Communique 17-18 March 2022

The Reef Line Working Group met on 17-18 March 2022 in Cairns. The purpose of the working group meeting was to review the 2022 coral trout stock assessment and make recommendations for total allowable catch (TAC) setting in line with the reef line fishery harvest strategy, as well as reviewing new stock assessments and discuss future management options for saddletail snapper, crimson snapper and red emperor.

Fisheries Queensland provided an update including the Sustainable Fisheries Strategy 2017-2027 (SFS) reform progress and urgent management action and harvest strategy development for the east coast Spanish mackerel fishery, and noted some members held concerns with proposed Spanish mackerel changes and the impact this will have across fisheries.

In the members update, Commercial members cited broad concerns for the future of the reef line industry, particularly noting crewing issues, increasing operational costs, closure of the export market, beach price, quota trading and lease price, and impacts from extreme weather events.

The recreational member noted sectoral concerns and interest regarding the Spanish mackerel fishery and the future management of other recreationally important species (e.g. saddletail snapper). The recreational member also noted that fisher satisfaction is decreasing, particularly when fishing inshore, and fishers are shifting effort to offshore areas to seek the same level of fishing satisfaction.

GBRMPA stated that illegal recreational fishing is the most common offence in the marine park. Vessel tracking continues to be a key tool for monitoring commercial sector compliance in combination with on water and air surveillance. GBRMPA also provided an update on heat stress on the reef, and surveys to investigate coral bleaching are underway. QBFP noted there has recently been a number of new QBFP officers appointed across Queensland and in the region, and QBFP are continuing an educational approach with new reforms that came into place from 1 September 2021.

The conservation member noted the Australian Marine Conservation Society ‘GoodFish’ sustainable seafood guide update is near completion, and that harvest strategy implementation has improved results for a number of reef line species. The member further noted that climate change and heat stress on the reef is a focus of the conservation sector noting the broader implications on the fishery.

Fisheries Queensland presented the methodology, data and outputs from the 2022 common coral trout assessment, noting this is the fourth assessment of this stock. The assessment builds on previous assessments that estimated the stock was at 60%, 68% and 59% of unfished biomass in 2012, 2019 and 2020 respectively. At the beginning of 2022, the stock level was estimated to be 60% (50–70% range across the 95% confidence interval) of unfished spawning biomass.

Commercial members expressed concern that stock assessment results changed significantly over a short period over time (68% in 2019 to 59% in 2020), particularly how this looks to industry in relation to confidence in the stock assessments and management. Commercial members were also concerned that expected increases in recreational effort since 2019 are not reflected in the assessments projected harvest for the sector. Fisheries Queensland noted the data used is the best available information, and explained that an increase in recreational harvest in 2020 and 2021 would not influence the estimated 2022 biomass ratio result significantly. Members also held concerns regarding the magnitude of estimated dead discards, and suggested it does not reflect actual discarding behaviour, post capture mortality and depredation. Fisheries Queensland noted that improvements to discard information is a recommendation from the stock assessment report. Commercial members expressed a desire for involvement in the stock assessment development processes to provide expert industry advice on stock assessment inputs, which was supported by Fisheries Queensland.

Members were presented the harvest strategy TAC setting process for coral trout using the outputs from the 2022 stock assessment, resulting in a proposed total allowable commercial catch (TACC) for the 2022-23 and 2023-24 fishing seasons of 912 tonnes. Members noted this is a net reduction to the current 2021-22 TACC of 51 tonnes, however, is less than the expected reduction of 105 tonnes required from the 2020 stock assessment following application of the large change limiting rule in 2021. Fisheries Queensland presented the recreational and charter decision rule for coral trout. The recreational and charter harvest estimate for 2021 was 191.5 tonnes, below the trigger level of 285 tonnes, meaning no management action is required. Members again expressed concern that recreational catch estimate does not reflect the recent increase in effort during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Members noted the assessment is indicating an increase in the recommended biological catch (RBC) from the last assessment, and the stock is at the target biomass of 60%, and many members explained it is difficult to understand why the harvest strategy decision rules recommend a reduction to the TACC. Fisheries Queensland explained that this reduction is required in line with the harvest strategy due to the application of the large change limiting rule in 2021 and to maintain the stock at 60% biomass.

Commercial members and the Indigenous fishing member did not support a reduction to the TACC noting the impact on a sector that is already struggling with significant cumulative impacts and pressures across fisheries, including possible changes to ‘other regulated coral reef fin fish’ (OS) quota group and Spanish mackerel management. Commercial and marketing members noted that any reduction would result in a further increase to quota lease price on top of increasing operational costs. Commercial members also expressed frustration that quota unit fees do not decrease with quota unit value (kg) and requested that quota unit fees are reduced in line with any decrease in TACC. Commercial members also stated that 60% is a conservative target, and when a species is at the target reference point the harvest strategy shouldn’t be as sensitive to changes in RBC. Commercial members noted concern that the harvest strategy recommends changes to the TACC, but not to recreational limits, noting uncertainty in the recreational information in the assessment.

The recreational and conservation members recognised the difficulties faced by the commercial sector, however supported following the harvest strategy decision rules. The conservation member noted their support for the 60% target reference point to ensure long term resilience-and avoiding localised depletion. The conservation member also emphasised a need to improve the data inputs incorporated into the stock assessment such as contemporary discard data and more regular and improved recreational catch information.

The GBRMPA member supported continued management aimed to deliver the 60% target reference point and the need to follow the harvest strategy process, however noted the impacts and current difficulties faced by industry and the current healthy stock biomass estimate. The GBRMPA member advised that not adhering to the recommended harvest strategy reduction of 51 tonnes at this time would not likely compromise the ecological health of the Great Barrier Reef.

Fisheries Queensland presented the methodology, data and outputs from the stock assessments for saddletail snapper, crimson snapper and red emperor, noting these are the first assessments for these species which are managed under the OS ITQ category. Biomass estimates for these species (and the range of outputs from modelled scenarios) were presented as 26% (12-81%), 44% (21-45%) and 58 (56-65%) respectively. Members indicated that they had expressed sustainability concerns regarding saddletail snapper in the past.

Fisheries Queensland requested advice from members on appropriate ways to address new information and assessments on OS quota group species. The working group was asked to provide advice on whether the three OS species assessed should be classified as secondary or target species in this fishery. Commercial members explained that these are primarily secondary species, but there are some areas of Industry that focus effort on these species, in particular saddletail snapper and red emperor. The recreational and charter members explained that these species are regularly targeted in their sectors.

The working group provided advice on options to consider for future consultation on the management of these species, including:

  • species specific recreational in possession limits in place of the current combined possession limit.
  • increasing the minimum legal size (MLS) informed by species biological information and size at maturity.
    • members stated this may increase total discard mortality, and should be combined with education on responsible fishing practices and handling and other voluntary or mandatory measures such as release weights/venting tools, use of circle hooks etc.
    • members also suggested a consistent MLS could apply across the three species which would assist with fisher compliance and understanding.
  • consideration of a seasonal closure as an alternative to increasing minimum legal size due to post release mortality and depredation concerns.
  • reallocation of individual Transferable Quota (ITQ) units for these species, recommended as a preferred approach by the commercial sector, noting that reallocation of an existing ITQ is difficult, and reallocation criteria, legal implications and impacts would need careful consideration.
  • species specific competitive TACCs within the OS ITQ group, which was not supported by commercial members, noting concerns for a race to fish where the TACCs could be fully caught early in the season resulting in increased discards later in the season.

The working group noted that Fisheries Queensland will aim to develop a discussion paper based on this advice for working group consideration and broader consultation in mid/late 2022, with an aim to implement any changes by 1 July 2023.

The next meeting will be held in June/July 2022 to include further discussion regarding OS species management options and deep water species management.