When the Convention on the Law of the Sea allowed countries to establish exclusive economic zones, coastal nations claimed 90% of the world’s fisheries. This carried enormous significance, transferring fisheries property rights from the open access international commons to exclusive national control. When an ‘Australian Fishing Zone’ was declared in 1979, it became the third largest in the world, stretching 200 nautical miles from its shore and covering approximately nine million square kilometres.
During the early period after the establishment of exclusive economic zones, Australia and many other coastal nations lacked sufficient domestic capacity to fully fish the new zones, so licensed foreign fleets to fish. By 1997, the Australian industry had developed and the government subsequently prohibited foreign vessels from fishing inside Australian waters. Australia could exert strong controls over its own domestic fishing fleets and ensure all benefits flowed to Australian communities. Foreign vessels could still be ‘deemed’ as Australian vessels under strict arrangements that effectively applied all Australian regulations and ensured Australian industry engagement.
At the time, the global fishing industry dramatically increased, driving fishing capacity to unsustainable levels while governments struggled to implement sustainable fishing limits. Global fisheries reached a production peak of 86.4 million tonnes in 1996, but have since steadily declined due to overfishing and decreased productivity. In 2016, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation reported that more than 90% of global fisheries to be either overfished or at their limit, seriously damaging the integrity of marine ecosystems.
An approach to manage both fisheries and the broader marine environment was required. In 2012, Australia set a global precedent by establishing a network of marine protected areas to protect critical habitats, balancing conservation and industry concerns. There is significant evidence that marine parks provide fisheries with spill-over benefits, with the biodiversity benefits crucial for the broader productivity of the ocean.
However, the implementation of the network of marine parks stalled after the 2013 change of government. A long review was begun, which concluded this year with recommendations to substantially weaken many of the proposed protected areas.
There is little evidence in the review to support these changes. The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences recently noted only $4 million would be saved by weakening the zones. The report was limited to assess the gross value of production and did not consider impacts on broader biodiversity, or the increased productivity benefits resulting from high biodiversity.
So why weaken protections for little economic benefit? Decades of practice had demonstrated that these zones had minimal interest to industry under current conditions and regulations, so logically there should be no significant economic argument against their protection.
This raised a question – whether the review ruled out proposed protection zones on the basis of hypothetical future changes in Australian regulations that would allow for the re-entry of cheap foreign fishing fleets. Foreign fleets could reduce business costs by fishing further from port and spending longer at sea, with lower labour and landing costs. This scenario would depend on changes in regulatory and policy frameworks, reversing decades of prohibitions on foreign vessels.
If this is the case, then economic modelling would demonstrate that cheap foreign crews and foreign vessels cause far more economic harm to coastal fishing towns than any marine park or conservation measure. Recent experience in the US and New Zealand has shown that allowing foreign fishing fleets into local waters results in significant labour concerns, increased management and compliance costs, and additional cost to the environment – with little or no benefit for local fishing communities. Foreign registered vessels that do not meet Australian requirements are not permitted to fish in Australia for good reason.
The Australian Fisheries Management Authority has rejected this scenario as scaremongering, stating the present arrangements ensure that any foreign vessel meets or exceeds Australian rules. Meanwhile, the Australian industry has noted that the make-up of the crossbench in parliament prevents any weakening of foreign vessel regulations – so no change is yet possible.
Which is good news for Australian communities. The Australian Fishing Zone will continue as one of the world’s most tightly regulated exclusive economic zones. But then why weaken the 2012 proposed conservation area if it has been demonstrated to have minimal impact on industry under current arrangements, and the arrangements are not going to change?