CEO Message – New strategic direction required

WA’s seafood industry is facing unprecedented challenges and it’s quite frustrating to see that government isn’t taking a strategic and holistic approach towards enhanced management.   From one end of the state to the other, we can see emerging impacts upon the ability of fisheries to adapt to the displacement being imposed from many sources.  The Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) already has wholly insufficient resources to deliver its core functions, let alone the urgent activities required to embrace what is coming over the horizon.

Getting back to basics, the value of commercial fishing to the WA community is the service it provides in making fresh seafood available to people in all parts of our great state. Within WA’s 2.5 million square kilometres, there are people living in faraway communities who hope to have access to what is ultimately a community resource.  Unlike recreational fishers who happen to live close to the coast and can afford a big boat and a flash 4WD to tow it, the vast majority of citizens rely on commercial fishers to supply their seafood.  Particularly those who live remotely, or are old or infirmed or disabled, or simply don’t have the money, interest or resources to be able to catch fish themselves.  Yes, that’s why we have our aphorism, which says “we’re fishing for everybody.”

Therefore we are critical to food security in this state. People rely on us to maintain this crucial sustainably caught supply, and they certainly aren’t going to be too happy with a government which lets this slip.  Currently 70 percent of the seafood consumed in WA is imported, often from unhealthy, unsustainable and unethical sources.  Unless urgent action is taken, this figure will soon rise and result in a very unhappy community. Imagine living in a state where you can’t eat local, sustainably sourced seafood because government didn’t have the foresight to ensure the industry was protected and part of the greener future.

It’s also disappointing as seafood has the best carbon footprint for foods. We are one seventeenth of the nearest agricultural protein source.  Yes, our food supply is a key part of the nation’s pathway to zero carbon.  We are sustainable, and yes, we are a renewable industry.  This is something the environmentalists should be openly thrilled about.

Meanwhile, there are many hurdles for our industry to be able to maintain this critical food supply to an eager community.  The cumulative impacts of continual oil & gas seismic testing in Pilbara waters are starting to bite, and the most important scalefish sector in the state is located there. It’s critical that its sustainability is protected.

But in the vicinity, there are also a number of major industrial salt projects being proposed to destroy huge areas of key nursery habitats for the very species, which are essential to WA’s seafood bowl.  This sounds like a fishery which should be getting major priority status, but the sad reality is there are virtually no management resources being assigned to this. It hasn’t even had an Annual Management Meeting – a forum for industry, research and managers to discuss the health of the fishery and how it’s managed, since 2018.  Furthermore, there is no appreciation of where the products go post-harvest and how important they are to their end markets.

Meanwhile, the level of resources being applied by DPIRD to major coastal industrial projects with the capacity to dramatically injure key fisheries is minimal.  Instead, there should be a whole team dedicated to dealing with solar salt projects, offshore windfarms, desalination plants, hydrogen hubs, port developments and so on.

Issues like future compliance, data security, access fees, Vessel Monitoring Systems and the long overdue development of a statewide structural adjustment and compensation package remain unaddressed. In addition, DPIRD is not focused at all on key issues such as food security, origin labelling, post-harvest supply chains, imported seafood, worker shortages, developing new fisheries, introducing co-management, or gaining an understanding of the socio-economic value proposition of the industry. These matters may not have been as important in the past for a fisheries regulatory body, but they most certainly are right now, as a primary industries and regional development agency helping the industry to thrive and grow.

Also there needs to be a considerable investment in community education regarding the many values of our sector to the WA community, but this is currently only happening for the recreational sector.

All of the funds from the west coast demersal project were dedicated to advancing recreational fishing, instead of equally educating the community on the sustainable management performance of the commercial sector. Additionally, it doesn’t look like the research teams have sufficient resources to undertake the core challenges the industry now faces. And in the face of increasing eNGO activism, there is an emerging need to look at DPIRD’s methodologies to ensure widespread industry and community support of the findings.  Those in DPIRD working on marine parks have genuinely thrown themselves at the task, but have been stretched way beyond their limits, while meanwhile, DBCA has limitless resources and staff to drive the agenda in its own favour to crush the interests of fishing.

Across DPIRD, we see many staff involved as doing the best they possibly can, but are simply being overwhelmed, as the agency is still structured to deal with the issues of the past – not of the present, or the future.  With the abundant challenges mounting, we have not seen a shift in focus from the top of the organisation. The core themes they are promoting on their website – protect, grow and innovate – bear no resemblance to what is currently being delivered, and are a legacy statement from the former Department of Agriculture.

A few years ago, the Machinery of Government (MOG) process stripped the entrails out of Fisheries, and since then there simply hasn’t been enough resources provided to do their core basic duties, and it’s really showing.  We had hoped to see a long overdue shift in resourcing following senior personnel adjustments, but there hasn’t been any change, it’s business as usual.

It’s time for our Minister to embrace the challenge and set out and lead a clear new strategic direction for the industry, and then align the resources from right across DPIRD (not just Fisheries) to properly deliver the path forwards.

This could start with a one-day stakeholder workshop to define what the industry will look like in ten years’ time and the optimal pathway to get there.  WAFIC is prepared to work closely, and collaboratively, with government to secure this overdue realignment to best protect, secure and grow the invaluable commercial fishing industry in this great state of ours.