Commercial Fishing Industry

Tonight I would like to speak about the importance of our commercial fishing sector and also, of course, how important it is for all Australians to support that sector, particularly over this period of the year, when many of us will be tucking into very delicious seafood over the Christmas break. 

I wanted to remind everybody of the importance of buying Australian seafood over that period, because the sector does need our support. It employs thousands of Australians. It is both a huge producer of economic wealth domestically and quite a large export industry for our country. It does face some challenges, though, both economic and regulatory, and I will speak a little bit about those tonight.

But I first want to thank the organisers of our annual Nationals seafood barbecue. It has become a tradition that was first established by former Senator Ron Boswell, I believe the sixth longest serving senator in this place. He established a tradition of having a barbecue at the end of the parliamentary year to celebrate the seafood industry and to express our support for it. It started, apparently, in a small courtyard with probably only a few people—Ron's friends—and it has grown into quite a large turnout we have these days. We invite the media along and sell to them the importance of the industry as well. How it usually seems to work in seafood politics—and I have had a bit of experience with it now—is that they get you along, feed you lots of fish, prawns and Moreton Bay bugs, give you a bit of drink, and then turn around and say, 'Can you support us on this particular issue,' and it is pretty hard to refuse once you are full of their beautiful product. Hopefully this year's event will have the same effect on the media. It is very well supported. I want to thank those individual businesses in the seafood industry who helped us: A Raptis & Sons, Austral Fisheries, the Ocean King Prawn Company, Sydney Fish Market and Urangan Fisheries. They all helped provide the products which made the event such a success. I also thank IGA and Metcash, who helped with the beverages.

As I said, this is an incredibly important sector for our economy. It produces $2.4 billion a year. Of that, around $1.2 billion is exported every year. On average, each Australian eats around 25 kilograms of seafood every year, and that makes it the fifth most valuable food industry in the nation. So it is of very high importance. It also employs 8,608 people directly, and another 4,000-odd are employed in the processing sector.

Of all the states in Australia, Queensland has the largest seafood industry. In Queensland almost 3,000 people are employed directly in the seafood industry. It is of incredible importance to particular regional Queensland towns including Karumba; Cairns; Rosslyn Bay, near Yeppoon, where I live; and Mooloolaba as well, on the Sunshine Coast.

However, as you might be aware, Mr President, the numbers employed in the industry have fallen considerably over the last decade. Only 10 years ago, 14,000 or so Australians were employed in the sector, and that has reduced to 8,600, as I mentioned, a big reduction over 10 years. That has been caused by some importation of seafood from overseas but also by changes to government laws and regulations which have made it harder for the seafood sector to operate in this country. Some of those laws were certainly justifiable, but others that I have had experience with seem to have no justification in science. They seem to be based more on the emotion of locking up particular areas and selling it to the public as a kind of environmental sales pitch and also to try to get some of the recreational fishing industry onside.

We have had a recent example in Queensland. The now elected Queensland Labor government took a very ill thought through policy to the election—I think on the basis that they probably thought they were not going to be elected. A couple of weeks before the election they promised to lock up an area the size of the ACT, just off the coast of Rockhampton and Yeppoon. It is an incredibly productive area for seafood. It produces a third of the wild barramundi caught on our eastern seaboard, along the Fitzroy River and the associated Fitzroy delta—a third of the wild barramundi caught on the eastern seaboard. They have now locked up—they promised in the election to lock up—that entire area. It is no longer available for the commercial fishing sector.

Around 40 families in the region have lost their livelihoods. They have been offered compensation as paltry as $10,000 for that cost, and many of them now have not a lot of other options. Some of them have had to go up to the Whitsundays area, which is quite long way away and also an area which is already well tapped by other fishermen, so there is a competition now for that resource. That is having an impact, of course, on the fishermen in that region as well.

It is an extremely ill thought through policy because it has nothing to do with the science. It is not based on science at all; it is simply locking up an entire area. The sustainable catch of wild barramundi in the Fitzroy River is not zero, so the policy is not justified on science. The policy is justified because in their view it will lead to a boost in tourism in the sector. There has been no evidence presented at all that such a boost will occur. It has actually been tried in other states. The New South Wales government, the former Carr government, locked up areas in northern New South Wales. There have been university studies done of the impact of those net-free zones and no evidence, again, that they actually lead to an increase in tourism.

That is the evidence and data, but just in your gut you know that people are not going to spend thousands of dollars to come to the Fitzroy River on holidays to catch wild barramundi. There are plenty of other places in the country that they can go and fish. Obviously we would love them to come to Rockhampton and Yeppoon if they like, but having net-free ban areas in and of itself is not going to lead to some tourist mecca in central Queensland.

It is quite disappointing that we continue to shut down these areas, because we have so much potential as a nation to provide for the protein needs of our own country and our own people and those overseas as well. We have the world's third largest ocean territory. The third largest ocean territory exists in our sovereign state, in our sovereign waters, in our economic exclusion zone. We have the world's seventh largest coastline. I think Senator Ludwig—through you, Chair—mentioned that just in an earlier debate. We have the seventh largest coastline in the world.

Yet, despite those attributes of an island nation—you would imagine that we would be quite a large producer of seafood—we, of all countries, produce the 57th largest amount of seafood in the world. So 56 countries produce more seafood than we do, even though we have the third largest ocean reserves and the seventh largest coastline. It does not add up. We only produce around 28 kilograms per square kilometre of our ocean in marine catch. While that is one of the lowest in the world, and we have an enviable environmental record on seafood production, what ends up happening is that people still eat seafood in Australia; they just import it from other countries, and we just export the environmental problem to them.

Every import requires a corresponding ledger entry on the other side of the balance sheet, and by importing our seafood from overseas we are exporting the environmental issues to other countries, particularly in Asia and South-East Asia. So, while we extract 28 kilograms per square kilometre here in Australia, in China, in Thailand and in Vietnam, where much of our seafood is imported from, their extraction rates are more than 5,000 kilograms per square kilometre. We have 28 kilograms per square kilometre. In those countries it is more than 5,000, and they have the attendant environmental and other issues associated with such a large and intensive source of extraction.

We could quite easily increase our production in our waters and reduce our imports, and overall for the globe there would be a better environmental outcome. But unfortunately that does not appear to be the direction of many labour and green governments across the world. We had a debate just the other day saying that we should not allow a particular vessel into the country, because this industry continues to be demeaned, even though it is made up of hardworking Australians who produce the best things in this country, and that includes prawns on Christmas Day.

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