Communique 8 & 15 June 2020

The seventh meeting of the trawl working group was held via video conferencing on 8 and 15 June 2020. The purpose of this meeting was to discuss the new scallop assessment outcomes, management action to support rebuilding and to make final recommendations to Government.

The working group noted that the fisheries reforms remain subject to government consideration and as a result harvest strategy management is not in place at this stage.  As a harvest strategy is not in place, any management action requires traditional amendments to fisheries legislation. Ideally, management action would need to be taken no later than August/September 2020 to be in place prior to the 2020-21 season and the reassessment of the East Coast Trawl Fishery’s Wildlife Trade Operation accreditation that expires in November 2020.

Preliminary results from the recent scallop assessment for the Southern Inshore Region (Region 3) was presented. It suggests that the biomass estimate has dropped from the 2018 level (22%) and is now estimated at 17% biomass based on new information from the 2019 fishing year. This is below the National Standard for maintaining access to fisheries resources and the limit reference point indicated in Queensland’s harvest strategy policy and guidelines.  The assessment also incorporates a new natural mortality estimate that is higher than previous estimates.

In the 2019/2020 season, 109 176 effort units were used in the southern inshore region. This represents all units that were used from 1 December 2019 to the 30 April 2020 regardless of species caught. If targeting bugs, scallops, banana prawns or other these all count to the total cap for this region. This 2019/2020 season almost hit the cap leaving just shy of 10 000 units unused. Based on entered logbook data scallop harvest in the southern inshore region is at 85 tonnes as at the end of February 2020 and may increase as additional logbook data is entered.  The 2019 seasonal harvests was above the yield calculated to maintain the stock at its current biomass (174 tonnes). This suggests that overfishing is still occurring at the current effort rate and that stock rebuilding is unlikely to occur while fishing at this level.

The working group noted that there is considerable stock variability giving uncertainty about year on year rebuilding of this stock.  While fishing is an influence, there may also be a number of non-fishing related influences affecting recruitment and natural mortality.  Although there has been rebuilding (from 6% biomass) since the initial management action in 2016, the quantitative stock assessment and independent survey is showing a decline in biomass and surveyed scallop densities from 2018 to 2019. 

The working group noted the mixed feedback from the Southern Inshore Harvest Workshop on 9 June 2020.  However, there appears to be good support from industry participants for adjusting the southern closure for the Southern Inshore, introducing a Christmas closure and removing daylight trawling in region 4 to reduce effort on the stock.  The working group noted concerns about potential impact on different fishing operations in Southern Inshore and Southern Offshore (Region 4) associated with the various management options.

The working group considered a no-take for scallop until recovery could be demonstrated given the biomass is below 20% and non-fishing related influences that are ongoing risks to rebuilding.  It was noted that access to other stocks would remain open and interaction with scallops, particularly while targeting bugs, cannot be avoided while fishing in the area continues.  The majority of Industry members did not support a no-take closure because of the significant economic hardship for Industry it would cause.  And that the fishery should continue with a reduced effort cap to sustain fishing businesses and processing capacity until the harvest strategy is in place.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) and the conservation member remained concerned that the assessment indicates the stock is in poor condition and below the national standard limit reference point of 20% biomass.  The working group discussed the risks to the fishery WTO approval associated with continued fishing on this stock. GBRMPA and some members consider more precautionary management action is required now, starting with a no take on scallops, to give the best chance of rebuilding to a level that would support some fishing. 

The majority of Industry working group members recommended reducing the effort cap to 80 000 effort unit to attempt to limit take of scallop to 150 tonnes and aligning the opening for all target species in the Southern Inshore Region to minimise unnecessary interaction with scallops.  Many members recommended opening the Southern Inshore Region on 20 November with mixed views on an additional Christmas closure from 20 December to 4 January.  If a lower effort cap was implemented the proposed closure times would need reconsidering to minimise unintended socio-economic impacts.  Some members recommended that preferred access also be reconsidered, particularly without harvest strategy management in place, to manage effort shift.

Some other members, including GBRMPA, expressed significant concerns that these measures are not sufficient to prevent overfishing from continuing.

The working group anticipated that the fisheries reforms would have been decided and implemented by 1 July 2020, given this has not occurred, it makes it difficult to provide advice on management action to rebuild scallop when more effective management tools are not yet available.  The working group identified that finalisation of the reforms was important, would assist with managing effort on scallop at a regional scale, and there was a strong desire for them to be finalised soon.  Without these reforms, some members reiterated their recommendation for more precautionary management now.  Maintaining wildlife trade operation accreditation for the whole East Coast Otter Trawl fishery is critical for ongoing fishery access and export markets

All working group members agreed that ongoing monitoring and assessment of the scallop stock must be continued to inform rebuilding.  The working group noted advice from Fisheries Queensland raising concerns about the status of the stock and the existing harvest being above recommended levels for rebuilding. Fisheries Queensland stated that if management arrangements do not demonstrate an improvement in the stock following the 2020-21 season, it is likely that if the biomass remains at or lower than 20% biomass a closure of the stock would be recommended to be implemented from the 2021-22 season, which would be consistent with harvest strategy management and the Sustainable Fisheries Strategy.

The working group discussed and are concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on commercial fishing businesses.  For the trawl fishery market, disruptions have significantly affected product demand.  Working group members recommended that now would be a good time to consider a buyback to facilitate recovery from COVID-19 and would also support implementation of the fisheries reforms necessary for this fishery.

Members in attendance: Fisheries Queensland (Chair – Kimberly Foster), commercial fishing (Richard Taylor, Scott McLay, Neil Mogensen, Barry Ehrke, Steve Murphy, Nick Schulz, and Kev Adams), WWF Australia (Simon Miller), and Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (Rachel Pears) and recreational Fishing (Dave Bateman).  Apologies Commercial Fishing (Jim Newman, Glen Duggan, Steve Anderson, Ted Woodham)