Questions and answers

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How are Australia’s fish stocks managed?

The management of wild catch fisheries in Australia is a responsibility shared between the Commonwealth, states and the Northern Territory.

In very general terms, the Australian Government is responsible for commercial fisheries beyond three nautical miles from the coast, while the states and the Northern Territory are responsible for fisheries resources within three nautical miles. However, under offshore constitutional settlement arrangements, most fisheries are defined differently, and in some cases management is shared through a joint authority between the Commonwealth and a state or the Northern Territory.

The state and the Northern Territory governments manage recreational fishing and aquaculture.

The Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) is the independent regulator that manages Commonwealth fisheries. AFMA’s functions include determining fishing management settings and allocating fishing rights including quotas.

The Australian Government is committed to the sustainable use of fisheries resources and the conservation of marine ecosystems and biodiversity. Commonwealth fisheries management considers both the biological and economic consequences of fishing, including the effects on the broader marine environment.

Key commercial stocks in Commonwealth fisheries are managed under the Commonwealth Fisheries Harvest Strategy Policy and Guidelines. The policy applies an evidence-based, precautionary approach to setting catch levels, to ensure that fisheries provide maximum economic returns while maintaining stocks at sustainable levels.

Why is the harvest strategy policy needed?

In 2005, it was recognised that the biological and economic status of a number of Commonwealth fisheries was poor and many stocks faced long recovery times. The then minister directed AFMA to take a more strategic, science-based approach to setting fisheries catch and effort levels through a ‘world’s best practice Commonwealth harvest strategy policy’. The aim was to manage fish stocks sustainably and profitably, end overfishing and ensure that already overfished stocks were rebuilt within reasonable timeframes.

In response, the government released the Commonwealth Fisheries Harvest Strategy Policy and Guidelines in 2007. This is the major government policy that guides management settings for commercially targeted species in Commonwealth fisheries.

The policy’s objective is the sustainable and profitable use of Commonwealth fisheries now and forever—requiring that ‘harvest strategies’ be used to keep target stocks at ecologically sustainable levels and to maximise economic returns to the community within that context. The policy seeks to ensure that acceptable scientific processes are used to set sustainable catch levels for target species. Harvest strategies developed under the policy are designed to maximise economic returns from fishing and avoid unacceptable risks to the stock from overfishing.

Other measures taken since the ministerial direction included a significant structural adjustment package; a programme for improved science, compliance and data collection; and a project to improve the certainty of stock status in Commonwealth managed fisheries.

What is the current status of Australia’s fish stocks?

Since 2005, there has been a strong decrease in the number of fish stocks that are assessed as overfished (that is, whose populations are not at acceptable levels) and/or subject to overfishing (that is,. current levels of fishing activity are likely to reduce the population below acceptable levels). There has also been a significant decline in the number of fish stocks whose status is uncertain (that is, for which there is not enough information to assess whether the stock is overfished or subject to overfishing). These improvements have been attributed to the 2005 Ministerial Direction and the associated implementation of the Commonwealth Fisheries Harvest Strategy Policy (2007) and the Securing our Fishing Future structural adjustment package.

The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) Fishery Status Reports 2016 show a continuation of the general trends in improvements of performance in terms of the biological status of fish stocks in Australian Government-managed fisheries; specifically, the decreasing number of stocks classified as overfished or subject to overfishing. In the 2016 reports, 93 fish stocks (83 in 2005) were assessed over 22 fisheries. 65 stocks were assessed across 9 fisheries that are managed solely by AFMA on behalf of the Australian Government, and 28 stocks were assessed across 13 fisheries that are managed jointly with other Australian jurisdictions or other countries.

In 2015 the number of stocks classified as subject to overfishing decreased to three (12 in 2005), and the number of stocks classified as overfished decreased to 11 (17 in 2005). Of these, one stock (bigeye tuna,  Thunnus obesus) in the Eastern Tuna and Billfish Fishery (ETBF) was both overfished and subject to overfishing (24 in 2005). Importantly, the 2016 reports are the third year that no stocks in fisheries solely managed by the Australian Government have been classified as subject to overfishing.

The level of uncertainty has also decreased significantly since 2005. In the 2016 reports, the number of stocks classified as uncertain with regard to fishing mortality decreased to 11, and the number of stocks classified as uncertain with regard to biomass decreased to 13. Comparatively, a total of 40 species were classified as having an uncertain status in 2005.

The few domestically-managed fish stocks that are classified as overfished or subject to overfishing do require a rebuilding strategy. There are currently five rebuilding strategies in place: Blue Warehou, Eastern Gemfish, School Shark, Orange Roughy and Redfish.  These rebuilding strategies are reviewed every five years to monitor the progress of rebuilding and ensure the continued effectiveness of management arrangements which have been implemented.

The review of the harvest strategy policy considered the settings of such rebuilding strategies as well as their effectiveness. The review found that while no stocks have shown clear signs of further decline since rebuilding strategies were introduced, some have not shown the expected rebuilding within required timeframes. The review made a number of recommendations including:

  • additional policy direction on rebuilding timeframes, actions and reporting
  • increased oversight role and powers to the fisheries minister
  • elevating aspects of rebuilding strategies into legislative instruments
  • increasing protections for overfished species.

Some of the findings of the review will be incorporated into the updated Commonwealth Fisheries Harvest Strategy Policy that is currently under development.

How does the harvest strategy policy work?

Harvest strategies developed under the policy set out the management actions to achieve the defined biological and economic outcomes for target species in a given fishery. The policy requires that harvest strategies contain:

  • a process for monitoring and assessing the indicators of biological and economic conditions of the fishery and
  • rules that control the levels of fishing in response to assessed biological and economic conditions in the fishery (known as ‘control rules’).

The policy sets a management target—the stock size or level of fishing that maximises economic yield. It also sets a management limit, beyond which targeted fishing must stop as the risk to the stock is considered unacceptable. This is described as a stock size equivalent to half of that which maximises sustainable yield (or an equivalent level of fishing mortality) or a level greater than this; for example, for low productivity or ecologically important species.

In addition, the policy provides ‘proxy’ target and limit settings, where species-specific or fishery-specific values may be difficult to estimate, for example due to biological variability or data limitations. The proxy target for maximum economic yield is to aim to keep stocks at 120 per cent of the level that maximises sustainable yield, or at 48 per cent of the unfished biomass. Similarly, the proxy for the biomass limit reference point is 20 per cent of unfished stock levels: a level designed to avoid ‘recruitment overfishing’ (where the spawning stock is reduced to a level too low to replenish itself).

The control rules are pre-agreed management responses to particular biological or economic conditions. These rules are designed to move stocks towards the target reference point and away from the limit reference point.

Why target maximum economic yield?

A common fisheries management target applied outside Commonwealth fisheries is maximum sustainable yield. That is, the maximum average catch that can be taken over the long-term without reducing the stock below the level that can sustain those catches. Maximum sustainable yield has been widely established as an objective in fisheries management globally, including in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries.

However, while it is a widely applied concept, maximum sustainable yield is a biological measure and does not take account of the costs of fishing. In many cases, higher profits can be made by maintaining stocks at levels above maximum sustainable yield, to optimise catch rates and so reduce operating costs.

The Commonwealth Fisheries Harvest Strategy Policy and Guidelines sets a management target of maximum economic yield; that is the maximum average catch (or corresponding level of fishing effort) that allows the fishery’s net economic returns to be maximised.

Fishing costs generally increase as the size of fish stocks shrink, since fish become harder to find and catch rates slow. Maximising economic yield requires that stocks are maintained at higher levels, and fishing pressure is lower than would be needed to achieve maximum sustainable yield. This is demonstrated in the policy’s proxy target reference point for maximum economic yield, to maintain stocks at a level 1.2 times greater than that which achieves maximum sustainable yield.

This approach is consistent with the Fisheries Management Act 1991 of maximising economic returns from fishing to the Australian community. Importantly, this is also a more conservative management target in that it ‘leaves more fish in the water’. This leads to higher catch rates for commercial fishers and other users, requires less capitalisation by fishers, protects against unfavourable environmental fluctuations, reduces the likelihood of overfishing and has less impact on the ecosystem.

What are the harvest strategy guidelines?

The guidelines for the implementation of the harvest strategy policy sit ‘between’ the policy and the implementation of individual fishery harvest strategies. They explain the biological and economic principles for implementing the policy, provide practical assistance for developing fishery-specific harvest strategies and illustrate how the policy can be applied.

The guidelines are designed to support harvest strategy development across the full range of Commonwealth fisheries, including input and output managed fisheries; single and multi-species fisheries; large and small fisheries; and data-rich to data-poor situations. They seek to ensure that a common approach and framework is applied across Commonwealth fisheries, to the extent possible for such a diverse set of fisheries.

Why was the harvest strategy policy reviewed?

In 2007, the Australian Government introduced the harvest strategy policy to guide the commercial catch of target species in Commonwealth fisheries. There was provision in the policy that a review should be conducted within five years of commencement.

Having implemented a new and technical policy across a diverse range of fisheries, it is important to review the policy and guidelines to determine if they should be further refined and to incorporate feedback from stakeholders, lessons learnt from implementation and relevant advances in fisheries science.

Overall the review found that the harvest strategy policy is widely regarded as having been a very successful initiative for improving the management of Commonwealth fisheries and remains a strong foundation for Commonwealth fisheries management. The review also found that the policy and guidelines meet or exceed the standards of relevant international obligations and continue to represent best practice in most aspects. However, fisheries management and science continues to develop. Some aspects of the policy and guidelines could be further refined and updated to capture new developments and address any weaknesses, in order to ensure their settings continue to allow the government to pursue fisheries management objectives in a way that represents world’s best practice.

How was the review conducted?

The department led this review in consultation with a stakeholder advisory committee that included representation from the commercial and recreational fishing sectors, environmental non-government organisations, CSIRO, government and the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation (FRDC).

The department also developed a discussion paper for public consultation as part of the review process. The paper described potential issues relevant to the review’s terms of reference and was designed to help stimulate comments from stakeholders, including members of the public, on the policy and guidelines and their implementation. The discussion paper was released in November 2012 for a six week public consultation period although submissions were accepted until 11 January 2013. Eleven submissions were received from a range of stakeholders.

A technical review of the science and economics that underpin the harvest strategy policy and harvest strategy settings was completed with funding from the FRDC and the department.

ABARES summarised the various technical reviews, along with other relevant research, such as management strategy evaluation and risk-based approaches to data-poor species. The technical overview highlights key conclusions that are relevant to the policy review will be available shortly.

The technical review of economic issues considered how the harvest strategy policy’s maximum economic yield objective can be operationalised across Commonwealth fisheries. It outlines key economic definitions and concepts; and the general experiences and challenges in operationalising maximum economic yield in Commonwealth fisheries. It then draws on the literature to list the potential options that are available to improve the way in which Commonwealth fishery management meets the intent of the policy.

ABARES conducted a review of risk-based approaches, reference points and decisions rules for managing fisheries bycatch and byproduct species to support both this review and the review of the Commonwealth Policy on Fisheries Bycatch—which will be available shortly.

ABARES also reviewed the implementation of the policy across Commonwealth fisheries, jointly managed and international fisheries. This included case studies of harvest strategies in seven Commonwealth fisheries and an international fishery. The report describes changes in economic performance and biological status to which the implementation of harvest strategies is likely to have contributed. It also proposes criteria that might be used to measure the policy’s performance in the future. This review will be available shortly.

The department also engaged the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security to conduct a desktop review of international best practice harvest strategy settings.

The technical reviews commissioned as part of the review of the harvest strategy policy are available online.

Will the current Harvest Strategy policy continue to apply?

The current Commonwealth harvest strategy policy and guidelines will continue to apply until an updated policy is endorsed by the Australian Government.

How are the findings from the review being incorporated?

The department has drafted a revised Commonwealth Fisheries Harvest Strategy Policy in line with the findings from the review of the 2007 policy.

In drafting the revised policy, the department has consulted with the Australian Fisheries Management Authority and the Department of the Environment and Energy.

The revised draft Commonwealth Fisheries Harvest Strategy Policy​ is open for public consultation until 9 June 2017. More information, including how to submit feedback, is available online.