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Fish wars on the high seas

Date

Hobart correspondent for Fairfax Media

View more articles from Andrew Darby

Banned ... the Abel Tasman super trawler.

Banned ... the Abel Tasman super trawler. Photo: Supplied

When Michael Egan quit his job as New South Wales's longest-serving Treasurer in 2005, he declared a retiring ambition to learn to fish.

Who could imagine that his return to battle would be ... over fish?

Yet that's precisely where he is now, as chairman of the Australian Fisheries Management Authority. As a result of the super trawler fracas, Australia's fisheries regulator is under assault, and Egan is leading the defence.

For this, he could well be AFMA's right man at the right time. Any survivor of a decade running the NSW Treasury knows how to count. And any AFMA chairman knows that in 2012, the number of fish in the sea must be counted as carefully as tax dollars.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation's latest assessment of world fisheries production gave "the strong message that the state of world marine fisheries is worsening".

Most stocks of the top ten fish species, which account for about 30 per cent of the 80 million tonne world marine capture fisheries production, are fully exploited. Some are overexploited.

The FAO saw rays of hope in fisheries management by some countries, including Australia, where "only" 12 per cent of stocks were said the be over-fished. This is no reason to ease up.

The fish to be trawled by the Margiris/Abel Tasman were of small pelagic species devastated in other fisheries, to be sold by an international partnership on the world market. Inevitably an Australian fishery's performance is part of a global system.

The Federal Government decided out of the super-trawler controversy to order a root and branch review of Commonwealth fisheries management.

At its heart, this review's success will be judged by the way it increases ministerial power to make fishing precautionary - to ensure the community is not exposed to a "less than sustainable model of fisheries management".

Fisheries Minister Joe Ludwig has already lauded AFMA as "a tough cop on the beat". He pointed to its determination to put the environment first in decisions like the closure of a big flake fishery because of unacceptable sea lion and dolphin deaths.

Through the review by the former Montara oil spill inquiry commissioner David Borthwick, the pressure will be on AFMA to be even more environmentally focused.

It remains to be seen how Egan, his fellow AFMA commissioners and executives come to terms with the review's demands.

Early signs are they will not roll over quietly.

Independent Andrew Wilkie has a small war running with AFMA over failings in advisory procedures leading up to the decision to set fish quotas for the super trawler. Wilkie calls it a rogue agency.

In the latest round, the Commonwealth Ombudsman told Wilkie that AFMA had admitted failing to comply with its own procedural demands to exclude Seafish director, Gerry Geen, from an initial advisory decision to green-light the quotas.

Egan took sharp exception with the Ombudman over this. He demanded a full explanation of what he claimed to be procedural failings by the Ombudsman's office itself. He recalled the recent controversy over the Ombudsman's office preparing questions for Green senators.

Welcome back to politics, Michael Egan.

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