustainable fishing and will not overfish any area of the fishery," director Gerry Geen said. "Small pelagic fish do not 'sit' in particular areas of the fishery. They are highly mobile and move throughout the fishery."
Greenpeace said that fish stock data are out of date, with the most recent data on jack mackerel dating to 2003.