Communique 9-10 February 2022

The Rocky Reef Fishery Working Group met on 9-10 February 2022 online. The purpose of the working group meeting was to provide advice to inform development of a draft rocky reef fishery harvest strategy. The chair provided an acknowledgment to country, welcomed new members, and confirmed conflicts of interest.

Fisheries Queensland provided an update on the implementation of the Sustainable Fisheries Strategy 2017-2027 (SFS), the release of the commercial fishing reporting application ‘eCatch’ and proposed timeline for development and implementation of the harvest strategy and rebuilding options.

Members provided updates from their respective sectors. Commercial members cited concerns regarding the independence of working group chairs, as well as ensuring there is full sectoral representation on working group memberships, particularly for the commercial sector. The working group were advised that Fisheries Queensland would consider new applications to fill membership vacancies if received. Most members noted it has been harder to access snapper, particularly inshore, and many fishers are moving to deeper water or north targeting other species. Other members noted good catch rates and size classes of snapper and pearl perch, particularly in the north. Some members stated that they held reservations regarding the science and assessments for snapper and pearl perch and suggested the stock status does not reflect what they see on the water.

Fisheries Queensland sought working group advice on the key components to develop a rocky reef fishery harvest strategy. Members provided advice on management units, noting harvest strategy policy default management units should be set at species’ stock level where possible, and that these species represent single stocks within Queensland. Commercial members suggested investigating northern and southern management units for snapper and pearl perch, reflecting greater recreational fishing pressure in highly populated areas and significant shark depredation in southeast Queensland.

Fisheries Queensland sought advice regarding appropriate management tiers for rocky reef species, including tiers for species that drive fishing behaviour, secondary species and high-risk species identified through ecological risk assessment. Commercial members noted that effort towards snapper and pearl perch has shifted significantly to other reef species in the north or to deep water species. Members suggested the shift is primarily due to shark depredation, competition with imported snapper, and better prices achieved for other species. Concern regarding the management of deep-water fish species was emphasised, particularly recreational possession limits. Members also expressed a desire for country-of-origin labelling to assist industry and improve marketability.

Members provided advice on a set of long-term fishery objectives to guide the management of the fishery under a harvest strategy. Members also acknowledged that fishery objectives and harvest strategy rules apply to all sectors.

Fisheries Queensland presented average catch shares for commercial, recreational and charter sectors for rocky reef species. Commercial members expressed concern regarding confidence in and validation of recreational data, and Fisheries Queensland that noted information on recreational survey methodology and data validation can be provided at a future working group meeting.

Fisheries Queensland presented draft ecological performance indicators, reference points and decision rules. The working group noted the default SFS target (60%) and limit (20%) reference points. Draft decision rules for target species were presented outlining pre-determined rules for adjusting total allowable catch limits for all sectors in response to stock assessments. Management arrangement changes can also be informed using the Management Strategy Evaluation (MSE) tool developed for snapper and pearl perch. Members recognised the need for an equitable approach that addresses fishing pressure from all sectors.

Members discussed decision rules for secondary and byproduct species, noting these species seldom have reliable estimates of biomass. Indicators to trigger assessment and/or management review in response to increasing fishing pressure were presented, and members noted 2013-2017 represents a stable period in the fishery which may be an appropriate reference period. Members requested that there be sufficient buffer for these rules as fishers are already shifting effort towards these species in response to reforms in other fisheries.

A draft decision rule for species or ecological components identified as having an unacceptable level of risk from an ecological risk assessment was presented, which would trigger review of the reason for increased risk and to take appropriate action to reduce the risk. Members noted concerns that high risk can be driven by a lack of information or data, and proper consideration of the drivers of risk should be given prior to taking management action. Fisheries Queensland advised the working group that many high risks in the current ERA are partly driven by not having a harvest strategy developed and implemented for this fishery.

Members were asked for advice on potential social and economic objectives and performance indicators for the rocky reef fishery. Recreational members identified fisher satisfaction as a priority indicator, and suggested that feedback from all facets of industry, including the boating and tackle industry, be considered. The commercial sector expressed concerns regarding social and environmental objectives, in particular the potential for regulation to be introduced to address social and environmental licencing. Fisheries Queensland noted that the harvest strategy incorporates economic, ecological and social objectives and pursuing these puts all aspects of industry in a more defensible position with social licence and in line with community expectation.

Members were presented with rebuilding objectives for species assessed to be under the limit reference point and noted an initial rebuilding target to 40% biomass. Members noted default rebuilding timeframes for snapper (5-10 years) and pearl perch (4-8 years) that are in line with Queensland and National guidelines. Rebuilding scenarios for snapper and pearl perch presented included changes to size and possession limits, seasonal closures and TACC reductions, to a complete closure of the fishery, in order to rebuild stocks to 40% within timeframes ranging between five to more than 24 years.

Commercial members stated that none of the rebuilding scenarios presented would provide for an economically viable fishery, and suggested the management action (e.g. TACC reductions) already implemented should be sufficient to rebuild stocks. The working group discussed whether a stepped approach to management could be considered, and if alternative scenarios could be modelled. Fisheries Queensland advised alternative scenarios can be considered following release of the new stock assessments using the MSE tool.

A recreational member raised concerns with impacts from environmental influences, post capture mortality, shark and dolphin depredation and from other fisheries which may have a greater influence on rebuilding snapper and pearl perch stocks. Fisheries Queensland will present further information regarding these concerns at the next meeting. One recreational member stated that we must trust the science that shows both stocks are in trouble, and the extended rebuilding timeframes presented would not be acceptable. Most other stakeholder members did not support this view. The stakeholder members agreed that if the fishery is closed there will be further effort shift to other areas and species.

Fisheries Queensland presented monitoring and research priorities for discussion and prioritisation. Members also noted proposed performance monitoring and assessment measures and harvest strategy review timeframes.

During general business:

  • Most stakeholder members stated they did not agree the snapper and pearl perch stock assessments accurately reflect stock status, suggesting there has not been enough time to see the effects of recently implemented management measures on rebuilding which should be considered before considering any further management action. Fisheries Queensland noted the MSE provides more detailed analysis of the effects of management measures on recovery.
  • One recreational member emphasised that the science shows these stocks are in trouble and it needs to be accepted. The member quoted the Status of Australian Fish Stocks report 2020 stating that ‘current management measures should help reduce fishing mortality of snapper in Queensland, and support stock recovery from its recruitment impaired state, however it is too early for these to have an effect on the depleted status classification’.
  • Commercial and charter members reiterated their view that data collection should be equitable across sectors and commensurate with existing commercial reporting arrangements. This could include reporting and monitoring through apps. The recreational members support this in principle but held concerns with the cost of any suggested arrangements.
  • The New South Wales observer recognised the shared nature of snapper and pearl perch stocks and appreciated the opportunity to observe the working group discussions.

The next meeting will be planned to occur during the snapper closure period to discuss a draft harvest strategy, consider new snapper and pearl perch stock assessments and an updated MSE.