A fascinating display of public-driven environmental action came to a head in Australia last week when the nation’s parliament voted to ban a “super trawler” from fishing in Australian waters for two years.

The MV Margiris (also called the Abel Tasman) is a 142 meter long factory trawler, meaning it processes the fish on-board. It was due to start fishing this week for an 18,000 tonne quota of small pelagic fishes, like jack mackerel. The quota is held by an Australian fishing company but the boat is Dutch owned.

The recent arrival of the vessel in Australian waters (no other super trawlers fish in Australia) created a staggering show of public opposition, and forged a relatively unlikely alliance (in Australia at least) of green groups and recreational fishers. Significantly, the opposition movement was facilitated by online activism, and was neither led nor coordinated by conservation groups. So substantial was the social response that the environment minister hurriedly introduced new legislation into parliament in order to overturn previous approval that was given to the super trawler by Australia’s fisheries regulator.

What makes this case so interesting for me, is the values it has revealed amongst a large section of the Australian public. Most unifying is a rejection of commercial fishing at this particular scale.

The science community is somewhat divided on the super trawler; the arguments both for and against fishing for small pelagic species with super trawlers are plausible but not strong.

The arguments against fishing these fish stocks with a super trawler:

  • There are concerns over potentially higher rates of by-catch, particularly of Australian fur seals.
  • There are concerns about potential localised depletion of small pelagic fish (an important part of the pelagic food chain) and the ecosystem consequences of this.
  • Lack of knowledge about these stocks (these species are not currently fished in Australia) means safe quotas cannot be established with confidence.

The arguments for fishing these stocks with a super trawler:

  • Little current evidence that larger nets result in relatively more by-catch.
  • Management is by quota so a larger boat doesn’t mean catching more fish.
  • The quota is highly conservative.
  • Larger boats can fish over a larger area so can potentially find places where target catch is high and by-catch low.
  • These are stocks that Australia doesn’t currently exploit, so not allowing the super trawler is a missed economic opportunity.

So the science is nuanced and uncertain. But protests against the super trawler are not about rational, scientific and economic evaluation—they are about values. The outrage being expressed by the public is not that the fish are going to be caught but rather how they are going to be caught: with a very large net.

It should be no surprise that people exhibit distinct preferences for the way their needs are met. Just think of the many foods that are considered a delicacy in one place but appear sickeningly unappetizing to others, irrespective of nutritional value. It turns out a big chunk of the Australian public do not want the world’s need for fish to be met through the net of a super trawler.

It seems reasonable to speculate that if the government had instead issued the catch quota to two or three conventionally sized trawlers rather than one super trawler, the issue would never have reached the public’s consciousness. Why?

I suspect there is a strong information availability bias at play here. When we see a giant ship, it is easy for us to imagine a giant impact, and that creates concern. Seeing a picture of three smaller fishing vessels is unlikely to generate the same concern —even if you were told they were going to catch the same amount of fish.

It is an important lesson: when evaluating different options for managing our natural resources, start by understanding what people care about.

(Image: the Margiris at port. Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

 

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Comments

  1. Dear Eddie,
    I was one ordinary person who signed e-petitions and wrote letters to various Ministers against the Margiris, and I convinced many friends and relatives to do likewise.
    Your article is slightly wrong on some things: we DO fish these stocks here, but the quota was recently raised 10 fold to make it viable to bring in a super trawler, and irregularities were found in the quota-setting procedure, involving a director of Seafish Tasmania, Gerry Geen. The other directors of Seafish Tasmania are the owners of the super trawler Margiris. This company has been fishing these stocks with smaller boats for some time. The fish caught are turned into fish meal for fish farms, probably in Asia, or for the pharmaceuticals industry to make Omega 3 fish oil; the super trawler was going to take fish to freeze to feed people in West Africa, because due to the activities of this and other super trawlers, most of them Dutch owned, West African fisheries are decimated. We like irony down under, but this is just not funny.
    Our fisheries are not rich, Aus having a narrow continental shelf and few nutrients, so the fact that we are being targeted by a super trawler shows how desperate the owners are to keep these monsters going.
    Also, the science for the target species is old or non-existent for some areas of the seas: the Margiris was proposing to trawl from Brisbane in Qld to WA, an area of millions of square kilometres.
    To add insult to injury, they lately renamed the vessel “Abel Tasman” in a cynical attempt to woo the public. They ought to know that no Aussie likes “to have the wool pulled”. That sort of thing gets short shrift here, and is bound to galvanise public opinion like nothing else; so it was “Goodbye, Margiris, see ya later”.
    Doubtless in another few years another one will try their luck, but we are on the look out now, on the alert to repel all boarders. Besides, our sealions, seals, dolphins, whales, penguins, albatross and hundreds of other species depend on these fish – if the Margiris took them, what would they eat?

  2. Hi Claire. Thank you for the clarification, and my apologies for the mistake. And I couldn’t agree more with your sentiments about the actions of the Margiris and other super trawlers off West Africa.

    You are right that there is some limited fishing of some of these stocks currently. You are not entirely right, however, about the quota increase. The total quota this year for redbait was set at 11,900 tonnes, in 2009 the total quota for red bait was 19,800 tonnes and last season the total quota was 13,600 tonnes – so there was actually a decrease in this quota not an increase. For jack mackerel the quota this year did indeed increase from 9,600 tonnes to 15,100 tonnes – roughly a 50% increase. You can check out these numbers on AFMA’s website http://www.afma.gov.au/managing-our-fisheries/fisheries-a-to-z-index/historical-total-allowable-catch-and-effort/#SPF

    The fact that overall the quota changed little and that there are smaller vessels exploiting some of these stocks, would seem to reinforce my hunch that the size of the boat is a critical part of the reaction here – together, as you point out, with outrage over its actions in other waters.

    You are right that there is little or no science about a number of small pelagic stocks in Australia, which is largely because exploitation of these stocks has been limited or non existent (fisheries catches are the principal mechanism for data collection on commercial stocks).

    You are also absolutely right that Australia’s waters are not rich and there are very few stocks that would be viable to fish with a super trawler.

    Thank you for standing up for the things about the environment that you value. The world would be a far healthier place if more people did as you have!

    Best,

    Eddie

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