CEO Message – Tough decisions ahead for demersal fisheries management

Hi, this week I’d like to do a deep dive into the West Coast Demersal issue because there’s been some recent developments, which need to be commented upon.

Over recent times I’ve heard the argument put forward by certain interest groups that the commercial industry should have its catch reallocated to the recreational sector — the reason supposedly being to make it easier for the recreational sector to address their need to take a 50% reduction in catch.

When following their pathway of logic (or lack thereof) a key question quickly emerges – if this were to happen – how the bloody hell would Western Australians be able to have long-term food security, along with their ability to shop locally for our unique and amazing finfish in the future.

You can download this as a podcast here.

So let’s have a closer look at this.  It’s first important to recognise that there are probably between 5,000-20,000 recreational boats which regularly fish for west coast demersal species.  Currently they already catch 75% of the dhufish in the zone.

Through the commercial fishing industry, the remaining 25% of dhufish are made available for everybody else in the State – not only those in the Goldfields, Wheatbelt and Pilbara, but also those in hospitals and aged care facilities, those in the city that can’t afford a flash boat and a Prado to tow it, those who are disabled, or even our doctors and nurses who may work long hours and simply don’t have the time to go fishing and would prefer to cook at home, or go to a restaurant or fish & chip shop for a special meal.

The point is that the commercial fishing industry doesn’t fish for just a few, it fishes for everybody.

If we closed down the west coast demersal commercial fishing industry, prized local species of table fish such as dhufish, pink snapper and baldchin groper would only be available to certain recreational boat fishers, while the rest of the community would miss out altogether.

The fish would be caught and exclusively consumed by less than 1% of the State’s population, while the other 99% would completely miss out!

This would be nothing short of a Russian monopoly – the complete opposite of social justice.

But what I’d like to comment upon today is the broader topic of delivering a 50% cut to the entire west coast demersal allocations to get the recovery process happening.

The Minister has determined that the commercial sector must take a cut – and the recreational sector must also take a cut.  Put them together and we have a collective 50% cut which will place the fishery on the path to recovery.

The commercials are currently working through this process and it’s certainly a very, very painful experience, trust me.  Meanwhile the recreational sector interest groups are supposed to be going through their own process to identify their own cuts.

In theory it’s ultimately up to them to determine the best way to achieve their cuts – WAFIC isn’t going to interfere per se – but we certainly do have a clear responsibility to point out if suggestions simply won’t work (because that would put our joint efforts at threat), and we absolutely have the right to stand tall if a suggestion may have direct potential impacts upon our sector.

And furthermore, if all of this is going to work, then there’s going to have to be some broader community acceptance of the overall package – so we all have an interest and role in helping to achieve that.

I’d suggest that the community will expect a balanced outcome, where the commercial and recreational and charter sectors all have a future.  I don’t believe that they will tolerate having one part of the equation being sacrificed to feed the interests of another.

Also, there will need to be an acceptance by the general community that the decisions are being made for the right reasons.

So, my following comments are presented in that context.

I’m concern that the interest groups for the recreational sector are taking what I’d describe as a strange pathway to come up with the supposedly right package.  And the legitimacy that I’d claim for being able to make judgement on this is because if the community isn’t given the right information, then they might well expect solutions which negatively impact on the commercial sector – and I therefore have the responsibility to stand up and defend our interests, OK?

So, there’s three things happening at the moment which I’m not too comfortable about.

The first is that there is a petition floating about the bait & tackle shops which calls upon recreational fishers to sign up to ask the Minister to slow any decision-making down.  There’s no real justification for this – it’s just, slow down please.  They say there’s another way, but they haven’t told us what the first one is, let alone the second.

The second area of concern is that Recfishwest is doing an online survey – you can check it out on their website – and it’s supposed to be seeking feedback from the community to ultimately help guide the Minister’s decisions.

The third thing that’s happening is that there are various players getting into the media who are floating concepts like I discussed earlier – such as the shutting down of the commercial industry to supposedly make things easier for the recreationals.

My concern is this – the very reason that this situation has got to where it is today is for the very same reason that this current behaviour is happening.

The facts are being kept under the carpet and every attempt to bring about some change has been met with the very same response – to delay, to deflect and to diminish.

In my view, there’s only one “D” word they should be considering – and that is to “Do” something.

If you look at the survey, they have placed the reallocation option at the very top of the list of options of supporting initiatives – for respondents to prioritise.  I’ve asked Recfishwest to remove it, but they won’t.

Why – because they seek to create an outcome where they can pressure the Minister by saying that this is what the recreational community supposedly wants.

But the brief the Minister gave the recreational sector is to come up with options to reduce the Total Fishing Mortality (TFM).  And a reallocation achieves a TFM reduction of exactly zero!

Then we look at their second option – and that’s the introduction of a fishing licence endorsement for west coast demersal fishing – this will also deliver a TFM reduction of exactly zero.

Another option they have put forward is to undertake demersal restocking – which is so ridiculous it’s not funny –– stocking has an important role for community stewardship, but the costs and logistics of large-scale operations to make a discernible difference to ongoing stock levels are simply impossibly enormous.

So, from a reduction in fishing mortality perspective, there’s three options out of eight which are nonsense.

And there is nowhere in the survey where people can actually make suggestions.  The Minister said that he wants to see innovative solutions produced, but instead we’re seeing flat pancakes.

And this is where I feel I have the responsibility to speak up, because once again the recreational community hasn’t been given the necessary facts and background – nor the best opportunity to participate – instead they’re being offered simple lollipop solutions, which will undoubtedly create false hopes and false expectations.

And with options like this being reinforced by people going into the media to agitate to take fish off the commercials, it has the propensity to give the community the impression that there are easy solutions that don’t require action on their part.

As I have always maintained, it’s particularly important that people are given the facts.  The commercial sector has been staying under the agreed safe thresholds for years, while always trumpeting the need to see everybody behave in the same way – but we have been batted away by those who wanted to hide from the truth and kick the can down the road.

But now that can can’t be kicked any more, so in desperation these blokes are giving the can a polish and hoping a genie will pop out.  Sorry guys, the fact is that there are no easy answers.  We’re all in this together and we need to find real solutions, and it is disingenuous to throw around ridiculous notions like reallocations.

It’s also ridiculous to promote the false notion that stocks can recover through stock enhancement programs – and also the introduction of a new licence endorsement will not in itself make a single lick of difference.

I’ll tell you something that will make a super big difference though – and that’s taking action to get rid of the practice of upsizing or high-grading.  Strangely enough this isn’t even on the survey option plate.

I saw a sickening example of this upgrading recently on Facebook, where a couple of blokes showed off their catch of two whopping big dhuies and proudly reported that they’d caught and supposedly ‘safely released’ eight others along the way.  Sorry gents, but you just needlessly killed eight dhufish through barotrauma and thereby removed them from the breeding stocks.

Surely doing something about high-grading should have been near the top of the primary measures for recreational catch reduction.  The stories we hear from Shark Bay are also worrying – people catching dozens of snapper and throwing them back to be gobbled up by sharks and not going home until they have caught Mr Big.

The bottom line is this – the community deserves to have a mature and sensible discussion.  Offering up lollipop solutions or bottles of snake oil in my view is irresponsible and will certainly not generate well-considered reactions and sensible outcomes to the recreational survey.

You know what, I’ve taken a very wholesome approach towards this debate for a long time – it’s been me that has stepped forward and called for collaboration and finding positive outcomes for the west coast demersal fishery.

But I’ve got to say that my patience is being tested – and yes my last CEO newsletter report offered up some well-deserved pushback – and today that’s stepping up a notch.

We need to see some responsible leadership being shown from other parties – it can’t be left to us to be acting solo all the time – so if there is any more fanning of the embers by self-interested groups – with provocative suggestions of proposals which will damage the commercial fishing industry – or take away the equitable opportunity for mums and dads and kids from all parts of Western Australia from having their local west coast demersal fish & chips – to be able to appreciate the true blessings we have as residents of this State — then I’m sorry, but a line will be drawn in the sand and we’ll shift our approach to making those responsible accountable.

In conclusion, I’d just like to say that yes, I’m proudly the CEO of WAFIC and I vigorously represent the commercial fishing industry for all of the right reasons.  But I’m also a mad keen recreational fisherman, and my future life plans are wholly reliant and built around the continuance of sustainable recreational fishing.

Many of my mates are mad keen recfishers as well.  I can assure you that none of them agree with the way that things are being portrayed by special interest groups at the moment – and I’ve had countless people contact me– they can see through the waffle that they have been presented with and they certainly aren’t happy.

They are already unhappy with a bag limit of one dhufish on the west coast and now they face possible seasonal closures and all sorts of other uncomfortable impositions.  Some have invested heavily in boats and now possibly see their investment sitting in the garage gathering dust for months on end.

Well I’m genuinely sorry about this, but the reason certainly isn’t the commercial fishing industry – we’re not to blame – we’ve stayed under the agreed safe targets.

The recreationals that are unhappy should instead be asking why action to address the overfishing wasn’t taken five years ago – because the story today would be oh so different if the can wasn’t kicked down the road back then.

Today recfishers wouldn’t be facing such drastic action if they had been given the full story long ago.

Instead, it’s Delay, Diminish, Deflect – it’s been going on for years and unfortunately it’s still happening today at the west coast demersal fishery’s moment of greatest need.

So, if recreational fishers look into exactly why action has never been taken before to protect their ability to fish, the reason is the very same as why lollipop solutions are being bandied about and dangled in front of their eyes today.  Exactly the same.

I’ll finish by reiterating that the recreational community deserves some truthful communications and the last thing that is needed is to try to niggle good people to come up with suggestions that are either completely unachievable, or built on false hopes.

Instead, they need some honesty, they need some support and most of all they need some leadership.

Let’s talk soon.