Distrust of the GBRMPA runs deep

Posted in Uncategorised

This article was published in December 2020 in the Queensland Seafood magazine. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s (GBRMPA) disdain for the Queensland commercial fishing industry is clear. Enjoy the article and I’d like to thank a former QSIA President, Neil Green for his insights – Eric Perez, QSIA CEO.

Distrust of the GBRMPA runs deep

It is fair to say commercial fishermen do not trust the GBRMPA and see its bureaucrats as continuing to demonise fishing, both in behind-closed-doors fisheries management forums and in documents like their recent “position statement” on fishing.

It is probably a quarter-century or longer since most commercial fishermen would say they trusted the GBRMPA. Most fishermen now would more likely tell you they believe GBRMPA wants to constantly cut back on catches within the GBR Marine Park and, for that matter, cut back on the number of commercial fishermen and commercial fishing platforms as well.

It was a much earlier generation of GBRMPA administrators – the likes of former Chair Graeme Kelleher and CEO Wendy Craik in the 1980s and 1990s – who last enjoyed the confidence of commercial fishermen. GBRMPA’s partisan behaviour in the review of the east coast trawl fishery in the late 1990s and then its perceived deception of the industry and government in the 2004 GBR Marine Park rezoning destroyed that trust and it has never been rebuilt.

There are numerous instances of exaggeration by GBRMPA over the years that have diminished industry’s respect for the organisation too. Older fishermen will remember an information kit GBRMPA distributed in the late 1990s claiming that dugong were “facing extinction”.

Complaints by our organisation forced GBRMPA to retract that false claim. They subsequently pulped the original documents and published a so-called “second edition” of the information kit, modifying their claim to say that dugong were “fragile” and should be handled with care.

When the Queensland east coast trawl plan was being debated, GBRMPA exaggerated the impacts of trawling reported in a specially-commissioned research study, and then kept the authors of the report away from its public
launch and instead had environmental activists opposed to trawling join them in front of TV cameras.

During the fierce debate over the massive rezoning of the GBR Marine Park in the early 2000s, GBRMPA gave their bosses in the Federal Government the impression that the financial impact of the rezoning on the seafood industry would be a relatively modest $20 million or, if more than that, then certainly a figure in the low tens of millions.

Compensating the seafood industry – fishermen, wholesalers, retailers, etcetera – for the demonstrable financial impacts of the massive closures imposed by the rezoning in 2004 in fact cost the Federal Government well over $200 million.

Even now, in GBRMPA’s recent position statement on fishing, they are seen to be grasping for evidence to denigrate fishing and fishermen. For example, the position statement on fishing in the GBR Marine Park tries to find examples of over-fishing. But all it can muster is three species, including the claim that “over-fishing has caused significant population declines of saucer scallop (Amusium balloti)”.

[You can access the GBRMPA fishing statement here – its a kick in the guts for industry. The fact that the GBRMPA is unable to do much of anything about coastal or port development speaks volumes about their effectiveness in managing the real threats facing the Reef]

Now, everyone knows that populations of saucer scallops are notoriously unstable, and numbers fluctuate wildly between seasons: Queensland fisheries biologists like Mike Dredge spent their careers trying to unravel the mysteries of scallop population fluctuations.

The other two species that GBRMPA cites in relation to over-fishing are east coast (pink) snapper (Pagrus auratus) and pearl perch (Glaucosoma scapulare). Snapper and pearl perch! Those are temperate species which see the vast bulk of the catch taken in waters well south of the GBR Marine Park.

The fact GBRMPA grabs two southern species as the only concrete examples where over-fishing is claimed to be causing problems simply underlines how abundant most tropical fish species are within the Marine Park.

In its position statement on fishing, GBRMPA says that “While the stocks of some fisheries are considered sustainable, the status of many other species is unclear due to limited data.” Limited data … Well, if GBRMPA spent less money on building its public profile and more money on conducting fundamental research vital to the sound management of fisheries, maybe they could compile those data.

Study shows lack of trust

Arguments that commercial fishermen massively distrust the GBRMPA might be dismissed as just “anecdotal evidence or hearsay” in the face of GBRMPA’s relentless public relations efforts – but a report on fishermen’s opinions has put some hard facts and figures on the table.

A 2010 study of the impacts of the 2004 rezoning – conducted by a team of researchers from James Cook University (JCU) in Townsville – sampled the opinions of commercial fishermen.

Amongst other things, the study found almost no commercial fishermen trusted GBRMPA to take their concerns into account when making decisions about the Marine Park. Around three-quarters of fishermen did not believe commercial fishermen received fair treatment or proper consultation and four out of five did not receive adequate compensation.

The report points out that, in July 2004, the GBRMPA implemented a new zoning plan for the GBR Marine Park that increased “no-take” (ie, no fishing) areas from 5 per cent to 33 per cent of the total Park area. It also bans trawling in an additional 29 per cent of the Park area (and further areas were closed as “yellow zones” that allow only recreational fishing).

By July 2009, the Australian Government’s structural adjustment package had distributed approximately $211 million to fishers and associated industries affected by the rezoning but the researchers say that “anecdotal evidence suggests that commercial and charter fishers experienced significant impacts from the 2004 GBR rezoning”.

Interviews with a large number of commercial fishermen (and charter operators) found most disagreed that commercial fishers received fair treatment (78%) or were adequately consulted (71%) during the rezoning process, or that commercial fishers were adequately compensated for lost\ fishing areas (83%).

A massive ninety-four per cent of commercial fishers reported not trusting the GBRMPA to consider the concerns of commercial fishers in Marine Park decisions. Most commercial fishers (63%) also do not believe that GBR zoning is adequately enforced. Most line fishers (86%) and trawl fishers (86%) believed they did not receive fair treatment in the rezoning process.

Ninety six percent of fishers reported that some of their regular fishing areas were turned into green zones, and 65 per cent reported that some of their fishing areas were turned into yellow zones. On average, fishers reported that 36 per cent of the area they fished pre-rezoning were turned into green zones and 15 per cent was turned into yellow zones.

Asked their opinion about the amount of area covered by green zones in their regular fishing area, most line (94%) and trawl (80%) fishers said that it was “too much”. Most line (60%) and trawl (71%) fishers also believed that there was “too much” area covered by yellow zones in their fishing areas.

Most line (74%) and trawl (84%) fishers reported that they applied for compensation under the structural adjustment plan, but 93 per cent reported that the compensation they received was not adequate to offset the impacts of the rezoning on their fishing business. The bottom line is clear: the GBRMPA has forfeited the trust of commercial fishermen in fisheries management interventions like the 2004 rezoning and never regained it.

After closing such a massive area of the GBR Marine Park to commercial fishing – necessary, we were told, to increase the Reef’s “resilience” and help protect it against the expected impacts of climate change – GBRMPA’s continuing demonisation of fishing is unlikely to ever see that trust regained.

The report is “Impacts of the 2004 Rezoning of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park on Commercial Line, Trawl, and Charter Fishers” by Stephen G. Sutton, Elodie J. Lédée, Renae C. Tobin and Debora de Freitas, Fishing and Fisheries Research Centre, JCU. It can be read via this link.

Author: Neil Green is a multi-endorsed north Queensland fisherman and former QSIA President.

Image: QSIA

The content of this post is provided for information purposes only and unless otherwise stated is not formal QSIA policy. The information on these posts are provided on the basis that all persons accessing the information undertake their own responsibility for assessing the relevance and accuracy of it.

The fight for commercial fisher rights continues