Communique 22-23 April 2021

The Reef Line Working Group met on 22-23 April 2021 in Cairns. This was the first meeting of the newly appointed working group. Former members were thanked for their contribution and new members were welcomed. The purpose of the working group meeting was to make a recommendation on the deferred harvest strategy decision for TACC setting for coral trout from 2020, provide recommendations for TAC setting for red throat emperor and to review the status and monitor the performance of the fishery based on 2020 data.

Fisheries Queensland provided a broad update on the implementation of the Sustainable Fisheries Strategy 2017-2027, more specific reform changes for the reef line fishery and conditions associated with wildlife trade operation accreditation for the reef line fishery, which has recently been approved to 18 January 2024.

Members were invited to provide a general update from their respective sectors. The commercial industry members provided updates on the impact of COVID-19 on the fishing sector. Export markets remain volatile and challenging. Increasing operation costs and little change in long-term beach price is generating concern about financial viability for fishing businesses. A combination of factors were raised that negatively influence confidence and wellbeing within the commercial fishing sector. Members agreed that the reef line fishery harvests a sustainable, line caught premium product and the industry is looking for support to promote the fishery both domestically and internationally to improve return on investment for participants. Industry welcomed the announcement of the vessel tracking working group and reiterated concern about ongoing costs and loss of productivity when units aren’t reliable.

The Charter member provided an update on impacts to charter fishing businesses, stating that given their reliance on tourism, 2020 was effectively a write off for operators due to COVID-19 restrictions. With the reopening of domestic borders, the charter season in 2021 is flourishing, but relies on continued interstate tourism. The recreational fishing members noted that there has been more public interest in the management of Queensland’s fisheries, with mostly positive conversation about arrangements in place. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) and conservation members supported the position that the fishery is in a good place, and that support for continual improvement is still required to address some remaining concerns.

Fisheries Queensland provided a 2020 calendar year update on the status of the fishery including revised standardised catch rates and harvest levels. The working group noted that while landings were slightly lower in 2020 than the 10-year (2011-2020) average, the impact of COVID-19 and disrupted domestic and international markets on harvest was less than expected.

Fisheries Queensland provided a refresher on the stock assessment undertaken for common coral trout in 2020. The working group noted the stock assessment estimated the spawning biomass for common coral trout in 2019 to be 59% of unfished levels, resulting in a Total Allowable Catch (TAC) of 1 073 tonnes to rebuild the stock to 60% spawning biomass. The working group then discussed improvements to the TAC’s calculation process, in particular the transparent use and application of the recommended biological catch limit from the stock assessment, discount factors to account for uncertainty and the scaling factor to calculate an ‘all coral trout’ TAC. Based on the 2020 coral trout stock assessment and applying the harvest strategy decision rules a Total Allowable Commercial Catch (TACC) of 858 tonnes was recommended, a 305 tonne reduction from the current TACC of 1163. Fisheries Queensland advised that the harvest strategy provides a maximum change rule of 200 tonnes, resulting in a final recommended TACC of 963 tonnes for the 2021-22 fishing season.

Industry members noted concerns that the reduction in the recommended TACC comes from a new stock assessment model which shows a lower biomass estimate than the previous model and had significant concerns with the potential economic impact on quota lease price associated with large TACC changes. The working group acknowledged the deterioration in the economic conditions of the fishery and the impost on commercial fishers imposed by a reduction in the TACC, but recognised the importance of following the harvest strategy process. The working group members supported adopting the final recommended TACC of 963 tonnes for the 2021-22 fishing season.

The working group agreed this would improve confidence in the management framework and the long-term sustainable outlook for the fishery. The working group then reviewed updated recreational and charter harvest estimates and noted that they were within the sector allocation decision rules, as such, no recreational or charter management changes were recommended. The working group noted this advice relates to the setting of the TACC for coral trout for the 2021/22 fishing season, and the working group will be asked to consider an updated stock assessment and provide advice on the coral trout TACC in 2022.

Fisheries Queensland provided a presentation on the 2020 redthroat emperor (RTE) stock assessment. The working group noted the stock assessment estimated the spawning biomass for RTE to be at 72% of unfished levels in 2019, resulting in a TAC recommendation of 930 tonnes to fish down to the 60% biomass target. Applying the sectoral allocations in the harvest strategy, a TACC of 558 tonnes was recommended, a net reduction in the historic (2004) TACC of around 53 tonnes. The working group then reviewed updated recreational and charter harvest estimates and noted that they were well below the sectoral allocation in the harvest strategy, and as such supported no change to recreational or charter management. The working group recognised that while the commercial and charter representatives on the working group do not target RTE, adopting the harvest strategy process is important and supported adopting the final recommended TACC of 558 tonnes for the 2021-24 fishing seasons.

Queensland Boating and Fisheries Patrol provided an update on fisheries and marine park compliance within the fishery, noting that compliance in the reef line fishery is generally good. GBRMPA also provided an update on compliance with marine park requirements, and the working group noted all sectors have had reported non-compliance issues with green zones and other fishing requirements within the marine park area. Working group members identified challenges with species identification, particularly for cod species, which can hinder compliance with fishing rules. The commercial sector identified that with vessel tracking now in place, a review of safe-anchorage requirements and clarification of zoning boundaries would assist the sector to be safer and more compliant. Industry members sought assistance from Fisheries Queensland to organise an out of session meeting with AMSA to discuss issues with marine safety and operational issues associated with line-of-sight restrictions on dories.

Fisheries Queensland provided a presentation on the methodology and outcomes from the BDO social and economic indicators report for commercial and charter fisheries. The working group noted the social and economic indicators dashboard that is available on the department’s website is an important tool for businesses to view performance of the fishery. It was noted that the reef line fishery overall shows better performance compared to other Queensland fisheries, however, there are some businesses that are not working as efficiently as others. The recreational and charter members expressed the importance in measuring and comparing the social and economic information from the recreational and charter fisheries alongside the commercial sector information. The conservation member noted it is also important to obtain accurate information on exported product for this fishery, beyond initial point of sale, to highlight the importance of wildlife trade operation export accreditation to this fishery.

All working group members agreed to the importance of this social and economic information in assessing the performance of the fishery, and when considering the economic impacts of management or other changes.  Members noted that survey participation from the reef line fishery was 19% and agreed they would encourage greater participation in future surveys. Fisheries Queensland said this will be particularly important to help measure and inform understanding the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fisheries Queensland provided an update on the new standardised commercial fishing reporting requirements that will commence on 1 September 2021. The working group noted the primary change for the reef line fishery is the introduction of a pre-trip notice that is required before commencing a fishing trip. Working group members asked clarifying questions and appreciated the use of worked examples throughout the presentation.

In considering the introduction of the TEP animal logbook, the conservation and GBRMPA member noted their concern that no take species that are not listed as TEP animals are not required to be reported in any logbook. Fisheries Queensland noted this will need to be discussed internally and will be added for discussion at the next working group meeting.

The working group noted a presentation and update on the new commercial fishing smartphone application (the app). The app will cover a range of fisheries and is designed to encompass the new reporting requirements coming into effect from 1 September 2021. The app also provides functionality to check whether vessel tracking units are operating and manual reporting functionality if a unit fails at sea. The working group noted the app will evolve over time with additional fisheries and enhanced features added. Fisheries Queensland outlined that engagement with industry through development of the app is a big focus and is seeking working group input on an engagement strategy. The working group noted that the recreational fishing app was released late last year and has now been downloaded more than 20 000 times. Feedback has been positive and the app is undergoing continual improvements and updates.

As part of general business, the working group discussed the following:

  • Following the recent release of the ‘Seaspiracy’ Netflix documentary, James Cook University and AMCS both published responses to the documentary. Industry asked whether Fisheries Queensland will also respond, noting it would provide support to industry and defend Fisheries Queensland’s management.
  • A Vessel Tracking Working Group has been established to help support the departments broad review of the implementation and administration of vessel tracking. The group is primarily an industry consultative body to provide operational advice throughout the departments 18-month review process.
  • Fisheries Queensland noted work is being undertaken into using vessel tracking data to validate and improve fisheries data and information (e.g. assisting in determining targeted effort, refining Fishery Monitoring survey areas and defining fishing footprints), and welcomes industry’s idea of value adding through using vessel tracking data.
  • There have been many requests throughout the meeting for government support in marketing and endorsing the reef line fishery and it was emphasised that industry has a large role to play in supporting and endorsing the fishery.
  • The working group noted that it would be useful to formally discuss and identify fishery research priorities in working group meetings. It was requested that members consider and keep track of research priority ideas and bring them to the working group meetings for tabling (e.g. shark depredation research).

The next meeting will likely be an online meeting during the October spawning closure to discuss recreational fishing survey results and Wildlife Trade Operation conditions that are due to be reported on to the Commonwealth in mid-2022. The next TAC setting meeting will be in March 2022 when the fishery will return to scheduled decision making under the harvest strategy with an updated coral trout stock assessment.

The Reef Line Working Group members are: Fisheries Queensland (Chair - Eddie Jebreen, Director (Management and Reform) – Kimberly Foster, Principal Fishery Manager – Tony Ham, Senior Fishery Manager – Ryan Keightley, Fisheries Manager – Chad Lunow), commercial fishing (Sean Stiff, Jake Kingdon, Chris Bolton, Susan Davenport) marketing/export (Barry Dun, Michael Wakeling), recreational fishing (Jason Bradford), charter fishing (Lynton Heffer) and Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (Darren Cameron), conservation sector (Simon Miller) and external researcher (Prof. Morgan Pratchett).