07/03/2012 - 11:02

Management key to productive agribusiness

07/03/2012 - 11:02


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A visiting expert says sustainable fishing can be managed by means other than locking areas away.

A visiting expert says sustainable fishing can be managed by means other than locking areas away.

THIS column has previously questioned the odd collusion of farmers and greenies on the east coast over the threat to ‘food security’ created by coal seam gas extraction.

It is rare to find farmers and conservationists in agreement anywhere.

It is also intriguing to hear environmentalists issue concerns about food security, when much of what they usually do is intended to lock away potential food-producing areas from exploitation and reduce the productivity of existing food producers.

I was reminded of this listening to ABC Radio National, which had an interview with fisheries specialist Ray Hilborn, a professor from the University of Washington.

He was described as a ‘hired gun’ for industry by The Australian newspaper the next day, even though it also acknowledged he was a leading expert on fish stocks. Do only experts for industry get paid these days?

Professor Hilborn raised the food security issue in reference to marine parks, which he said were falsely being promoted as saving fish stocks.

This is interesting because Western Australia’s coast is the subject of numerous marine park proposals, including from campaigns funded by global conservationist groups that I have written about before.

It is interesting to note that groups such as the Pew Foundation and Nature Conservancy view Australia as a place to push for more control because we have strong and enforceable laws.

Professor Hilborn’s key argument is that sustainable fishing can be, and has been, managed successfully by means other than simply locking away areas from legal exploitation.

He says marine parks are an inefficient mechanism that inhibits sustainable extraction in well-managed areas and, ironically, push demand for fish to fisheries that are less likely to be well managed. 

So much for the conservation impact.

“When you’re not overfishing, marine parks simply reduce the amount of fish yield you can get by locking up areas,” he told ABC radio.

“And the result is that you’re going to have less seafood produced in Australia and you will need to import more from places that are typically much less sustainably managed.”

I did a bit more research on what Professor Hilborn was saying and discovered a 2006 lecture in which he accused the mainstream scientific journals of becoming tabloids in search of headlines, failing to adequately peer review research they published and ignoring scientists who disagreed with papers they published.

Of course, the message coming out of those journals was that fish stocks were in crisis, a perception we probably still have.

I was surprised how this video five years ago offered such a pre-cursor to the climate change debate that has occurred in the intervening period.

Professor Hilborn referred to the policies that included marine reserves as ‘faith-based fisheries’, suggesting the same fervour for environmental activism among scientists in his area of expertise then as exists elsewhere today.

The most interesting fact for the layman from his speech was that graphs showing fish stocks ‘crashing’ actually revealed quite a healthy and economically sustainable population.

While he acknowledged there were many fisheries in a terrible state, especially in Europe, those who opposed fishing were misleading the public. 

He said most fisheries were at their most economically sustainable level when at between 20 per cent and 30 per cent of their virgin population; that is, before fishing commenced.

That is because the reduced populations have less competition for resources and therefore restock themselves more readily, so it is not a case of exponential decline leading to collapse.

Furthermore, Professor Hilborn said there were numerous examples of fisheries that had collapsed due to mismanagement, and then restored.

He cited, in 2006, the WA rock lobster industry as one that is well managed. 

Followers of that sector will know, of course, that the local industry has been troubled by concerns about low numbers of adolescent lobster, thought to be a portent to some looming collapse in mature lobster in coming seasons.

The state government has moved to reduce catches and change the system, which rewarded fishermen for catching as much as they could as quickly as they could. 

That, along with growth markets in Asia and the ability to air freight live catch, encouraged massive investment in big, fast and technologically-sophisticated vessels creating the sort of over-capitalisation that inhibited the flexibility required in the system when things went wrong. 

Let’s face it, financial pressure to survive will tend to obscure longer-term thinking, which requires each fisherman to be a steward of the fishery in their own right. That is the point of any form of regulation, whether it is from some central authority or the local village chief.

Thankfully, the industry is moving away from regulation by the number of pots to a weight-based quota in season 2013-14. That is intended to encourage fishermen to catch lobster when the market demands it, rather than have to maximise the production of each pot.

In the interim, the WA industry catch is being limited to about 5,500 tonnes for the season, about half of what was caught a few years back when rock lobster was a big export industry and fishermen earned more than miners.

This is painful but it is what management is all about if you want something sustainable.

Professor Hilborn likens this sustainability to farming or any other productive rural land use. Whether a vineyard or broadacre grain production, there is no pure virgin eco-system. The farmers are trying to balance production with the ability of the land to keep giving year after year.

In effect, in most agricultural areas some new sustainable balance is reached between 100 per cent untouched and total collapse.

Imagine the outcry if someone tried to create a national park over fertile soil like that occurring where farmers and greenies have united to fight the expansion of coal seam gas. 

In WA, of course, we have examples of such things. Pastoral leases have been turned into conservation areas, with dreadful effect. Firstly, from an economic standpoint, the regions have lost productive capacity. Secondly, they have lost the stewards of the land; manageable but damaging sheep have gone, but unmanageable and more damaging feral animals are now abundant.

Professor Hilborn says the seas are the same as the land. Fisheries can be as productive or unproductive as you want them to be.

Overfishing, usually as a consequence of a push for jobs and overinvestment in capital equipment, can wreak havoc. But national parks are a sledgehammer approach to cracking a nut – which might ultimately affect the very food security the conservationists conveniently go on about.

• mark.pownall@wabn.com.au



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