Coral reef fin fish fishery working group

Communique 20-21 March 2019

The coral reef fin fish fishery (CRFFF) working group met in Brisbane to review the interim results from the coral trout stock assessment, provide advice in relation to the coral trout total allowable commercial catch (TACC) for the upcoming 2019/20 season, discussed proposed regulation amendments and consider harvest strategy approaches for the fishery.

The working group discussed the challenges and benefits of the implementation of the vessel tracking in the commercial sector of the fishery, noting the issues with some faulty units and the lack of customer service with some suppliers. Industry have requested changes to the SMS notification system and a review of the requirement to tie up dories with faulty VMS units, until such a time as vessel tracking is reliable.

The commercial sector remain frustrated and very concerned for the need to maintain the requirement for tenders to operate within 5nm of the primary vessel with active vessel tracking, despite repeated requests from industry for it be removed. The working group requests that Fisheries Queensland urgently remove this requirement, particularly for vessels with vessel tracking installed. In addition, commercial sector working group members requested the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to review the requirements for dories to be attached to the primary vessel in key marine national park zone anchorages now that vessel tracking is in place which is critical for safety of crew and vessel operation.

The recreational and charter sector is concerned and opposed to the proposed impact of a boat limit for coral trout, and welcome the opportunity for further consultation on this management option.

All sectors raised concerns with levels of predation from sharks on catches and how this is being addressed. The working group welcomes research into this issue to provide a better understanding for all fishermen.

Coral trout stock assessment

The working group were presented with the results from the 2019 stock assessment and noted the improvements compared to the 2014 assessment, such as including the full area of the fishery, using underwater visual survey data and recreational catch estimates. The assessment estimates common coral trout abundance at 68% of unfished biomass, similar to the previous (2014) assessment, and above the SFS target of 60% biomass.  The assessment suggests that a total catch for all sectors of around 1398 tonnes would continue to maintain the current economic target of 68% biomass.

While members appreciated the new stock assessment results are based on best practice stock assessment science and responsibly utilised available data, they were keen to review the stock assessment report in full. Additionally, some members have concerns about the potential environmental impacts on the Great Barrier Reef (combined bleaching, crown of thorns outbreak and cyclones), and felt a precautionary approach to setting harvest limits is warranted. It was noted that stock assessments can only incorporate environmental and other aspects where there is a validated quantitative methodology to do so. Further research is required to appropriately incorporate the effects of these issues in future models.

The working group spent some time discussing the considerable external market trends and pressures with the increasing operating costs to the commercial fishing and charter industries. It was also noted that overseas aquaculture product is also potentially reducing international market demand. The live coral trout market currently relies heavily on Chinese demand, both in Australia and around the world. Market place changes have resulted in lower prices offered for coral trout reducing the viability and profitability of industry.

The working group noted the results of the stock assessment, uncertainty around input data sets and assessment outputs, current harvest levels (expected to be around 350 tonnes lower than the TACC in 2018/19 on current projections) and advice on depressed markets and increased operating costs. Taking into account all the available information the working group members recommended no change to the current TACC of 1163 tonnes for 2019/20.

 Harvest strategy development

The harvest strategy for the OS category needs to ensure adequate control at the species level. The working group discussed the concept of triggers for harvest controls and management review for individual species in the ‘Other Species’ (OS) category. Triggers would most likely be informed by commercial catch data in conjunction with updated recreational harvest estimates. If harvest rates for any species reach predetermined level, management action would be taken such as setting a total allowable catch limit while a formal stock assessment is used to establish a sustainable catch level for all sectors.

The harvest strategy for coral trout will rely on the annual stock assessment outputs including biomass and yield estimates for setting the quota each year. The working group confirmed that they would prefer annual quota setting, based on a target biomass of 68%, which is considered optimal for economic and social objectives. Options for minimum and maximum annual changes in the TACC and other measures and reference points were discussed, and will be incorporated into a harvest strategy.

Other matters

The working group discussed the regulatory amendments to support the fisheries reform and harvest strategy processes. These amendments will be released for public consultation later in the year. The working group noted the recent changes to the Fisheries Act that amongst other items include strengthened penalties and enforcement powers to address black marketing.

The next steps will be to develop a harvest strategy for working group consideration in mid-2019, before being released for broader consultation.

The Coral Reef Fin Fish Working Group members are: Fisheries Queensland (Chair- Eddie Jebreen), commercial fishing (Will Neil, Sean Stiff, Jake Kingdon, Chris Bolton) marketing/export (Jono Leahy, Michael Wakeling), recreational fishing (Dan Kaggelis, Jason Bradford, John Robinson), charter fishing (Soozi Wilson) and Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (Darren Cameron), and Conservation sector (Jim Higgs)