Sustainable Seafood


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So is Australia on track to save our seafood?

"Australia's fisheries management system is very good by world standards," says Sainsbury. He believes that "serious efforts are being made to redress our mistakes".

A big injection of cash from the Federal Government has certainly helped to drive change.

Just before Christmas in 2005, after a series of very bad report cards, the AFMA received an ultimatum from the Government, which insisted it do a better job in ensuring the sustainability of Australian fish stocks and secure a future for the fishing industry.

Fortunately, the Government backed its demand with $220 million in funding. The money is being used to reduce competition by buying out fishing licences, helping to relocate or retrain fishermen so they can get new jobs, and supporting businesses so they can diversify their fishing-related operations.

"The only other alternative would have been to reduce permitted catch levels until fishers were forced to go bankrupt - slowly and hard," says Sainsbury.

"That would allow fisheries to recover but it would be socially very painful. People would suffer the consequence."

This is why managing fisheries is so very complex - fisheries management is not only about the fish.

People invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in boats, gear and licenses, and as petrol prices and wages go up and catches go down, fishermen need to catch more fish to keep their vessels - and their families - afloat.

In theory, knowing that a fish stock is being overfished should trigger a rapid reduction in effort: fewer boats catching fewer fish, or even a ban on commercial fishing until the stock recovers.

Yet, even the most basic information about our fisheries resources can be full of uncertainty. "It's very difficult and very expensive to estimate how many fish are in the sea and how many fish can be taken safely," says Sainsbury.

"[The most commonly used] methods invariably give a wide range of plausible catch levels," says Sainsbury, who, as an AFMA board member, regularly needs to make decisions about harvesting quotas. "So the key question is how management responds."

The more information available about the fish stock, the better the estimates: lifespan, migration patterns, growth rate and breeding age are all useful indicators of the success of the stock.

For some stocks, it was a case of too much fishing too soon, before crucial information about their biology was known.

"There are a number of cases where we went from having poor understanding of the stock, straight to [it] being overfished," says Sainsbury.

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