SUPER TRAWLER: The Curious Case of The FV Margiris

17 Sep 2012 0 Share

Jock Serong

Senior Writer

Blue Mackeral and Red Herrings

The age of the supertrawler has dawned for Australians, and the issue will now be a permanent part of our conservation debate.

By Jock Serong

A poster from

A poster from

The FV Margiris, brought to these shores by Seafish Tasmania, is 143m long - pretty much the length of the SCG playing surface from end to end - and is capable of catching 250 tonnes of fish per day. It will work in 6-8 week stints, with a crew of up to 47 people. Its size and efficiency make the current commercial operators in our waters look like sleepy pensioners in a dinghy.

There’s a perception that the federal government’s initial response to the Margiris’s arrival was insipid. Eventually, strict by-catch conditions were imposed by the Federal Environment minister Tony Burke, followed more recently by an attempt to legislate the vessel out of our waters entirely.

Among the government restrictions, the vessel has been banned from operating in known sea-lion feeding grounds. Fishing will be suspended if one dolphin dies, or three or more seals die in three consecutive “shots”, or more than ten seals die within a 24 hour period. On-board observers will watch every move. A “bycatch excluder” device has been fitted to the net and will be video-monitored. Not everyone believes these measures go far enough.Tooni Mahto, who’s a marine campaigner with the Australian Marine Conservation Society, is unconvinced: “There has been no independent trial or testing of the bycatch mitigation device,” she told Coastalwatch.

Although Seafish have accepted the restrictions – publicly at least - the fishing industry are saying they go too far. The Commonwealth Fisheries Association's Brian Jeffriess told media "There’s a whole range of experience showing smaller boats actually catch more by-catch in total than bigger boats, simply because bigger boats take the catch more efficiently and in less time."

The Margiris was originally intended to fish out of Triabunna on Tasmania’s east coast. But it’s now in Port Lincoln, and its operators have said it will fish the Bight. There’s also talk it will be based out of Brisbane, which has led conservationists to claim it’s become the fishing equivalent of a “plutonium ship”, unwanted wherever it goes.

The vessel will be operated by a Seafish Tasmania joint venture - behind it is a Dutch company, Parlevliet & Van der Plas BV. Considerable irony attaches to the Dutch connection: the Margiris has now been reflagged as the Abel Tasman. Tasman was himself a Dutchman, and despite his fame, he was officially considered a failure after his 1644 voyage failed to find anything commercially viable for his sponsors, the Dutch East India Company. This expedition, and these Dutch backers, have a whole lot more success in mind.

In 2012, according to their website, Seafish Tasmania has been assigned 17,800 tonnes of catch quotas by the Australian Fisheries Management Authority under the Small Pelagic Fishery Statutory Management Plan. The website goes on to say the Margiris /Abel Tasman aims “to produce high quality frozen fish for human consumption,” and is “committed to long term sustainable fishing in Australian waters.” But Tooni Mahto told Coastalwatch, “In terms of the quota allocation, the justification was based on scientific data that is some years old now…the data used was over a short time frame, which means inter-annual variability in stocks could not be taken into account.”

The ship aims to catch jack mackerel, blue mackerel, sardines and ‘redbait’. Despite their disposable-sounding name, redbait (Emmelichthys nitidus) can grow to half a metre long, and very little is known about their life cycle. We know they live in deep water, eat krill, and are eaten by seabirds, tuna and seals. They’re found around the world, are thought to live about eight years, and have been fished off Tassie since 2001. And really, that’s about all that science can tell us about them.

“Small Pelagic Fisheries” (i.e. net fishing for little fish, often called ‘forage fish’) are managed by the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) under a set of rules called a Statutory Management Plan. The catch limit for these fish is set by a “harvest strategy”, which in turn is figured out by a “Resource Assessment Group” – confused yet?  The group is made up of scientists, commercial fishermen, an AFMA representative, and representatives of the conservation movement and the recreational fishing sector.

Part of the problem, however, is working out just what’s a “forage fish” and what isn’t. Tooni Mahto told Coastalwatch “Technically, the species are not 'forage fish’ - the term 'forage fish' is generally used to refer to things like anchovies, herring and sardines, that feed low on the trophic level, have a short life span and breed quickly, producing a lot of offspring. The (target) species (here) are larger, live longer and feed higher up the food chain than those normally classed as forage fish.”

Seafish’s website painstakingly sets out the scientific arguments for the use of factory trawlers to target this fishery, and it quotes two impressively credentialed scientists, Dr Keith Sainsbury and Bob Kearney, in support of their position. It’s only on careful examination of what they said, that one realises they’re not endorsing the Margiris at all – they’re endorsing the sustainability of carefully-managed commercial fishing in general. Coastalwatch raised this sleight of hand with Dr Sainsbury.

“Full points for noticing that,” he laughed. “The criticisms that are around don’t all relate to that boat – they relate to the fishery in general. But in my view the fishery is highly defensible.”

“A lot has been said about the size of the boat,” he continued, “and it is huge. It’s so large because it’s a floating factory, rather than because of the size of the nets or its catching power. The nets used by this vessel are about 10m wider than the nets used in this fishery by the smaller trawlers that have been operating for many years, (but) about 10m narrower than the nets used in the blue grenadier fishery off western Tasmania for several years.” The AMCS, however, points out that off the coast of Tasmania, where localised depletions of jack mackerel and redbait have occurred, the relevant areas have not been re-populated since. “The boats used to fish these stocks previously did not have the storage capacity of a super trawler,” said Tooni Mahto, “and so had to return to port to offload their catch, meaning their fishing effort was limited, yet localised depletions still occurred. The super trawler is not limited by the need to frequently return to port.”

Dr Sainsbury confirmed that factory trawlers can be terribly destructive when used in a low-regulation environment such as Africa. He maintained, however, that they can work sustainably and profitably where regulations are strong, such as in Alaska.  

The difficulty here is that Seafish Tasmania are refusing to act like a proper villain. Rather than adopting the traditional corporate responses of obfuscation and silence, they’ve got on the front foot with their sustainability claims, meaning that anyone who is genuinely concerned about this debate has got to do the hard work of reading some science. Slogans, whether from the company or the conservationists, are not going to cut it. Coastalwatch put some of the conservation claims to a Seafish spokesman – here’s the results:

Food security – these fish will be sold cheaply to Africa. Seafish said it “freezes fish so they can be sold in Africa where there is a demand and a need for a relatively low-cost, high quality protein instead of what it is mainly used for in Australia, fishmeal.” Keith Sainsbury confirmed this: up until now, traditional trawlers have not been able to get these species back from out at sea in time for them to be fit for human consumption – they simply go off too fast. So they’ve been used for lower value purposes such as fishmeal. The “factory” capability of the Margiris means that the fish can be frozen in perfect condition.

There’s an interesting twist to Seafish’s sales to Africa: Australia has a UN obligation to help meet world food requirements. We’re meeting our responsibilities by exporting fish, goes the argument.

The vessel will hurt the small towns that rely on recreational and small commercial fishing. Seafish’s spokesman told Coastalwatch that the vessel cannot legally fish within three nautical miles of any coastline. Furthermore, he said, it’s not targeting any species that recreational fishers are after.

The trawler is targeting the large heads of migrating schools that exhausted predators have been following for hundreds of miles. Seafish responded that it has offered a "move on" operation method – that is, aiming not to catch all the fish in one area. This offer has been incorporated into the conditions imposed by Tony Burke. ACMS counters that “there is no scientific data pertaining to (whether) the stocks of any of these fish are resident in an area or migratory”, and that economically, it would be most logical for the vessel to operate in as small an area as possible, to maximise profit.

The figure of 18,000 tonnes is only a ‘foot in the door’ figure that will rise under political distraction. Seafish’s spokesman said their quota is actually quite small compared to other quotas used in this country, and that the fishing capacity of the Margiris is not much greater than that of many other trawlers currently operating in Australia. It’s probably difficult for anyone to forecast whether the figure will rise – (Seafish described the assertion as “purely hypothetical hyperbole”) given AFMA sets quotas in accordance with scientific measures of sustainability, it would seem logical that a rise can only happen if the fishery can clearly withstand it.

There will be only one on-board monitor for whole 24 hour fishing cycle. In fact there will be two AFMA observers – which would still leave them a little bleary-eyed if the vessel fished 24 hours a day, but Seafish says it won’t.

Australian fishery management has been recognised as among the best in the world. In a 2008 – 2009 study, Australia ranked 4th of 53 countries behind Norway, the United States and Canada. The leading research on small pelagic fisheries in this country was carried out by a panel of CSIRO and IMAS (Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies) scientists (including Keith Sainsbury), none of whom have industry or conservation links. Here’s a short version of their findings:

  • The Total Allowable Catch (TAC) is a small fraction of the population size for mackerel and redbait populations targeted by the fishery;
  • Several large scientific studies have recently examined the world’s main fisheries for small pelagic species, developing clear advice about how to set TACs and manage such fisheries so that the food-web and dependent predators are protected. The TAC in the Small Pelagic Fishery (SPF) is consistent with this scientific advice;
  • There are uncertainties in the fish population estimates and these are recognised. The TAC setting rules mean populations would be protected even if there were large errors in the population estimates.
  • The TAC in the SA Sardine Fishery (34,000 tonnes) is about double the combined SPF quota for jack mackerel and redbait off the eastern Australian coast (17,000 t) and is taken from a much smaller area. After 20 years of fishing and close ecological monitoring the conclusion from a recent study is that ”despite the rapid growth of the sardine fishery since 1991, there have likely been negligible fishery impacts, suggesting that current levels of fishing effort are not impacting negatively on the ecosystem function”.
  • By-catch is very low in the SPF. Voluntary rules to stop fishing and relocate the vessel if dolphins are seen were implemented in 2004 following the incidental capture of dolphins; there have been no reported or observed dolphin deaths since mid-2005. Ongoing measures and monitoring will be required to manage the ongoing risk of marine mammal interactions and capture.
  • Localised depletion is unlikely because most small pelagic species, and their predators, are highly mobile and local areas replenish quickly provided the overall stocks are not depleted. This has been the experience with small pelagic fisheries that have been similarly managed in Australia. But it would be prudent to distribute catches to minimise the chance of local depletion.

At the time of writing, the federal parliament is due to vote on a bill which would effectively ban the vessel from Australian waters for two years while further work is put into research. Depending who you listen to, this is either an admirable response to public outcry, or a shameless example of populist politicking. The ACMS insists there’s a scientific basis to it: “Australian fisheries management is not geared towards management of a vessel the size and with the processing capacity of the super trawler,” said Tooni Mahto. “The two-year assessment process is a necessary legislative amendment to the EPBC Act, to ascertain if (sustainability claims are) actually the case or whether it’s wishful thinking…”

So how do we process all of this? It’s undoubtedly right that we’re concerned for the target species, for their predators and for coastal communities. We should also be worried about any expansion in the scale of our commercial fisheries, particularly where our sovereignty – our food security - is called into question. That’s an issue which will be more fraught with each passing year, as the world’s burgeoning population demands more and more protein from both land and sea. The presence of the Margiris in our waters, whilst clearly relevant to these issues, does not mean that unbridled rape and pillage is about to commence. Keith Sainsbury laments the fact that people have become “overwhelmed by the sheer size of this vessel and have just stopped listening.”

The short answer here is a long answer. Read the science - without it, you’re depending on spin.

Editor's note: 
Since the time of writing the House of Representatives passed the legislation banning the trawler. The Senate is due to vote on it this week.

More information:
Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies:

Lenfest Taskforce:

Australian Marine Conservation Society:

Tags: super trawler , margiris , abel tasman , jock serong (create Alert from these tags)

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