Re-building, not re-allocating, is the future for demersal sustainability

Now that applications for the Voluntary Fisheries Adjustment Scheme (VFAS) for the West Coast Demersal fishery have closed, the outcomes should be decided soon.

However, as we wait, it’s worth recapping on what the VFAS is all about.

The commercial, recreational and charter sectors all catch west coast demersal scalefish off WA’s coastline. Each sector has its part to play for the WA community, whether it’s making local fresh fish available to everybody, tourism experiences through fishing charters, or throwing a line in with family and friends on the weekend. We are all accessing the same fish stock, and all need to make sure we are doing this sustainably.

The WA Government, through the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) calculates the sustainable limit for a fishery, and then allocates catch levels to make sure each sector gets a piece of the pie.

In 2022, half-way through a management plan to restore sustainability, DPIRD stock assessment showed the demersals were still not recovering quickly enough.

After many years of unchecked over-fishing by the recreational sector, and safe under-fishing by commercials, the stock assessment showed that the recovery trajectory for the resource was under pressure.

The assessment showed the recreational sector had at times been catching well over its catch share allocation, and while we’re sure the majority of individual fishers abided by the bag limits, the overall combined catch was allowed to consistently exceed the limits.

All stakeholders came together with DPIRD, and under the approved Harvest Strategy, it was decided that a 50 per cent reduction in allocation would be implemented across the board.

Despite not contributing to the problems, commercial fishing representatives led the way and agreed to this reduction, The Fisheries Minister then sought advice from each sector on how the cuts could be delivered. As an example for others to follow, through WAFIC, the commercial sector insisted on a full and unambiguous 50 per cent reduction, and offered up a range of measures to achieve this.

The Minister then provided WAFIC with an alternative option, which was outside the pre-agreed Harvest Strategy, and would perversely lead to the annual loss of 100 tonnes of shark from the consumer marketplace.

So to assist the Minister, WAFIC volunteered him a solution which was to set up a VFAS, to buy out units from wetline fishers, who could leave the industry with dignity, while reducing the annual demersal catch sufficiently to deliver the remaining part of the 50 per cent cut, while not impacting on shark catches.

However, in proposing this solution, WAFIC made it abundantly clear that the VFAS should only operate to the extent required to deliver the final part of the necessary reduction within the commercial sector, and in the case of over-subscription, the “savings” would be retained until the end of the recovery period and there would be no net benefit, or loss, to the overall commercial sector.

Over recent times, we have seen and heard public statements from the recreational and charter sectors of their expectation that a transfer of allocation will take place if the VFAS happens to be oversubscribed. This is wishful thinking on their behalf, or maybe they feel that if they say it publicly often enough, then one day everyone will believe it to be true.

For the record, the Minister wrote to WAFIC on 6/12/2022 advising that additional catch reductions from the VFAS would be “banked, to further aid recovery” and also publicly stated any catch savings would be placed in a “fish bank” to further “assist in the recovery of the stock.” He separately advised that any savings would be used for “sustainability purposes.”  Then on statewide ABC radio on 22/07/2023 he stated that following the VFAS process there would not be any shift in allocation from the commercial sector to recreational, or charter sectors.

So, the Minister has made a commitment that any fish bank savings will be stored and not transferred to the recreational, or charter sectors. And rightly so, why should the commercial sector be additionally punished through a re-allocation because they have stayed within their catch allocation, while the recreational sector is rewarded with a bigger piece of the pie because they have been consistently over catching?

Importantly, it should be recognised that while the charter and commercial sectors have recently taken a 50 per cent reduction, the recreational sector certainly has not.  Their new management arrangements still allow catch levels far above the safe benchmarks.

For instance, their allocated sustainable catch of 115 tonnes, spread across their stated 40,000 recreational fishers, amounts to one x 2.9 kilo demersal fish per person per year.

However, the new arrangements adopted potentially allow each person to take two fish (double their entire annual safe level), on every day for six months of the year. Concerningly, to avoid scrutiny, their representative body has meanwhile withdrawn support for the early introduction of mandatory electronic catch data recording.  This represents a significant ongoing threat to demersal sustainability. How can it be possible to safely and accurately manage a sector when you don’t know how much is being caught?

In closing, we openly recognise that many bait & tackle shops (and charter operators) have rightly indicated their businesses have suffered economic impacts from the west coast demersal catch reductions.  However, the impacts on commercial operators are actually far more damaging and many have needed to seek substantial levels of bank debt to continue to supply fresh fish to the community.

This should be openly recognised and respected as their highly responsible and unwavering commitment towards a full recovery of the west coast demersal resource is sometimes lost in the noise being generated by other sectors.