Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Declared Fishing Activities) Bill 2012

Ms BIRD (Cunningham—Parliamentary Secretary for Higher Education and Skills) (12:16): I rise to support the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Declared Fishing Activities) Bill 2012. There has been much conversation and debate about how we got to this point and a lot of casting of aspersions on motives. I think, at the end of the day, good policy requires us to address the content of the legislation. Rather than question why we are here and whose motives contributed what to that process, it is a matter of what legislation is before the parliament, what the intent of the legislation is, whether it will be achieved and whether it is something that as a nation we seek to support. On those bases—not on the basis of all the spurious mud-slinging we have heard from the other side—I support the bill before the House.

As a local member I have had representations from people in my area about their concerns. So I am pleased to support the bill today, and I wanted to recognise the significant number of representations that have been made to me and to local people who have expressed their views to me on the matter. I want to acknowledge the important work of our ministers in finding an appropriate way to deal with what is an important issue. The minister for the environment said on 11 September, only this week:

If we get this wrong, there are risks to the environment, to commercial operators and to everyone who loves fishing and they are risks I am not prepared to take.

Hear, hear, I say.

As the minister has outlined, it is important that this parliament provides the government with legislation that enables the minister to give proper consideration to proposals about new fishing technologies and techniques. It recognises that the Commonwealth Fisheries Management Act began operating in 1991—that is, over 20 years ago. Often, when we debate things like the National Broadband Network in this place, I point out to people that 20 years ago, when I was a young mum—my boys were just born—the technology that faced us at the time was profoundly different from what we face today. At that point in time, we had one house address and one fixed phone line. It was very easy to fill out a business card because there was not much to put on it. It is very, very different today.

The area of this legislation is no different. Technology over 20 years has significantly changed. In 1991, supertrawlers such as the one now named Abel Tasman were not envisaged. As Cunningham is a coastal area in the Illawarra, we well understand the critical importance of our marine and fisheries management, the sustainability of the industry and the need to stay ahead of technological developments in the interests of the various groups who rely on our marine environment. The Abel Tasman is the second biggest fishing vessel on the planet. It is indeed a 'super' trawler. It has a storage capacity around four times that of other factory fishing operations in Australia—vessels that have a storage capacity of around 1,500 tonnes.

In following the media conversation on this matter, I came across an article that was written by a former member of this place, one Wilson Tuckey. He is not someone I regularly found myself in agreement with, but he did make some very interesting points in this article that was published on 27 August this year in the Australian Financial Review. He said:

Put simply, the world has got too smart at catching fish.

Further on, he says:

To put it in the words of a long-term fisher: when he started out the boats were small and slow, which restricted fishing days according to weather conditions and the distance a vessel could travel. And locating fishing spots and relocating pots required dead-reckoning navigation and good luck, thus giving the lobster an even chance.

He was talking about lobster fishing in his own region. He goes on:

All this changed with the advent of larger and faster vessels, GPS navigation linked to autopilots and seabed radar in its various forms.

Human innovation in the fishing industry has reduced the capacity of fish to maintain a breeding stock sufficient for a harvestable food chain for the fish and we humans.

So Wilson Tuckey is concerned by what he is seeing develop across some of the marine industries in the area that he previously represented. He has expressed his concerns about what impact certain technologies have had on the sustainability of this industry. Now, I do not pretend to totally agree with all his answers and responses to those developments. But I do think that the bill before us is a reasonable and measured response to some of those challenges, particularly those presented by this supertrawler.

The science behind quotas is sound, but we need to consider the science around the extended long-term capacity of a ship such as this one. In this legislation, we are adding the means by which it can be assessed prior to operating, to be sure that we are not putting our marine environment at risk. It is made clear that the bill does not impact on the ability of quota holders to fish in Commonwealth marine areas using fishing methods and vessels that have employed in the past.

These actions by the government will only serve to strengthen the Australian fishing industries, both commercial and recreational, by ensuring proposals for large-scale operators are given proper consideration before they are given the green light.

The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Declared Fishing Activities) Bill 2012 establishes a two-stage declaration process involving both an interim declaration and a final declaration. That works in this way. The interim declaration process facilitates the prohibition of a declared fishing activity, while consultation with affected operators occurs over a period of up to two months. The final declaration process, the second part of the two-stage process, imposes a longer term ban for a maximum of two years while an expert assessment can be done undertaken regarding the potential impacts of the fishing activity. Both declarations require the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities and the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry to agree that there is uncertainty about the environmental, social or economic impacts of the fishing activity.

Further, the environment minister must, in making a final declaration, take into account the comments provided by affected fishing concession holders and can only make a final declaration in relation to the same activity that was the subject of the interim declaration. This ensures there is procedural fairness in the two-stage process of consideration. If the assessment identifies that the activity will or may have a significant impact on a matter of national environmental significance, the relevant provisions of the EPBC Act would apply. For example, the person undertaking the activities would be required to refer the activities to the minister under section 68 of the EPBC Act, or the minister may call in the matter under section 70.

If the assessment report indicates there are no significant impacts for the fishing operation, then that fishing activity may proceed, subject of course to regulation under the fishing management arrangements in place for the fishery and for the operator. There must be investigation of matters presented by such a super trawler: questions such as the impact of its capacity to stay on a single school of fish and to take many hundreds or indeed thousands of tonnes of an individual species, the potential for bycatch of protected species over an extended period of fishing a single school and the uncertain impacts of a target species catch of that magnitude on dependent prey species. Again, these were some of the issues that Mr Tuckey went to in this article. He was specifically referring to an issue which had happened in the northern hemisphere, which the previous speaker, the member for Riverina, referred, talking about destroying cod fish breeding stocks and the collapse of the North Sea cod fishery as a result of practices, which had been in place there for centuries, being progressively replaced by vessels and technologies along the lines of supertrawlers. He makes the point that for many years the cod wars in Iceland created a real battle over the sustainability of the fish stocks and their traditional fishing methods. He makes some very interesting points in the article and I would encourage some of his former colleagues to perhaps to have a look at it.

He does, I would suspect, commend us to go back to a simpler but unsustainable response to those sorts of challenges. The point he makes about the speed with which technology can move and its adaption in all sorts of aspects of our life, including in an industry like the fishing industry, are significant. We have a responsibility, not only to those who are currently involved in the fishing industry as commercial operators or indeed as recreational users of our marine environment but also to future generations who, one would hope, would still be able to participate in the fishing industry in the future, to take these challenges seriously.

The minister outlined that he had had a look at and sought advice on what actions and powers he may have to look at these matters under the existing act. He was of the view, when the advice came back to him, that it was insufficient to enable him to respond in a meaningful way to the challenges the super trawler presented. So the bill before us puts in place the powers to enable a measured, sensible assessment of the technology and its impacts. It does not prohibit the technology in the longer term but it does seek to get some expert views and up-to-date science on the issue it confronts us with.

In amending the act, the bill provides for the minister to establish an independent expert panel and for them to conduct an assessment into the potential environmental, social and economic impacts of a declared fishing activity and to prohibit the declared fishing activity while the assessment is undertaken. The minister will have the flexibility obviously under the act to establish the panel, to appoint panel members having regard to the expertise required for each particular assessment, which would obviously vary depending on the nature of the particular fishing activity and its potential impacts. It may also comprise a variety of people with environmental and economic expertise, including scientists and economists.

The amendments enable the minister to specify the manner in which the expert panel is to carry out an assessment. This provides, again, the minister with the flexibility to determine the manner in which the assessment is conducted, having regard to the nature of the fishing activity and its proposed impacts. For example, in some cases a desktop review of the available scientific literature may be all that is required. By comparison, in other cases it may be desirable for the public to have an extensive input into the assessment process. So the expert panel, its methods and make up in this particular amendment bill, are designed to ensure that people with real and meaningful expertise can be pulled together to deal with the particular aspects of the new technological change we are confronting in assessing whether or not such activity should be allowed to proceed.

It is important to recognise that having done all that, if at the end of that process it is quite clear that the issues of concern have been allayed, then the activity can proceed. So it is not a blanket ban. It is not saying that technological improvements and changes are in and of themselves a bad thing and should be prohibited. It is simply saying that in this age where technological advances have moved beyond a limited range of industries and into a much broader range—in this case, the fishing industry—we need to be able to respond to the challenge we are confronted with in terms of providing sustainability into the future. What the ministers have put together in this proposed amendment bill is well targeted at achieving that. Regardless of the carry-on from the other side about what might motivate such an outcome, I would have thought that the priority for them at the end of the day would be to actually see good legislation in this place that has positive outcomes for our nation. I would argue that that is exactly what this does. There is no surprise that they are fear-mongering again, and I think it is a disappointing contribution to the debate that they are doing so.