In the world of environmental management, stories rarely appear as simple and clear-cut as the one unfolding around the super trawler, Margiris. When it comes to good versus evil, we are in cartoon land with the Margiris; the only thing missing is a pitchfork and pointy tail.
It loomed out of the sea mist and into view last week at Port Lincoln, having spent the previous months fishing out the waters off West Africa. It was forced out of Senegal as more than 52,000 fishermen threatened to stop it in its tracks — these guys know all about the impact of over fishing and they take the livelihood of their families and kids very seriously.
The Margiris embodies everything that is wrong with the kind of industrial-scale fishing made possible by European super trawlers. But the fact that it is still docked in Port Lincoln and happily taking on provisions for its fishing expedition tells us there is more at work here than common sense or even national interest.
The super trawler has only been able to sail half way across the planet and enter Australian waters because European taxpayers have paid over 20 million euros over the last 10 years keeping this business model and these ships afloat. Without subsidies — and a doubling of its fishing quota — the Margiris cannot afford to fish so far afield.
Putting aside the scale of the ship and the fact that it can catch 250 tonnes of fish a day, can fish 24 hours a day, seven days a week for months on end without ever having to return to port, local commercial fishermen cannot hope to compete with the subsidies or scale of this ship. This, plus the size of its fishing quota would normally raise the issue of anticompetitive practices and there may yet be some legal wrangling on this very question.
It is a ship with very few friends and an impressive array of enemies and it is clearly in the business of making history.
Not only is it the first super trawler to come to Australia — though there is no way it will be the last — it has also managed to unite long-term foes and become the focus of the first tripartite agreement in Tasmania. It has united previous enemies with opposition to it cutting across political lines; Wilson Tuckey, Melissa Parkes and Fiona Nash have all spoken out against it.
Its presence has humiliated Senator Joe Ludwig as he has had to spend the previous week explaining in detail just how powerless he is and how he can do nothing to prevent this thing — this despite the fact that it is currently under investigation from the Ombudsman, that the science the decision was based on is at least eight years out of date and challenged by a number of other scientists, and that as Seafish Tasmania is 75 per cent owned by a New Zealand family, it is not even an Australian enterprise (pdf).
Then last Monday on Q&A we had the Minister for the Environment, Tony Burke, explain that he did not have the power to stop this thing either and the best that he could do was introduce criteria that would go some of the way to reducing the mortality of the trawler’s by-catch. Though, as Melissa Parkes explained on Radio National, these conditions introduce the idea that it would take the deaths of a number of seal, sea lions and/or dolphins to interrupt this boat’s fishing.
Given that the police and the RSPCA are rightly called to intervene when someone harasses a pod of dolphins or gets too close to a sea lion, the idea that a European super trawler could come here and kill half a dozen seals before they need to take any action is disturbing and obviously sends an unfortunate — not to say double — message when it comes to animal cruelty.
Now that both ministers have made it abundantly clear that they are either powerless and inadequate, as in the case of Senator Ludwig, or at the end of their ministerial powers, as in the case of Minister Burke, it is time for the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard to stop the Margiris by supporting Melissa Parkes’ private member’s bill when she brings it to caucus next week. This really is a rare opportunity for the Prime Minister to act in the national interest confident that she is on the side of the electorate.
Once this floating factory has been sent back to where it came from, we can begin to investigate how anyone ever imagined Australians would find this an acceptable way to do business, let alone go fishing.
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