Reef line fishery working group

Communique 31 March 2020

The Reef Line Working Group met via video conference on 31 March 2020 as a result of changed working arrangements associated with COVID-19. The purpose of the working group meeting was to note the recommended final draft harvest strategy, the 2019 status of the fishery and apply the decision rules and other relevant information to provide recommendations for Total Allowable Commercial Catch (TACC) setting for the 2020 and 2021 seasons for coral trout in accordance with the harvest strategy.

The commercial industry members provided updates on the impact of COVID-19 on the fishing sector.  Export markets were impacted initially following the restrictions implemented in China in January 2020 which had flow on impacts to the domestic market.  This has been followed by restrictions implemented in Australia since March 2020 which has impacted on international flight availability for export and all domestic seafood markets. The commercial Industry appreciates the economic relief that is available however there is concern about the co-payment requirements given the financial uncertainty that will take at least 12 months to settle.  They also are finding it difficult to utilise a range of the COVID 19 business assistance measures, as fishing businesses generally operate with contract labour and shared revenue arrangements.  Fisheries Queensland advised that eligibility criteria is being updated from time to time and recommended people check back to see if these are helpful. Uncertainty, significant adjustments to traditional supply chains/markets and trying to adapt at a fast rate to keep businesses afloat remain a significant concern for Industry.  Some fishing is continuing.  It is likely that the export market will recover quicker than the domestic market. International flight ability will be critical for this fishery noting there will be continued price and trade pressures from the Chinese market in particular. 

The Charter member provided an update on impacts to charter fishing businesses.  Phased international and domestic travel restrictions have effectively tied charter vessels to the wharf and generated some significant financial issues.  Many pre-paid bookings are being cancelled for their usual operating season which is usually March to November. Charter fishers are facing similar issues accessing economic relief as they are not fitting the eligibility criteria and are looking for assistance in mooring fees, fuel subsidies, grants or easily accessible loans.  The GBRMPA member advised that the GBRMPA was considering a range of options to support the tourism industry with the Environmental Management Charge being waived for the remainder of the calendar year for tourism operators.  The Charter member asked whether this and similar measures could be extended to apply to the 2021 season to assist businesses reduce their operating cost during the expected business recovery period.

The recreational fishing members advised that there is confusion as to whether they can go fishing or not with COVID-19 restrictions. Fisheries Queensland clarified that the advice is for Queenslanders to stay home to reduce the spread. Only, fishing to provide food for yourself or your family is permitted. For example, remote communities or individuals that rely on fishing as their primary food source. No more than two people should be on-board the boat unless they are members of the same household. Do not travel long distances to go fishing. If you cannot fish locally, then do not go. Members also advised that the tackle, broader marine service industry and tourism industry were impacted as a result of less people fishing due to movement restrictions.

GBRMPA provided a quick update on the health of the Great Barrier Reef with recent reports of no, low, moderate and severe bleaching occurring in different areas of the Marine Park and directed fishers to view weekly Reef health updates on the GBRMPA websites. The extent of mortality from the bleaching event was not yet known but it is the third major bleaching event across the GBR in five years. Fisheries Queensland provided an update on the Sustainable Fisheries Strategy (the Strategy) and the working group noted that the second round of proposed regulatory amendments to implement the fisheries reforms are still to be considered by Government.  For the Reef Line Fishery there are a number of red tape reduction measures still subject to consideration.  The working group noted that they were outlined for progress in 2019 and were concerned that they had not yet been implemented. 

The working group noted the process and consultation undertaken to develop a final recommended harvest strategy for the Reef Line Fishery.  The Harvest Strategy aligns the fishery with the Sustainable Fisheries Strategy and meets key objectives to set sustainable catch limits based on achieving maximum economic yield (MEY), or a proxy of 60% biomass, establish decision rules for setting the TACC on a biennial basis and rules setting out when these decision rules should be departed from as well as other ‘triggers’ for management actions.

The working group discussed and noted the results of consultation on the draft harvest strategy which was released for public consultation in December to January 2020.  Thirty seven formal responses were received, with mixed feedback.  Most unsupportive comments were found to be less about the harvest strategy itself and more around fisheries and regulatory reform (e.g. shark depredation, reform process). Generally stakeholders were supportive of the approach outlined in the harvest strategy.  A key change following consultation was to use a more universal approach that simplifies the TACC setting process and allows for a smoother transition across a range of target reference points known as the ‘hockey stick rule’ (i.e. for rebuilding a stock). The working group noted the final draft harvest strategy has been endorsed by the Expert Panel and is now subject to approvals in accordance with the Fisheries Act 1994.

Fisheries Queensland provided a brief outline of the stock assessment undertaken for common coral trout, and explained a number of improvements to the process and model. This approach will now be used for all assessments of this stock for the next five years to ensure timely, repeatable and comparable stock assessment outputs. The working group noted the stock assessment estimated the spawning biomass for common coral trout at 59% of unfished levels with a Total Allowable Catch (TAC) of 1034 tonnes to build the stock back to 60% spawning biomass.  The coral trout quota group includes all species of coral trout caught in Queensland, with common coral trout accounting for the majority of the catch. To account for the other species of coral trout in the coral trout quota group TAC, the common coral trout TAC (1034) is scaled up by 4.5% resulting in a recommended TAC of 1081 tonnes for all coral trout species in Queensland for 2020/21.

Applying the harvest strategy and taking into account the sectoral allocations (80% commercial and 20% recreational/charter, this would recommend a TACC of 865 tonnes and a total recreational harvest of 216 tonnes in 2020/21.  Fisheries Queensland advised that the harvest strategy also provides a maximum change of 200 tonnes and consideration of social and economic issues in making recommendations.  The working group noted that at 59% biomass there is a good level of sustainability for common coral trout and coral trout quota is expected to be significantly under caught in 2019/20 (current commercial catch is only 549 tonnes) as a result of COVID-19 impacts. 

The working group all agreed that the unprecedented impacts of COVID-19 need to be accounted for in setting the TACC.  The working group recommended no change to the TACC for the 2020-21 fishing season but made this recommendation on the basis it be reconsidered by the working group in 2021.  It was noted that the current estimate is based on data up to the end of 2019, which does not reflect the impacts of COVID-19 on the abundance of the stock. The working group members also recommended an updated stock assessment be provided to inform setting catch limits ahead of the 2021-22 fishing season.  The following concerns were also raised by members;

  • the need to better understand the TACC setting processes and how the stock assessment determines recommended catch levels particularly as the outcomes are critical to economic viability of the commercial operators;
  • implications of repeated coral bleaching events on the status of the stock; and
  • a commitment to implementing the harvest control rules with a 1 year delay, i.e a reduction to the TACC for the 2021/22 fishing season unless a revised stock assessment informs a different recommendation on setting the TACC for the 2021-22 fishing season. 

The working group noted five OS species (red emperor, spangled emperor, stripey snapper, gold band snapper and saddle tail snapper) and RTE were above the 20 tonne threshold and progressed for assessment against trigger II. After assessment against trigger II (1.5 X 2011-2015 avg.), no species were found to be above 20t and increased to more than 1.5 times above the historical average. As a result no further management action was deemed to be required.  In relation to catch triggers for the charter sector, two species, namely red throat emperor and tusk fish group, are greater than 20 tonnes, but none had experienced increases in harvest by greater than 30% from the previous calendar year and were deemed to require no further action.  There is no new data for the recreational sector and as a result no further action was deemed to be required.

Fisheries Queensland advised that a revised stock assessment could account for changes in catch associated with COVID-19 and that we would work with the working group out-of-session on the next stock assessment. The working group noted the next meeting to consider TACC setting for the 2021-22 fishing season will occur in March 2021.  Noting, the working group requested a separate meeting before this to discuss in more detail, the science relevant for this fishery.

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 (Barry Dun, 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 (Simon Miller).