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Looking after little fish key to managing oceanic real estate

By Anthony Bergin

This week Secretary of State John Kerry gathered world leaders in Washington to grapple with how to protect the world’s oceans. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is addressing the conference today where it’s expected she’ll highlight Australia’s commitment to sustainable use of the ocean.

That sends the right message: Australia’s a three-ocean country with significant national interests in the Pacific, Indian and Southern oceans.

Apart from marine protected areas, the impacts of climate change and marine pollution, the conference will discuss illegal fishing, an industry worth upwards of $23 billion a year. Some are describing the oceans as the world’s largest crime scene.

Illegal fishing is linked with transnational organised crime: trafficking drugs, people and arms. In March, the RAN intercepted a fishing vessel off the coast of Oman with $2 million worth of arms hidden under fishing nets. The weapons were destined for Somalia and thought to be from Iran.

Australia has a good record in combating illegal fishing. We’re already playing a useful role in turning the tide on this maritime crime in neighbouring seas.

We’ve now effectively stopped the problem of illegal Indonesian fishing in Australian waters — only five apprehensions were made in 2014-15. But we can’t afford to take our foot off the pedal: there’s been a spike in 2015-16, with 20 boats caught.

We’re also helping our island neighbours, where the most -recent study found illegal fishing was valued at $616m. Australia’s Pacific Patrol Boat Program has delivered 22 vessels to 12 nations, along with maritime surveillance advisers.

In the Southern Ocean, we’ve worked with others to reduce illegal fishing by increasing monitoring and surveillance of vessels, introducing a catch documentation scheme and undertaking port state inspections in key market destinations. But it’s our own fishing industry, that operates a small number of large vessels fishing for Patagonian toothfish and mackerel icefish, that deserve much of the credit for working with governments and conservationists to almost completely eliminate illegal fishing for toothfish.

Our industry has taken a leadership role in developing a solid strategy in the Coalition of Legal Toothfish Operators to act on illegal vessels fishing in Southern Ocean waters.

But one area of fisheries sustainability requires attention. We’ve had a fishing agreement with Indonesia that goes back to 1974 that permits traditional Indonesian fishing in northern Australia.

But the stocks of many exploited species are depleted, and we need a more precautionary approach: controlling the amount of fishing effort or the number of boats allowed to fish to bring the agreement more into line with current standards of sustainability.

Apart from stock management, there’s also reason to be concerned about whether the traditional fishery can coexist with petroleum developments in the agreed fishing area without compromising the security and safety of the petroleum infrastructure and its people and without additional high security costs.

Perhaps the two users could coexist if there were a security presence and “rules of engagement” that prevented a traditional vessel from reaching the infrastructure.

But the Australian offshore petroleum industry is developing rapidly. Some of the largest developments are occurring in the Browse Basin, which lies beneath much of the memorandum of understanding fishing area.

The Ichthys LNG project’s floating production, storage and offloading facility, for example, will be used for condensate dewatering, stabilisation, storage and export. This is mega-infrastructure, and it’s in the MOU declared area.

The longer term future of the 42-year-old memorandum of understanding has yet to be fully canvassed with Indonesia: the Australian-Indonesian Working Group on Marine Affairs and Fisheries has a sub-group on the agreement, but neither group has met in recent years.

We should examine the 1974 MUO on traditional Indonesian fishing in Australian waters from a whole-of-government perspective, and thereafter with Indonesia as a matter of priority. This week’s international gathering in Washington on protecting the oceans is a perfect opportunity for us to look at how we manage our own offshore estate

Anthony Bergin is co-author of Net worth: Australia’s regional fisheries engagement, (Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 2016)

Originally published: The Australian. 17 September 2016