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Concerns over Minister’s latest reply on Grey Mackerel

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Article as it appeared in print

One of the largest greys landed in the Douglas Region this season, a monster at 111 cm length and 8.9 kg, showing well-formed roe by 28 August. The average weight of fish caught is now around 3 kg, down from an average of around 7 kg.

grey mack

 

The Network for Sustainable Fishing is still in deadlock with Fisheries Queensland (FQ) regarding whether grey mackerel can currently be considered “sustainably fished”.


In September’s issue of NQ Fish and Boat, I challenged Queensland Fisheries Minister, Dr John McVeigh, that the species does not merit this recently awarded status. In that article I also presented a summary of the reasons I gave to the minister why, under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity (EPBC) Act 1999 and its supporting documents, grey mackerel should not be listed as fished in an ecologically sustainable way, as indeed is required by law.


My article in October’s issue covered the Minister’s first reply which did not adequately address the concerns I raised with him.


In view of failed or depleted mackerel stocks in a number of areas, I urged all Queenslanders to stand up for their rights regarding our need for healthy inshore fisheries. We need to take much firmer action to pressure government for adequate regional fisheries management. I suggested we consider the possibility of a class action in the courts against the state for failing to adequately manage the fishery.


In October’s article I also listed a number of direct questions regarding the recent assessment process for grey mackerel. Minister McVeigh has in his most recent letter ensured fairly comprehensive answers to my questions.


Sadly his answers still fail to put my concerns to rest. The minister is not a fishery management specialist; he is totally reliant on receiving the appropriate advice. This comes from a combined total of “23 professional aquatic scientists” (note: not fisheries scientists) with “a combined 450 years of experience in fisheries science/management”. He states “22 had science bachelor degrees ... and eight had doctorates”.
It may well be significant that Dr McVeigh did not specify any of his team having degrees or post graduate qualifications or doctorates in the highly specialised fields of fisheries management or stock assessment. Is that where the problem lies?


Whilst I do have post graduate if rather out-dated qualifications in fisheries management, I do not consider myself a fisheries scientist. I am however convinced that competent and suitably specialised independent expert analysis would confirm FQ have come up with the wrong answer regarding the sustainability of the current netting of grey mackerel.


The big picture


In a nutshell, the history of other fisheries throughout the world suggests that concentrated netting of aggregating, pre-spawning and spawning fish, on all their spawning grounds, is a recipe for stock collapse.
In some past instances of major stock collapses there has been very little prior warning that the fishery was heading for trouble. Warning signs were often picked up by only a few fishery managers and because they were hotly contested by the industry lobby, politicians inevitably failed to take the decisive regulatory actions necessary to save the stock. Some disastrous collapses have followed this industry denial and political inaction.


The collapse of the cod fishery off the east coast of North America is a classic example. Three well-researched Penguin books, two by Mark Kurlansky, the other by Paul Greenberg, give fascinating layman’s accounts of the history of this fishery.


The collapse of the fishery threw thousands of people permanently out of the industry. The industry had failed to allow for the fact that the fishery was actually composed of many non-mixing stocks of the one species. It was wrongly assumed, at the time, that there was just one stock moving progressively offshore in response to heavy fishing pressure.


It now appears that different non-mixing stocks of Atlantic cod existed in different areas according various factors such as latitude, currents, bottom type and distance offshore. These individual stocks were progressively overfished as skippers moved to larger more efficient boats and roamed the ocean, wrongly assuming they were searching for the same stock that was “learning” to avoid previously overfished grounds.
In the Queensland grey mackerel context, the risk of stock collapse is high as the fishery is based on a number (at least two, probably more) relatively small, non-mixing, regional inshore populations. It remains to be seen whether a case can be made that managing them as if they were one stock amounts to negligence and/or incompetence.


When grey (or spotted) mackerel or indeed any other fish species fails to return to traditional spawning grounds, as a number of regional areas have experienced, the reason may not be that they have “learned” to avoid the area. It is quite possible that, as with the Atlantic cod (and herring and Atlantic mackerel) stocks have simply been fished out.


When it comes to gillnetting of grey mackerel, FQ is unable to regulate who fishes which stocks, where and by how much. The single TAC allows different stocks to be serially overfished as the years go by.


Ecologically Sustainable Development


The Queensland Fisheries Act 1994 includes the principles of ecologically sustainable development (ESD) in its objectives. These include ensuring fisheries resources are managed in an ecologically sustainable way, ensuring optimum community, economic and other benefits can be obtained from fisheries resources and ensuring access to fisheries resources is fair.


There is just no way all this big picture stuff, mentioned above, adds up to management according to the principles of ESD, regardless of how the minister’s team of fisheries advisers wish to wave their “trick sticks” as suggested by Dave Donald in his tongue-in-cheek but thought-provoking article last month.


The devil is in the detail


The devil is in the detail ... and the assumptions. A number of the answers provided by the minister to my queries are based on data not available to us. There is no way of assessing whether certain conclusions are legitimate.


The minister’s response does however contain a number of assumptions which do deserve closer examination and indeed a strong challenge.


The figures the Minister provides show that catches of grey mackerel have progressively fallen from 2009 when a total allowable catch (TAC) of a “precautionary” 250 tonnes of greys was introduced after a massive peak of about 450 tonnes in 2008-09. Indeed they have never even come close to reaching the “precautionary” TAC of 250 tonnes.


The assumption made by FQ is that these lower catches are the result of the introduction of the quota, poor weather and limited targeting of grey mackerel (lower effort levels). No evidence is given to support these assumptions and no reasons are given as to why netters reduced their targeting of the species.
Was the weather on the inshore fishing grounds in 2008-09 all that better than in the years that followed? Is an annual catch of less than 200 tonnes in 2010-11 the result of a “precautionary” cap of 250 tonnes or simply because insufficient schools of grey mackerel could be located to allow fishers to reach the quota?
The justification for the assignment of the stock status as sustainably fished includes FQ’s extraordinary statement “the level of biomass being harvested and the low amount of fishing pressure being applied indicate the stock is unlikely to become ... overfished”. Considering there are a number of different stocks of greys and that FQ have absolutely no idea of the biomass of any stock, or even how many there are, or where they spawn, and as mentioned above, cannot control where and when netters fish, this statement is absurd.


Catch rates high


The figures the Minister provides show that catch rates for netting of greys remained high in 2009-10 and 2010-11. As regular readers of this column should by now be aware, this is not necessarily a sign of a healthy fishery when aggregating stocks are targeted.


Unlike a fishery based on a widely dispersed stock, an overfished fishery based on aggregated stock can display good catch rates right up to the unexpected collapse of the fishery. Continuing high catch rates may also be helped by improvements in skills, knowledge, technology and the discovery of new stocks and/or spawning grounds when old grounds have been depleted.


Second year students


The breakdown of the age of the greys caught by the industry in some areas show that proportionally more fish in their second year of life are being caught in relation to the older fish. This certainly fits into the line fishery catch in our local Douglas Region, where fish of around 3 kg are in the majority. The exceptionally large 8.9kg ‘monster’ pictured here was one of the very largest caught by a local pro this season.


Information indicates that previously the average weight of individuals caught was around the 7 kg mark. Such a drop in average size is a sure sign of a fishery under significant pressure and likely to be a warning sign that the fishery needs to be managed with extreme caution. This is obviously not happening.


Overseas studies indicate some species when migrating apparently rely on the older, more experienced individuals to lead the schools. If heavy fishing continually reduces survival rates, there is the danger our second year grey mackerel being left without their leaders, possibly unable to find their traditional spawning grounds.


Titanic Problem


The minister’s most recent letter points out that as an inshore species, grey mackerel are vulnerable to habitat loss, reduced water quality and climate change impacts. He suggests that “the stewardship for addressing the issues you have raised rests with people such as yourself and your network membership. ..... Your Network members could also contact their local NRM group to become involved in action helping to make on ground improvements to important coastal habitats to mitigate environmental influences impacting on coastal areas.”
Many of us are of course already volunteering our time in such areas. At a recent GBRMPA Local Marine Advisory Committee meeting, I commented that such remedial work can be likened to re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic as it ploughs on towards the iceberg.


From a regional standpoint, being aware that we have separate regional stocks, the gillnet fishery based on grey mackerel (or threadfin, or barramundi) is the Titanic and she is heading straight for the iceberg that is stock collapse. Only a timely change in course will reduce the severity of regional impacts, not just to grey mackerel stocks but to all or most of our large inshore species.


If climate change, loss of habitat, water quality and the inevitable impacts of port dredging and dumping are making stocks less resilient, then all the more reason to manage our inshore fisheries with far more precision and caution.


Much better fisheries management and adequate control of gillnetting netting effort at a regional level is urgently required if grey mackerel and indeed our entire inshore fishery are ever to be managed in an ecologically sustainable way.

David C. Cook
davecook@bigpond.com