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Marine environment must be protected

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 5 Mar 2015

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (11:09):  I rise to speak and add my contribution on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment Bill 2014, which is a Labor private senator's bill. This bill is designed to give the Minister for the Environment the discretion to allow supertrawlers into our country and into our seas. I want to be very clear right from the outset that it will not stop supertrawlers and it does not ban supertrawlers. But, before I discuss the detail of the bill and the issues around the technique that the opposition is using in introducing this bill, I just want to contribute a few thoughts about what we are facing in making these kinds of decisions in this parliament in Australia in the second decade of the 21st century.

I think it is very clear from the evidence that has been mounting from probably the 1950s and 1960s onwards and every week in the 21st century, more and more compellingly, that the actions that we are taking now, the decisions that we are making now, this century, have an unprecedented capacity to affect the viability of not only our species but every other species on this beautiful, beautiful planet that we have. It is very clear that the combination of increasing human population and the incredible complexity of the technology that we now wield on this planet means that we are at a point in history when we are seeing unprecedented species loss, with predictions that half of all species on the earth may be extinct by the end of this century. It is very, very clear too, in the context of this discussion, that these species include many, many fish species. We know-just being anthropocentric and thinking purely from a selfish human point of view-that so many people around the world rely on fish for their main source of protein and nutrition, so we know that the sorts of discussions we are having here are not just political. They are actually about the survival of our species and other species on this planet.

Along with many other people, although I know these things, I do read the science, and I watch the science with increasing concern. Like many others, I read an article in 2013 by Ivan Macfadyen called 'The ocean is broken'. It was published in The Sydney Morning Herald. It is still available if people listening to or reading this speech want to have a look at it. He wrote about a sailing trip that he did. He is an experienced sailor, so he had the ability to compare his experience then with what he had previously experienced on other trips. It was chilling. It was heartbreaking really. He had noticed changes in the last years. Basically, he was confronted by the silence that he heard, the silence on the seas, and he realised that this was attributable to the fact that they saw very, very few birds. They also caught very few fish. They would normally have caught fish each day to feed themselves. Over the period of a journey between Australia and Japan, they were able to catch two fish.

We can stand here in this chamber and we can talk about these facts. We can talk about these statistics till the cows come home. We can pay lip-service to these concerns, and we would all pretend that we are all really concerned about this, but I want people to really think about what the responsibility is that we hold in our hands, particularly in this parliament as legislators but also people throughout Australia and indeed internationally; about the choices that we are making now; and about what they will mean not in the far distant future but very soon for us and for our future citizens-'our children and our grandchildren' is the way I often like to put it.

Let us turn now to the bill and the context for this particular bill. I want to again be very clear that this Labor Party bill will not stop supertrawlers and it will not ban supertrawlers. There was a great deal of anxiety the last time there was a supertrawler that was threatening to come to Tasmanian waters and fish. Ultimately, because of the pressure of the fishing community and the non-government organisations-and certainly the Australian Greens were very much there listening to those concerns and relaying our understanding of the science-steps were taken to have a sunset clause to not allow that supertrawler to continue. But this bill will not actually stop that potential from happening again, and, as we know, there is now discussion about another trawler coming to Australian waters.

What are these supertrawlers that people are concerned about? Supertrawlers are like a lot of other things that are happening in this century with the use of technology that we human beings now have. We can wield so much power and we can do so many destructive things in very short time spans now because of the technology that we have. Essentially, supertrawlers are a form of industrial fishing. It is not the fishing that we might have once thought of when we thought about people on boats out there against the elements, catching their fish after an honest day's work.

These are industrial fishing machines. These are essentially floating factories that allow the catch to be frozen for long periods of time before they return for processing. They catch stupendously unimaginable large amounts of fish from the oceans. Basically, the evidence is very clear: wherever these supertrawlers have gone, these industrial fishing vessels, they have broken the ocean. That is what we are talking about here. In the context of what we are facing in terms of our survival on this planet, it is really important to bear that in mind.

This bill will return us to the situation that we had before when the Labor Party was in government and the last supertrawler was threatening to enter Tasmanian waters. It will essentially give discretion back to the environment minister, whoever that happens to be at any particular time, to allow a supertrawler to help itself to Australian waters. With the history of environment ministers that we have seen recently from both shades of government, both shades of the parliament, Labor and the Liberal-National party coalition, this does not strike me with any particular confidence. Despite the fact that we are constantly being told that both the opposition and the government are beholden to the science, the evidence is to the contrary.

If we look at the sorts of decisions that have been made about the environment in the past, in the face of scientific evidence-and coal ports on the Great Barrier Reef are just one example-it does not provide me with any consolation at all that we can rely on the environment minister; that if there is a discretion on the environment minister, they will make the right decision when we are thinking about the long-term national interest and the science. The big battle last time with the supertrawler was not fully won. The supertrawler was stopped then but they will keep wanting to return to Australian waters, especially where other oceans are broken.

The argument that we need to leave it to the science, to the discretion of the environment minister, has two flaws as far as I am concerned. One is that the scientific work has not yet been properly done. Even the resource assessment group at the Australian Fisheries Management Authority agreed that not enough scientific work had been done the last time this debate was live, and that work is still not finished. With all the evidence about the depletion in fish species around the world, it is very clear that there is still a huge amount of scientific uncertainty.

I know that the concept of the precautionary principle has gone out of fashion because it is not convenient for people who want to make a lot of money out of exploiting resources. But, in fact, at this point in the 21st century, the precautionary principle has never been more important. When there is a risk to this extent, we have to use caution. We have to be conservative. We must not be extreme when it comes to conserving the very resources of the environment that we rely on for our survival.

The other aspect that I have already canvassed is that even where there is clear scientific evidence such as the evidence about the risk of catastrophic climate change and the clear evidence about the most effective ways to deal with that risk, to mitigate that risk, there is no compelling evidence that governments will necessarily take action on that. I think the federal government that we have at the moment is a case in point.

I now want to turn to some very fishy links between the imminent advent of another trawler and this federal government's role in that, and some donations made to the Liberal Party by the Southern Bluefin Tuna Industry Association that have recently come to light. The Southern Bluefin Tuna Industry Association is based in my home state in South Australia. They have been very outspoken in the past in support of the supertrawler when it was coming to Australia last time around and they are outspoken in favour of supertrawlers such as the one that is now wanting to approach our shores. Why?

The thing about tuna farming is that, as with all farms, you have to be able to feed your product; you have to be to feed your tuna. For every one kilogram that is added to the weight of a southern bluefin tuna that is being farmed, you actually have to feed it 12 kilograms of fishmeal-12 kilograms converted into one kilogram. If we are talking about feeding the world, if we are talking about efficiencies, it is obviously highly, highly inefficient that we are concentrating large amounts of protein into small amounts of protein. Why is that happening? There is a lot of profit to be made out of it-and I will come back to that.

Ninety seven per cent of the pelagics that are caught in Australia go to fishmeal-that is small fish like sardines and so on. They are the species that are targeted by supertrawlers. They go to fishmeal and it is fishmeal that is fed to the tuna that are being fattened up at the tuna farms off the coast of South Australia. When the last Seafish Tasmania trawler caught small pelagics, they were sold as fishmeal. What will happen with the proposed trawler and the pelagics caught by it? The government is saying that Seafish Tasmania may sell small pelagic fish-catch to Africa for food. Of course, that is an interesting idea because if that were definitely to be the case then there would be some kind of a moral argument at least that we would be feeding people who need that protein. But, in fact, there is uncertainty about that.

It has been very difficult previously to know where the pelagic fish were going to go-and we still do not know that yet. You might like to watch this space to see what happens over time, but there is a very strong possibility that any pelagic fish stock from the supertrawlers will be sold to Australian fish farmers. Let us watch this space. There is some uncertainty about that at the moment, and that is some of the scientific and political uncertainty that we are dealing with in this space.

Let me take you back to the way that the tuna farming industry works and what happened in relation to a donation that the tuna fishers made to the Liberal Party before the last election. Australia's tuna fishers made a $320,000 donation to the Liberal Party, and most of it-$250,000-was before the 2013 federal election, and $70,000 was after the election. Why did they make the donation after the election? I am not sure why that would be, but they have never before given any donation to the Liberals or to any other party. What transpired? What did the Liberal Party do? When the Liberal Party gained office two things happened very quickly. The first one was that they changed some of their policies. What was the result? The result was a windfall of over $600,000-I think the figure is around $800,000-to the tuna fishers after the election. They did this by delaying the introduction of video monitoring technology which is designed to stop rorting of the data about the quota that is being taken in tuna in Australia.

Prior to the election, we know now that Liberal Senators Richard Colbeck and Sean Edwards visited Port Lincoln and Ceduna, which is where the southern bluefin tuna industry fishers are mainly based. They had a couple of visits and some meetings there. Although in estimates Senator Colbeck did not remember discussing donations initially, he did come back and recollect that in fact the idea of donations to the Liberal Party had been discussed. As well as that, there was a letter, a written undertaking, specifically committed to reducing red tape that had been raised by the tuna industry. Let us go back to the question about the southern bluefin tuna industry and how it works-

Senator Ruston:  Madam Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I am just wondering whether the senator is prepared to make these allegations outside this chamber.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator O'Neill):  That is not a point of order. Senator Wright, please continue your remarks.

Senator WRIGHT:  Thank you. In fact, the allegations are not allegations; they are statements of fact. They are on the public record in the estimates. In fact, they have been reported in newspaper articles outside the chamber. I invite people to Google and find out the story. There was one particular article in the Sydney Morning Herald about this. I have been outlining a chain of facts, a chain of what occurred. People can draw their own conclusions from it; but, to me, the conclusions are pretty clear. We have the southern bluefin tuna-and let us not misunderstand this-which is a critically endangered species. It is recognised internationally as a critically endangered species which has been overfished. It is vital, therefore, for this critically endangered species that it is not overfished and that it is managed internationally by a quota system. Obviously, vital for the conservation and the integrity of the quota is that it is not rorted and that there is accurate data around whether or not the quota is being met. It is also part of a fishing industry which is worth about $1 billion internationally to those who benefit from it. So there have been high stakes negotiations between countries like Australia an Japan about the size of the quota their fishers can take, and they have long argued over their shares. Australia's quota is about 5,000 tonnes per year. However, soon after the federal election, the quota for the Australian fishing industry, the tuna fishers, was increased by about 10 per cent.

The Australian industry is centred off Port Lincoln in South Australia. Nearly all the tuna in that industry is netted live in the Great Australian Bight and then dragged in cages slowly through the ocean. Some fish die in that process and are thrown away. These fish are not counted as part of the quota. The fish are then transferred into pens in the ocean near Port Lincoln, and there they are fatted up in the cages. As we heard, 12 kilograms of pelagic small fish is required to grow one kilogram of tuna. Then they are onsold to Japan's sushi and sashimi market. A handful of families are involved in this industry, and they have multimillion dollar licences.

Let us be clear: if we are looking at feeding the world, this is a very inefficient way to do it. There have been long-held concerns about the integrity of the quota system, which relies on the reliability and the accuracy of the data. What was proposed by the international organisation was that there would be video monitoring, because that is one way to ensure that we have proper data. Concerns had been raised that a sample taken from the top of the cage where the smaller fish are congregated would underestimate the average size when the larger fish were below the cage. Also, there are fish that die before they arrive in the pens and they are not counted. So the introduction of video evidence that Australia undertook to do in 2012 and committed to a full rollout by 2013 was a way of trying to ensure the integrity of the process. In 2013, we have a new government who advise the chair of the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna that Australia has decided to postpone the implementation of stereo-video monitoring until an automated solution became available. This was met with dismay by New Zealand and Japan was extremely concerned, because they know that there is extra uncertainty of unaccounted mortality created by the delay in the implementation of the stereo-video system. So we have a delay in the video technology, which has netted the Australian Southern Bluefin Tuna Industry Association, the tuna fishers, a saving of close to $800,000. We also have the consequences whereby we have an international commission where there is mistrust and concern about the reliability of the quota system. We also have Australia taking a step like this, which means that we will then potentially have consequences from countries like Japan, who will have the grounds perhaps to say, 'In that case then, if we can't rely on the system that you're implementing, why should we comply?' What will they do? How will they respond? It is just human nature. That is the politics of what has occurred.

Let me finish by saying that we need to be sure that the decisions we are making in this parliament are truly based on the science, that they are based on accurate data and that we set up the systems which are necessary to ensure that we have that accurate data. Also, those systems should not be subject to undue influence by donations that are being made to political parties that happen to be in government. (Time expired)




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