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HOLY MACKEREL! Proposal to slash quotas has anglers, businesses reeling

Local businesses fear that fresh, local Spanish mackerel will soon be a thing of the past but Forrest Beach Takeaway is refusing to sell imported fish.

A controversial proposal by the Queensland Government to slash commercial quotas and recreational bag limits for Spanish mackerel has been met with criticism from anglers, business owners and a North Queensland MP who has accused the state of being “hellbent” on destroying commercial fishing.

The Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF) released a stock assessment of the east coast Spanish Mackerel in Queensland, Australia in 2021 which claimed that the draft biomass of the species is estimated to be 17% of unfished biomass.

Despite a largely critical independent review of the assessment and denunciation from several members of the Spanish Mackerel Fishery Working Group, DAF is proceeding with “public consultation” before progressing a proposed 79% reduction in commercial quotas, seasonal closures and a 66% cut in recreational bag limits to manage the “unsustainable” stock.

Local business owner Lisa Scobie from Forrest Beach Takeaway, who currently purchases Spanish mackerel from local suppliers, is concerned by the proposal but remains adamant that “there will not be imported fish” sold in her shop.

“The price of Spanish mackerel will increase to the point where it’s not affordable for a customer to buy a piece of fish, potentially the price would be at least double what it is at the moment,” Ms Scobie said.

“We want to support local product but we’ve got to be able to get the local product, if you can’t get a local product, what’s your next option … (it) would be Spanish mackerel that comes from somewhere else, so Western Australia,” she said.

“How much is that going to cost?  The transport and the footprint that that would leave has its own questions … after that, if you still can’t get an Australian product, the only option left is imported fish and there will not be imported fish coming into the shop.”

Lisa Scobie, owner Forrest Beach Takeaway.

Ms Scobie said that the impacts of the proposal would be “far-reaching”, affecting commercial fishermen, recreational anglers, wholesale seafood shops, takeaway shops, restaurants, charter operators and businesses who support commercial and recreational fishing.

Owner of Forrest Beach Takeaway, Richard Scobie battering and frying fresh local fillets for sale.
Supporting local: A commercial catch being filleted by Richard Scobie for Forrest Beach Takeaway.

Perhaps confirming her fears, many local anglers, both commercial and recreational, together with select local business owners, have sought representation from long-time local lawyer Trevor Kyle who is also a keen recreational fisherman and holds a commercial fishing license.

Mr Kyle, who is representing the group pro bono, has conducted a great deal of research that has led him to determine that DAF’s stock assessment lacks transparency, possesses inconsistencies and contradicts previous studies.

He commented that a Peer Review of the assessment “asks more questions than gives answers”.

Mr Kyle also said that the consensus of the group was that if the data “stacks up and could be proven” then they would accept the outcome, but they are not being given that opportunity because the information is not clearly available and is too obscure.

“In reality, no one knows what the recreational catch is … so it’s based on commercial figures, and following those figures and ‘guesstimates’ they then arrive at a figure by using a new modelling system by Thurstan who in his own words says that he’d be very sceptical … because nothing’s been tested,” Mr Kyle said.

“In a Peer Review by Mr Klaer, he has also identified that he’d have grave concerns about arriving at conclusions in the absence of specific data needed to determine those biomass levels, and that’s the whole issue at the moment, where did (DAF) get the data to support (their) information?” he said.

“Basically, what my clients are asking is this; give us the data to support how you arrived at it (the assessment figures) not work on ‘guesstimates’.

“If  you’re going to close someone down, you’ve got to have that data and they’re entitled to know, but normally by the time it’s reached public consultation the goal has already been kicked, they’re just waiting for the flags to go up.”

Trevor Kyle, Lawyer.

None of the professional or recreational fishermen that Mr Kyle represents or has spoken to have experienced a decline in the Spanish mackerel fish stock, and one local commercial fisherman who was described as being “very professional and competent” provided detailed catch records to Mr Kyle that demonstrated consistent numbers and weight of Spanish mackerel over a ten-year period.

These records are apparently more detailed than what is required in standard log book reporting and Mr Kyle said that DAF has failed to approach its assessment at a grassroots level to collect this type of critical information.

Science, or manipulating data?

Ryan Tully, a recreational fisherman based in Townsville who was one of the representatives in the Spanish Mackerel Fishery Working Group, was critical of the process and the science used to complete the stock assessment, claiming that there was a clear agenda from the start that no one in the group could influence.

“If we weren’t there, it would be the same result, I guarantee it, there was nothing we did to change the outcome … even now, we’re fighting a losing battle,” Mr Tully said.

“The rules were that fisheries set the agenda … and the representatives from each group were to supply advice only to the working group, we could not make decisions,” he said.

“Although no one could change the agenda, most members tried, but it was impossible.”

Mr Tully said that “anyone who can differentiate numbers could prove (the stock assessment) wrong” and revealed that one charter operator, who was also a scientist, actually left the working group after running his own numbers which allegedly disproved the numbers that DAF arrived at.

Mr Tully also claimed that there were no unit figures relating to fish numbers, reproduction or survival rates of fry used to calculate stock levels and he noted that local populations of mature mackerel were not included in the assessment because DAF was calculating the brood stock/breeding stock only (which are the fish that travel from NSW through to the east coast in Queensland).

Mr Tully said that what DAF is calling “science” he would actually call “manipulating data”.

“You can manipulate data in graphs to show spikes increasing or decreasing in numbers to support your argument,” he said.

As Mr Tully was representing recreational anglers as a collective group, he gathered anecdotal evidence from many fishermen to report.

He said that no one he spoke to reported a decline in numbers or size, however some actually reported that numbers had increased after the wet season and in some places were “so thick you couldn’t miss, almost plague proportions”.

Whilst some of this was not his own personal experience, Mr Tully said there was video footage and photographic evidence to prove the claims and he agreed that there was no discernible change in patterns – “same spot, mature fish, every year” with “no trouble catching bag limits if you wanted to do so, weather permitting, and the more than occasional sharks”.

Ryan Tully, one of the representatives in the Spanish Mackerel Fishery Working Group, was critical of the process and the science used to complete the stock assessment.

Hinchinbrook Member for Parliament Nick Dametto has also weighed in after consulting with many concerned locals, stating that “the recreational and commercial fishermen I’ve spoken to say they haven’t seen a decline in fish numbers or the quality of fish they have been catching”.

Despite admitting that he was not privy to conversations within the Spanish mackerel fishery working group, Mr Dametto said that in his experience, Working Groups and public consultation were often viewed as a “box-ticking” exercise and that there was reason to question DAF’s findings and recommendations.

“The latest comments from peer reviewer, Neil Klaer indicate he was “unable to support the conclusions regarding future harvest levels of the east coast Spanish mackerel stock” which is a red flag when it comes to trusting the new modelling being used by DAF,” Mr Dametto said.

The popular MP, who is also a keen recreational angler, said that it would be difficult to find “one person who would rather eat imported fish over wild locally caught seafood” and expressed concerns that reductions on Spanish Mackerel commercial fishing quotas would put “significant pressure” on the market price and all businesses affected by the policy changes, including small businesses that support recreational fishing.

“Australians deserve the right to affordable wild-caught fresh fish,” he said.

“If the State is hellbent on accelerating the death of the commercial fishing industry, they should dignify the last of the licence holders with a buy-back scheme instead of strangling them with unviable quota cuts.”

Nick Dametto, Hinchinbrook MP.

“I believe anyone whose business is adversely affected by Government policy changes should be entitled to some type of compensation but unfortunately, this has not been the view of the State Government.”

Hinchinbrook MP Nick Dametto submitted a Question on Notice in Queensland Parliament this week and has sponsored a Queensland Parliament e-petition for those affected to have their voices heard.

As of March 29 2022, Mr Dametto has submitted a Question on Notice in Queensland Parliament to the Minister for Agricultural Industry Development and Fisheries and Minister for Rural Communities, Hon Mark Furner, referencing the “somewhat novel steepness modelling” used by DAF, to ask what efforts DAF has made to “resolve reservations within the scientific communities… and assess the current health of the SM fishery” using a more accepted methodology.

To enable those affected by a reduction in recreational take or slashing of the commercial quota to have their voices heard, Mr Dametto has also sponsored a Queensland Parliament e-petition that will allow “everyday Queenslanders to raise a direct question with the Government and get a response”.

Anyone who has already signed one of the previously circulated private petitions is encouraged to sign the e-petition using the link below so that their voices can be formally recognised in parliament.

https://www.parliament.qld.gov.au/Work-of-the-Assembly/Petitions/Petition-Details?id=3724

The e-petition will be formatted and registered with the Queensland Parliament and once it reaches its closing date it will be tabled.    

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