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.)