Communique 3 November 2021

Role of the panel:  The Sustainable Fisheries Expert Panel was established to provide independent expert advice to the Minister responsible for fisheries and Fisheries Queensland on best practice fisheries management and implementation of the Sustainable Fisheries Strategy 2017-2027. Its advice does not represent Queensland Government policy.

A half-day meeting (Meeting 13) of the Sustainable Fisheries Scientific Expert Panel (the Panel) was held via videoconference on 3 November 2021.

Prior to the meeting, the Panel acknowledged the valuable contribution of Dr Michelle Heupel, who formally resigned from the Expert Panel on 20 September 2021 due to work commitments including a new post as co-Chair of a global committee directly relevant to her position as Director of the Integrated Marine Observing System. Fisheries Queensland emphasised the importance of Michelle’s advice in relation to protected species that has positioned the department well in terms of the future, while acknowledging there is still much to do.

The purpose of the meeting was for Fisheries Queensland to provide the Panel with updates on the stock assessments and management options for Spanish mackerel, snapper, and pearl perch.

Fisheries Queensland provided an update on the implementation of Sustainable Fisheries Strategy. A number of operational issues with reporting have been raised by industry and the department is responding by investigating and modifying requirements were appropriate. The Panel expressed support of this flexible approach. Fisheries Queensland advised that a relatively small proportion of fishers affected by the recent allocation decisions are pursuing the internal and external review options. The stock assessment process is being reviewed to ensure consultation occurs in a more streamlined and consistent manner. The Panel supported ongoing efforts to ensure stock assessment results are more accessible to non-scientific readers. The post implementation review recommendations for vessel tracking are being implemented and a range of short- and long-term priorities is being developed. A digital strategy is being developed and a major investment will be required to modernise the department’s existing IT systems in the context of the overall government digital strategy. This has implications for ensuring an effective interface with the new commercial fishing app. The Panel heard that part of the digital strategy will explore ways in which fisheries clients can extract the most value from data collected, noting that fisheries data are complex and difficult to interpret.

The Panel also heard that the overall consultation framework under the Sustainable Fisheries Strategy is a current focus, given a number of concerns that the working groups are not adequately representing fishers’ views. Complementary models for additional consultation mechanisms are currently being considered. The panel noted the considerable challenges faced by the working groups in developing advice to underpin the implementation of measures to rebuild depleted fish stocks.

Fisheries Queensland provided an update on the East coast Spanish mackerel fishery stock assessment and in particular the outcome of the independent review, which queried particular values on which the model was based. The stock assessment team have devoted considerable time to investigating this concern and modelling additional scenarios. The Panel commented that the reviewer’s comments were justified, but the department’s response is considered defensible. Given that the Department’s model is more precautionary than the reviewer’s, the Panel considered that the most responsible way forward is to accept the stock assessment base case as the most credible scenario and make management decisions accordingly. The uncertainty regarding the model parameters of interest will be progressively resolved by future stock assessments. The Panel also heard that a bridging analysis between the type of model used in 2016 and the model used in 2021 is being undertaken for the Torres Strait and the results will be relevant to other parts of Queensland. The Panel suggested additional assumptions that might have contributed to the difference between the 2016 and 2021 assessments, which the stock assessment team will investigate further. Given the likely impact of the new assessment of management decisions, the Panel stressed the importance of plain English explanations of key differences between the assessments and justification for the use of the base case.

Fisheries Queensland outlined several management options for Spanish mackerel in response to the stock assessment. The Panel reiterated their previous advice that options that do not align with the Harvest strategy policy’s minimum rebuilding timeframes should not be considered. Viable management options should be expected to produce detectable evidence of rebuilding, assuming rebuilding occurs as per modelled predictions. Potential issues were discussed including a possible effort shift to New South Wales, high grading, post-release mortality and the practical difficulties of maintaining an equitable approach to both constraining recreational and commercial catch. The Panel expressed caution about the presentation of potential social and economic impacts, which may be misleading if not presented in an appropriately nuanced manner. It was also noted that in a rebuilding scenario, ecological considerations in terms of the stock biomass need to be paramount: without a fishable biomass there can be no social and economic benefits.

The Panel noted that the latest stock assessments for snapper and pearl perch are yet to be published and are undergoing peer review. It is understood that no improvements are apparent in the stock biomass compared to previous assessments. Similar comments were raised as for the Spanish mackerel rebuilding strategy, in terms of advice that only options to that achieve improvement to the stock within the minimum rebuilding timelines should be considered.

Fisheries Queensland provided information on management options for snapper and pearl perch including modelled scenarios for rebuilding. The Panel recommended investigation of additional models to bridge the large gap between the rebuilding rate under a complete closure to fishing and the much slower (and inadvisable) rebuild under of less restrictive interventions – at rates that might not be detectable in subsequent stock assessments. Concerns similar to those held for Spanish mackerel were raised by Panel members in terms of effort shift and the management of recreational fishing take. Habitat modification to improve refuge habitat for sub-adults was discussed, While the Panel considered such an initiative useful, it noted that would not influence stock rebuilding in the short term and was not a substitute for more direct management action.

Fisheries Queensland also outlined measures being pursued to improve the presentation of stock assessment results to working groups and to the general public. This remains an ongoing area for improvement. The Panel reiterated that a Panel member will attend the upcoming working group meetings. The Panel expressed appreciation for the significant efforts made by Fisheries Queensland to improve the data on which fisheries management decisions are made.

The Panel emphasised that a common problem is the effect of a rapidly growing human population, particularly in SEQ, on recreational take and rebuilding strategies. The Panel noted that measures such as habitat restoration and behavioural shifts by anglers may assist in the protection of fish stocks, but ultimately measures to constrain the recreational catch in high population areas must be considered. Possible mechanisms to achieve this, as well as practical issues with implementation were discussed. A cultural shift towards understanding that recreational fishing is a privilege rather than a right needs to occur. The Panel also firmly recommended that restocking should not be considered as a tool in serious fisheries management.

The next meeting will be scheduled for mid December to discuss development of harvest strategies for Gulf fisheries as well as an update on the process for Commonwealth Wildlife Trade Operation approvals for the coral and sea cucumber fisheries. 

The members of the Sustainable Fisheries Expert Panel are: Associate Professor Ian Tibbetts (Chair), Dr Cathy Dichmont, Professor Ian Cartwright, Associate Professor Daryl McPhee, Professor Natalie Stoeckl, Dr Sean Pascoe, and Professor Bronwyn Gillanders.