Communique 7-8 February 2022

The East Coast Spanish Mackerel Working Group met for the second time on 7-8 February 2022 online. The purpose of the working group meeting was to discuss the 2020 east coast Spanish mackerel stock assessment, consider management options and inform development of a draft harvest strategy for broader public consultation in March / April 2022.

Fisheries Queensland presented an overview of the stock assessment process, the 2020 east coast Spanish mackerel stock assessment, external review, the department’s response to the external review and expert panel discussions. Members discussed and clarified specific concerns regarding the stock assessment and data, including recruitment deviations, catch rate standardisations, steepness, shark depredation, hyperstability and marine park zoning. Members appreciated the presentation and responses to concerns. While some members still held reservations with the stock assessment model and data inputs, others were supportive of the stock assessment science, noting it was based on the best available data and best practice methodology. Fisheries Queensland noted that at an estimated 17% of unfished biomass, management action is required to rebuild the stock back to sustainable levels.

Based on the results of the stock assessment, the working group discussed a range of scenarios and management options to rebuild the east coast Spanish mackerel stock. The rebuilding scenarios presented ranged from a 30-40% reduction in current harvest levels to a complete closure of the fishery, including various combinations of possible management measures to rebuild the stock to an interim rebuilding target reference point (40%) within the required timeframe (14 years) according to National and State guidelines. Management options were based on a default catch share arrangement of 60% commercial and 40% recreational (including charter) with an additional commercial allocation for Indigenous Fishing Permits. These catch shares reflect the last 15 years of history in the fishery and will be recommended for adoption as an interim catch share arrangement.

Members provided advice on the proposed scenarios and management action as follows:

  • Members were advised that due to significant underutilisation of the current total allowable commercial catch, reductions in quota value by more than 50% would be needed to achieve any level of harvest reduction.
  • There was general support for regional/seasonal closures of 12 weeks each in the northern (Sep-Nov) and southern (between Jan-May) areas of the fishery as one management tool, noting that this would impact all fishers who target Spanish mackerel during these periods and provides some protection to spawning/other aggregations.
  • There was mixed support for a reduction to the recreational possession limit to one and a boat limit of two (with two or more recreational fishers onboard), with some members stating that any reduction to recreational limits must be commensurate with a reduction to the commercial sector. The working group were advised that boat ramp and recreational survey data indicates that, of those recreational fishers who landed Spanish mackerel, approximately 70% land one Spanish mackerel per trip. This suggests that possession limit changes would need to be considered in combination with other management measures affecting recreational harvest, including seasonal closures.
  • The working group discussed a reduction to the current total allowable commercial catch limit of between 75 and 90%, combined with seasonal closures and a reduction to the recreational possession limit from 3 to 1 per fisher (max 2 per boat), aimed to ensure rebuilding of the stock.
  • Members were concerned that any reduction to current catch levels will have significant impacts on all fishing sectors, notably the 20-25 SM licences that are responsible for approximately 50% of commercial harvest in the fishery. A number of members requested that Fisheries Queensland include, as part of any management action, options to alleviate the impacts of any significant reductions.
  • Members recognised the need for an equitable approach that adequately reduces fishing mortality from all sectors.
  • The working group acknowledged that the current 75cm minimum legal size (MLS) is below the size at 50% maturity and doesn’t protect all individuals before their first chance to breed, but did not support an increase in MLS due to concerns with post release mortality, shark depredation and disproportionate impacts on the southern area of the fishery in Queensland.
  • The working group discussed whether management action for commercial fishers could be stepped across two years to allow industry a transitional period, provided rebuilding targets can be met. There was split support for this, noting other stakeholders would expect commensurate and concurrent change across all sectors. It was recognised that a staged approach may also extend rebuilding timeframes.
  • Members noted concerns about the possible impacts of quota reductions on the value of commercial fishing endorsements, equipment and quota prices, potentially leading to a reduction in capital for many fishers and difficulties in accessing quota.
  • The working group also emphasised the importance of working with New South Wales to progress commensurate management interventions in their jurisdiction, to reduce fishing mortality and contribute to the rebuilding of this shared stock.

The working group also noted that there are important environmental influences that affect recruitment. This is currently the subject of an FRDC-funded research priority that will investigate environmental influences on recruitment to address uncertainties in the assessment and management of the east coast Spanish mackerel fishery.

Fisheries Queensland presented an overview of harvest strategies as a framework for setting pre-determined management actions to achieve fishery objectives, noting that rebuilding objectives must include timeframes to rebuild the stock to an agreed target. Members were provided an overview of the harvest strategy development process and provided advice on a set of long-term fishery objectives to guide the management of the fishery under a harvest strategy.

Members were asked to provide advice on appropriate rebuilding timeframes and reference points for east coast Spanish mackerel. The working group noted that the management actions discussed to rebuild the stock have been calculated based on rebuilding to the default rebuilding target of 40% biomass, with a rebuilding timeframe of 7-14 years. The working group recommended adopting the default rebuilding target and timeframe, noting it offers sufficient time to monitor recovery, provides a smoother transition from rebuilding to harvest strategy harvest control rules and aligns with guidelines based on the species’ biology.

Fisheries Queensland advised that if the stock does not show recovery, or biomass declines within expected rebuilding timeframes, additional management action would be required and may include a full closure of the fishery. Some members suggested that, following sufficient time to allow the positive effects of management action to manifest, if the biomass declined below 17% when stock rebuilding was expected, then a full fishery closure should be implemented. There was general support that the standard limit reference point of 20% of unfished biomass (consistent with the Sustainable Fisheries Strategy 2017-2027) would apply once the fishery rebuilds to 40% of unfished biomass. Members noted concerns that environmental influences and impacts from other fisheries should be considered if stock rebuilding is not occurring as expected.

Members strongly advocated for improved monitoring (across all sectors), including the collection of fisheries independent data, using readily available and new technologies. Members noted the availability of apps such as "Eye on the Reef", "Qld eCatch" and others to report catches and enable the synthesis of valuable fisheries-related data. The working group noted other measures to reduce the impacts on Spanish mackerel could be promoted, such as through fisher behavioural change programs and developing best practice fishing and handling practices.

The next meeting, to review and discuss stock rebuilding management options and a draft harvest strategy prior to broader public consultation, will be held in March 2022. Fisheries Queensland are working towards implementation of management action to rebuild the stock coming into effect on 1 July 2022.