Executive Summary and Recommendations
1.1 Executive Summary
Background to the inquiry
1.1.1 Certain sectors of the fishing community resisted this inquiry for a variety of reasons. Some were incensed at the imputation that the western rock lobster fishery might be unsustainable. Others believed the inquiry had the potential to damage the reputation of the industry at a time when it was undergoing international certification. By contrast, others in the fishing community encouraged this inquiry in the mistaken belief that the process could be used to revive personal grievances with Fisheries Western Australia (“Fisheries WA”) Others used the inquiry as a platform to lobby for private property rights in the western rock lobster resource and a market research facility within Fisheries WA. Many fishers used the inquiry process as an opportunity to demand the return of lobster pots, lost through the 1993/1994 management package strategy.
1.1.2 Regardless of the different motivations witnesses had for making contributions to this inquiry, the Committee was impressed with the manner in which fishers, processors marketeers and managers exhibited a genuine pride in their industry. All protagonists emphasised that the western rock lobster resource, fishery and industry are sustainable.
Sustainability of the fishery
1.1.3 The western rock lobster (Panuliris cygnus) is a community resource, belonging to nobody, yet everybody and as a natural renewable source, it is limited and vulnerable. When access is unfettered, there is no incentive for individuals to protect the resource, so the community must act collectively to ensure that it is not over exploited. The Western Australian government, on behalf of the community has the responsibility of ensuring prudent management of the fishery.
1.1.4 Fisheries WA manages the fishery through the Fish Resources Management Act 1994 (WA) (“FRMA”), an Act which specifically encapsulates principles of ecologically sustainable development (“ESD”). ESD provides a framework within which environmental and equity issues can be integrated with economic and resource use decision making.
1.1.5 The Committee’s assessment is that the fishery is a major success story in terms of sustainability of its yield and the infrastructure managing the fishery is operating within ESD principles. This success may be attributed in part to the activities of early Western Australian fishery managers who recognised that a biological resource cannot be exploited too heavily without an ultimate loss of productivity as well as later research conducted by Fisheries WA’s scientists into puerulus settlement rates.Puerulus refers to the larval stage of the western rock lobster
1.1.6 This research has supported biologists’ predictions of sustainable catch levels and thereby enabled the setting of appropriate input controls. As a result, bumper harvests have been achieved over the past six seasons.
1.1.7 Input controls are specified in such documents as Fisheries WA’s, West Coast Rock Lobster Management Plan 1993 and the Rock Lobster Industry Advisory Committee’s (“RLIAC”) 1999 Operational and Work Plans for the West Coast Rock Lobster Managed Fishery. Setose protection and the 18% temporary reduction in pot usage appear to be the most effective regulations for increasing the egg production in each of the zones of the fishery. Setose are breeding female western rock lobsters
1.1.8 The Committee’s only criticism of the research effort is that to date, it has focused primarily on sustainable yields rather than on the ecosystems supporting the western rock lobster resource. Fortunately this gap in the research will now be addressed following the Marine Stewardship Council’s (“MSC”) insistence on an ecological risk assessment as part of its continuing certification of the fishery. Both Fisheries WA and the Western Australian Fishing Industry Council (“WAFIC”) have signed a Memorandum of Understanding addressing all aspects of western rock lobster fishing on species, habitats and biotic communities.
Management of the fishery
1.1.9 The Committee examined the management of the fishery from two perspectives. Firstly, that of key organisations playing a role in the decision making process for the management of the State’s lobster resources and secondly, Fisheries WA, the government agency responsible for enforcing the FRMA and accountable to users of its services under cost recovery principles.
1.1.10 Overall, the Committee found that except for the WAFIC rock lobster sub committee (“RLSC”), the majority of key organisations performed reasonably well, whilst Fisheries WA employs sound management practices that are not always popular with some in the fishing community. However, it is clear that these unpopular decisions have contributed to the current sustainability of the fishery.
1.1.11 One key organisation provoked negative responses from many witnesses. This was the RLIAC, a ministerial advisory committee providing direct advice to the Minister on sustainable management of the fishery.
1.1.12 It appeared to the Committee that essentially the whole inquiry turned on the effectiveness of the RLIAC and whether it is truly representative of fishers, a criticism levelled against it by the Western Australian Rock Lobster Fishers’ Federation (“Federation”).
1.1.13 The Committee decided that the RLIAC is numerically well represented with fishers although evidence suggested that historically it has been difficult to encourage fishers to nominate for the eight commercial fisher positions. This is partly attributable to fishers’ reluctance to stand up in public and argue against fellow fishers that various conservation strategies must be adopted for the sustainable management of the fishery.
1.1.14 The Minister appoints members to the RLIAC on the basis of individual expertise, not as representatives of any particular group. The objective is to have a wide base of expert fisher advice. Hence, it is imperative that any person serving on the RLIAC is committed to the fishery as a whole and not use the appointment to promote sectional interests. Those selected to serve are Ministerial appointees and whilst representative of the industry, they are not answerable to the industry.
1.1.15 In creating a ministerial advisory committee like the RLIAC, Parliament has necessarily modified standards of impartiality. This modification means the Minister must weather the hazards of such a creation, especially that of potential conflicts of interest.
1.1.16 It appeared to the Committee that many fishers who gave evidence at this inquiry hold a mistaken belief that the RLIAC is directly accountable to them. This misunderstanding has resulted in unrealistic expectations of the RLIAC’s performance and constitutes the primary reason for the dissatisfaction with the RLIAC process.
1.1.17 The Committee noted strong support for WAFIC, the industry’s current peak body. However, WAFIC was also criticised, because in representing all commercial fisheries it allegedly has neither the resources nor the will to dedicate enough time to the western rock lobster fishery and to adequately represent the views of its fishermen. Some witnesses expressed the view that the RLSC is better positioned to be the industry body.
1.1.18 An industry steering committee is, at this time, seriously considering a model for a new unified body to represent the western rock lobster catching sector. This response by industry evolved from two concerns. Firstly, the fact that the western rock lobster fishery is the single most valuable fishery in Western Australia, generating $300 million annually (compared with pearls worth $200 million and prawns $50 million); and secondly from the Federation and other Associations feeling disenfranchised and marginalised by current consultative mechanisms.
1.1.19 Industry is currently devising a model for a new unified body to represent the catching sector. The Committee believes another alternative for industry to consider is strengthening and re-inventing the RLSC as to make it the industry body. Nevertheless, whatever option is chosen, the Committee supports industry’s own initiative in this matter.
Accountability of Fisheries WA
1.1.20 It was levelled against Fisheries WA that its expansion has been at the expense of fishers, contrary to cost recovery principles. However, the Committee is satisfied that the expansion of Fisheries WA has occurred in fishing habitat protection, aquaculture, research and managing recreational fishing activities. The Auditor General concurs with this assessment whilst WAFIC, correctly reminded the Committee that when the FRMA was proclaimed, the agency was required to administer new functions prescribed under the FRMA with a consequent rise in costs to Fisheries WA. The Committee accepts that there is a perception that costs have increased for the western rock lobster fishery but there has in fact, been no resultant increase in management costs.
1.1.21 Some fishers expressed frustration with consultative mechanisms at all points within the fishery. One example is the RLIAC coastal tour, an annual event and major forum for consultation and discussion with industry. Tours are held at various locations along the coast, with fishers commenting that it affords limited opportunity to exchange information.
1.1.22 The Committee decided that the RLIAC has a fundamental problem with the manner in which it conducts the coastal tour in the southern/Fremantle area. This particular tour has language and cultural barriers making the consultative process ineffective. However, apart from the specific problem with the southern/Fremantle coastal tour, the argument by the Federation and others that the consultative process between the RLIAC and fishers is merely technical can no longer be justified. The RLIAC has responded to allegations of poor consultation by making significant changes to its work practices, for example, the use of regular newsletters and holding joint meetings with key organisations before the RLIAC meeting. These changes need time to make an impact.
1.1.23 Claims of poor consultation between the RLIAC and fishers is yet another manifestation of the misunderstanding some fishers have concerning the role, function and purpose of the RLIAC. This misunderstanding has become enmeshed with fishers own expectations of what the ideal RLIAC should be and how it should operate. Fishers want the RLIAC to be a representative body answerable to them but essentially, the RLIAC is an advisory body assisting the Minister.
1.1.24 In view of this fundamental misunderstanding of the RLIAC, the Committee made no recommendation to alter its structure but reminds the RLIAC of the necessity to provide clear, continuous communication of RLIAC activities to fishers.
Marketing and regulating
1.1.25 A claim was made by the Federation that Fisheries WA undertakes marketing of western rock lobster and that this creates a potential for a conflict of interest because Fisheries WA is also the regulator.
1.1.26 The Committee decided that the question of whether Fisheries WA is engaged in marketing western rock lobster depended on the definition of ‘marketing’. The Committee agreed with the Western Australian Rock Lobster Development Association (Inc) (“WRLDA”) that Fisheries WA is not engaged in marketing but trade development and this is consistent with the objects of the FRMA. In fact the Committee decided that in order for Fisheries WA to responsibly achieve the objects of the FRMA, trade development is required.
The Development and Better Interest Fee
1.1.27 The Development and Better Interest fee (“DBI”) is an amount of money returned to the community, for use by the Minister for Fisheries, in the best interests of fisheries generally as well as fish and fish habitat protection.
1.1.28 Initially the Federation demanded access to this fee so as to enable it to better represent the interest of lobster fishers. However, by the time the inquiry commenced, the Federation’s request for DBI funding was no longer an issue. This was because between the time of the drafting of the terms of reference and the commencement of this inquiry, industry had begun to review its institutional arrangements with the aim of working towards devising a new unified industry body for the catching sector. The Federation found this to be acceptable and withdrew its request for DBI funding.
Storing, feeding and selling fishers’ produce
1.1.29 The FRMA and other regulations restrict the ability of some fishers to store, feed and sell their produce interstate and overseas. There are no local restrictions but there is a significant restriction on fishers who want to be able to create niche markets interstate. The barriers are that fishers must hold a fish processor’s licence and processing is only permitted on licensed premises. The processing licence can only be obtained from the 27 existing holders or from the issue of a new licence, the latter being unlikely to occur.
1.1.30 The Committee considered the milieu of National Competition Policy, where a Commonwealth, State and Territory Competition Principles Agreement binds all parties to the systemic review of existing legislation which may restrict competition. In the context of fisheries legislation, if anti competitive provisions are found, then reform of the legislation must be undertaken so as to not restrict competition. However, if it can be demonstrated that the benefits of the restriction to the community as a whole, outweigh the cost; and the objectives of the legislation can only be achieved by restricting competition, then no reform is required.
1.1.31 One of four reports assessing Western Australian’s fisheries legislation compliance with National Competition Policy found that the legislation controlling the processing sector and the limit on the number of processing licences is by far the most important anti competitive provision.
1.1.32 The Committee considered the arguments in favour of deregulating the processing sector and noted significant resistance from many fishers, fisher Associations and processors. The Committee believes that deregulation of the processing sector will have an adverse impact on the sustainability of the western rock lobster fishery and the objects of the FRMA would be in jeopardy should deregulation occur.
A seafood exchange
1.1.33 A member of the Federation proposed a seafood exchange for Fremantle. The proposal was described as a multi-functional complex, incorporating an internationally linked selling floor with world-class restaurants, function rooms, display areas, family restaurants and cafes. The concept is to create an auctioning system in the heart of Fremantle that is connected to the world via the Internet.
1.1.34 The proposal was linked to deregulation of the processing sector, yet the Committee considers that the current system regulating the processing sector need not be an impediment to such a facility. However, the Committee suggests that any concept plan be channelled through the normal consultative mechanisms.
Recommendation 1: That there be a series of more inclusive and consultative coastal tours which respect the cultural diversity of the southern/Fremantle region.
Recommendation 2: That Fisheries Western Australia utilise the services of officers with appropriate language skills within the southern/Fremantle region.
Recommendation 3: That whether the industry steering committee devises a new unified body acceptable to western rock lobster fishers or the Western Australian Fishing Industry Council rock lobster sub committee assumes that role, then that body should devise its own consultative mechanisms in order to effectively represent the views of fishers.
Recommendation 4: That newly appointed members to the Rock Lobster Industry Advisory Committee participate in an externally facilitated induction program which explains the processes and responsibilities involved in becoming a member.
Recommendation 5: That the processing sector not be deregulated.