Communique 5–6 September 2023

The sixth meeting of the Gulf of Carpentaria Inshore Fishery (GOCIF) working group was held in Cairns on 5 and 6 September 2023.

The purpose of the meeting was to discuss potential management changes in the GOCIF including potential net free zones, development of the harvest strategy, potential ITQ allocation, unitisation of the N3 symbol, sustainable catch limits and protected species management. Members noted the intention that further consultation would inform final arrangements of the harvest strategy, and that no decisions have been made.

Fisheries Queensland provided an update on the Future Fishing Taskforce associated with the Federal and State Governments $160 million to implement commitments relating to net fishing on the east coast and to establish additional net free zones in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Members noted the funding envelope for the GOC reforms was currently unknown.

An overview of the candidate net free zones presented to the Taskforce were reviewed, based on submissions received from various sectors and scientific expert input. Commercial members were very concerned that they had not been consulted prior to the Taskforce being presented with these candidate areas, and their lack of consultation and representation at the Taskforce. Industry did not consider consultation had occurred appropriately, effectively or fairly, and given the importance of these decisions on their future, they should be afforded more time to consider any proposals in detail. The working group were advised that the Gulf of Carpentaria net fishery reforms were on a different timeline to the east coast (i.e. to be implemented by 31 March 2024), and that there was time and the intention for further industry consultation before final decisions are made. The working group members supported the request by the commercial fishing members, that the Taskforce take on board their views before making final recommendations to Government.

Fisheries Queensland presented the final design of net and line logbooks for the GOCIF. Members noted a number of amendments were made to collect important information for stock assessments and to better validate fishing operations. Fisheries Queensland also presented on potential reporting arrangements to validate catch if output controls in the form of Individual Transferable Quota (ITQ) or Total Allowable Commercial Catch (TACC) limits are introduced. Members discussed and noted the need for any reporting arrangements to reflect the unique operating conditions of the fishery.

The working group provided member updates. The commercial sector noted better than average harvest of inshore species, including king threadfin and barramundi with mixed market prices. The commercial members raised concerns with the mental health impacts the current reforms are having on operators. This is compounded by diminishing economic returns with increased fuel prices and reduced market prices due to imported product and substitution of wild caught with farmed product in restaurants, noting the need for improved source labelling (e.g. wild vs. aquaculture & local vs. imported).

The charter and recreational member advised it has been a good season to date with high catch rates and increased business. The First Nations representative provided advice around current conservation projects and advised that Native Title prescribed body corporates are showing more interest in the development of Indigenous fishing options. There was interest in undertaking further joint patrols with QBFP.

Members of the working group noted that additional net free zones in the Gulf of Carpentaria has the potential to concentrate effort in remaining fishable areas, and may have unintended consequences or perverse outcomes for threatened endangered and protected species. Members flagged additional ideas for consideration such as a voluntary round of licence buy backs or ‘sunsetting’ effected licences in some regions to reduce the social and economic impacts from such closures.

While the commercial members noted their opposition for ITQ management generally, they did note there is a need to ensure the current catch shares of Spanish mackerel need to be maintained between the current commercial fishing sectors (i.e. inshore and offshore net and line). The Chair suggested that this might be an issue the industry could take on to resolve and come up with solutions to address, in the absence of ITQ. This would be of particular concern if a total allowable commercial catch for Spanish mackerel was based on the most recent stock assessment, as it would represent a large reduction from current harvest levels and may end up being a choke species for the N3 and N12 fisheries. All working group members considered it critical for an updated Spanish mackerel stock assessment, noting the apparent decline in stock trends across northern Australia.

The industry led concept of net unitisation for the N3 symbol was discussed. Working group members noted that it could potentially reduce total net length in the fishery and link to the fisheries harvest strategy to manage effort shift and protected species interactions. Some members noted that it may not achieve a reduction in real fishing effort or result in ecological or environmental gains. It was noted that without an overall reduction in real and potential fishing effort, net free zones may concentrate effort.

The working group discussed a number of other matters that had been on the agenda for fishery reforms in the Gulf, including maximum boat size, net marking, river mouth/area definitions, N12/N13 fishery alignment, permitted line caught species, barramundi upper size limit, maximum mesh size, and fins naturally attached for shark (raised by conservation member).

Fisheries Queensland presented information on the independent onboard monitoring project and field trial, noting that they are seeking voluntary assistance from industry. Industry members requested a presentation to their Gulf of Carpentaria Commercial Fishermen Association’s annual general meeting in October.

There was support from all working group members from the Gulf of Carpentaria Commercial Fishermen Association’s work on updating their industry code of conduct. Fisheries Queensland and industry will continue to work collaboratively on this initiative to improve the industries social licence, showcase their stewardship, highlight their commitment to improvement and seek recognition of previous practices. Independent onboard monitoring and the code of conduct may be important contributions towards managing risks to threatened, endangered and protected species and to reduce environmental risk assessment ratings in the future.

Working Group Members Attending: Chair: Sian Breen (Fisheries Queensland); Fisheries Queensland: Luke Albury – Fisheries Manager, Imraan Esat – A/Principal Fisheries Manager, Tony Loader (QBFP) – District Manager (FNQ); Agri-Science Queensland: Julie Robins; Commercial Members: Bruce Davey, Claudine Ward, David Lane, Shane Snow, Frank Wren (observer); Charter/Recreational: Ben Bright; Seafood Processor/Wholesaler: Shawn McAtamney; Indigenous: Simon Booth; Conservation: Leonardo Guida; Scientific: Stirling Peverell (Day 2 only);

Apologies: David Wren, Barbara Wueringer, Alastair Freeman, Gavin New