Communique 30-31 August 2021

The reappointed Coral and Marine Aquarium Fish Fisheries working group met for the sixth time online on 30 and 31 August 2021.

Fisheries Queensland provided a general update on the Sustainable Fisheries Strategy (the Strategy) and recent legislation changes that impact the fisheries as well as the new standardised commercial fishing reporting requirements that will commence on 1 September 2021. Working group members asked questions regarding the reporting process, including pre-trip notices, logbook, prior reporting and weights notice completion timeframes.

The working group noted the recently released harvest strategies for the aquarium fish fishery and the coral fishery and the status of the Wildlife Trade Operations (WTO) export approval for the coral fishery, which is in place until 30 October 2021. The strict and challenging timeframes associated with the upcoming WTO requirements were discussed and Industry members advised they remained very concerned about implications of meeting and maintaining WTO requirements.

Members raised concerns with meeting the current WTO conditions, noting there were significant potential issues with the content of the draft Implementation Plan (the draft Plan). It was raised that if the future management of the fishery was in-line with the plan, it was likely to have a major economic impact on all coral fishers, and some fishers may no longer be able to viably operate. It was also noted that continuation of the fisheries export approval was paramount for the fishery to remain economically viable as export is a major component of the fishery. In light of this, the scientific member and some industry members identified that the approved Coral Harvest Strategy may no longer align with the ongoing review of the national Non-Detriment Finding (NDF) process, which necessary to obtain export approval of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) listed species.

The working group reviewed the draft Plan, being a requirement of condition 7 of the current WTO conditions, due for submission to the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE) on 30 September 2021. The draft Plan includes details of proposed species-specific harvest limits and how they would be enforced, a program to independently characterise species catch composition for those corals managed at genus level, revision of the Ecological Risk Assessment (ERA) for the fishery, mechanisms for responding to environmental disturbance and a traceability framework to distinguish captive bred corals (referring to the practice of fragging corals after harvest) from wild harvested corals.  

Details of how to implement species-specific harvest limits was discussed and industry members raised concerns that proposed catch limits outlined in the draft Management Assessment of Australian Coral Fisheries – Queensland Coral Fishery, August 2021 (the report) commissioned by DAWE would significantly restrict the collection of driver coral species (commercially important) within the fishery. The scientific member noted that new and more precautionary catch limits stated in the report were proposed to address 1) significant growth in harvest levels for some species and 2) increasing frequency of environmental disturbances, which will otherwise undermine positive NDF determinations, at least until detailed assessments of sustainability are completed.

Members highlighted that some of the proposed harvest limits in the report were different to the triggers and harvest limits for the management of Tier 1 and 2 corals under the QCF harvest strategy. There was no consensus on how best to resolve this, however working group members mostly agreed to follow recommendations of the Scientific Member to introduce more precautionary catch limits for some species of concern. It was agreed that the harvest strategy will require review to align the final Implementation Plan submitted to DAWE. The science and environment representatives on the working group also warned that WTO commitments will need to be particularly compelling given increased national and international scrutiny on the management of the GBR and associated pressures. Industry members requested Fisheries Queensland seek advice from DAWE on whether a staged approach to the implementation of catch limits would be acceptable, given the significant amount of change and impact. 

The working group discussed the mechanisms for enforcing harvest limits, including various input and output controls (quota management). It was identified that quota management is the only way to ensure that the harvest of a species does not exceed a pre-determined limit. Industry members raised concerns about a ‘race to fish’ if competitive catch limits were imposed, under the existing individual transferrable quota (ITQ) management system, for a variety of high value, driver coral species. Reallocating the existing ITQ management was discussed, and the complexities of the reallocation process, legislation requirements and time constraints involved. Fisheries Queensland also explained the reporting and enforcement complexities associated with managing high volumes of species that are difficult to identify. Noting that this component and the ‘race to fish’ issues were not relevant to the immediate priority task of submitting an agreed implementation plan to DAWE a commitment to reconvene the working group was made to discuss quota management options as well as piece to weight harvest limit conversions for all CITES listed coral species/genera, once the Implementation Plan had been submitted to DAWE.

Fisheries Queensland outlined the proposed revision of the ERA for the fishery, including a timeline and likely process to be undertaken.

The working group discussed potential options of how to independently characterise species composition of catch. Potentially prohibitive costs of site visits and data analysis as well of the lack of availability and suitability of coral experts to complete the work were identified as challenges. The working group recommended that introducing species-level reporting in the fishery logbook would provide the best option for defining catch composition and would also support improved analysis of the fishery in the future. 

Fisheries Queensland summarised historical processes the fishery enacted in response to environmental disturbances, and all agreed that future responses would require continued collaboration between GBRMPA, Industry and Fisheries Queensland. The working group agreed the best option was to use the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP) pre-summer workshops to inform potential risks of environmental disturbance for the coming summer and in the event of a disturbance, GBRMPA would provide environmental exposure maps with the working group, to be considered before potentially triggering the Management Response Mechanism within the Provision Reef Stewardship Action Plan. Potential management responses would be managed via an industry led moratorium or if longer term action was required Fisheries Queensland agreed it could consider commercial fishing licence conditions or fisheries amendment declaration as implementation options.  All working group members agreed that clear communication around consideration of risks and action taken was required and the working group communique process through Fisheries Queensland and Provision Reef website were best placed to facilitate this.

The working group discussed potential mechanisms to identify and quantify post-harvest practises such as fragging and on-growing wild caught corals before export. Fisheries Queensland proposed two options; a research project to quantify what happens to corals post-harvest, or a production return audit process similar to already existing aquaculture authority holder requirements. Members discussed how to finance a research project and the ongoing requirements required to facilitate a traceability framework as well as the additional reporting requirements a production return would include. Each option would need to successfully report the number and accurate weight of each species per fishing season that are exported. Industry Members agreed to discuss with colleagues the proposals and inform Fisheries Queensland.

The working group noted that draft Plan including harvest limits would be released for consultation, by Fisheries Queensland, to all coral fishers with feedback to be considered by the working group ahead of submission to DAWE by 30 September 2021.  Given the tight timeframes, it was noted that only a short consultation period could be provided, of up to 5 business days. Industry members also noted that DAWE, through Fisheries Queensland, has disseminated the draft report for the Management Assessment of Australian Coral Fisheries – Queensland Coral Fishery for comment by 7 September 2021. Industry are encouraged to review the report and provide relevant feedback.

Fisheries Queensland provided an update on compliance within the industry, noting that compliance for QBFP is good and for the 2020/21 year the compliance rate was 94%.

The next working group meeting will be held on 27 September to discuss feedback from the coral industry on the draft Implementation Plan and finalise it to be submitted to DAWE by 30 September 2021.  This will be followed by a working group meeting tentatively scheduled for 18 October to discuss the WTO conditions proposed by DAWE for the coral fishery, should they be available.

The Coral and Marine Aquarium Fish Fisheries Working Group members are: Fisheries Queensland (Chair – Kimberly Foster, Danielle Stewart, Jenny Keys, Samantha Miller, Graeme Broughall (QBFP)), Environment (Jessica Stella (GBRMPA)), commercial fishing (Daniel Kimberley, Darren Brighton, Dean Pease, Don Gilson, Lyle Squire, Ros Patterson), science (Randall Owens, Morgan Pratchett).