Fish stocks report shows urgent reforms needed to counter climate crisis impacts

The latest evaluation of 100 Australian fish stocks shows that many are declining and urgent reforms are needed to fisheries management to counter the impacts of the climate crisis, the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) says.

The evaluation of 22 Commonwealth-managed fisheries by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) found that around a third (33 of the 100) of fish stocks assessed were classified as uncertain, overfished or subject to overfishing.

More fish stocks were assessed for the 2021 report than last year’s evaluation. There has been little or no progress made to improve stocks classified as uncertain, overfished or subject to overfishing in that time.

AMCS Sustainable Seafood Program Manager Adrian Meder said the figures, combined with a recently released CSIRO report on the projected impacts to seafood species in Australia from global warming, show reforms to fisheries management are urgently required, particularly in the south east.

“These reforms will be needed in order to maintain healthy and sustainable fish stocks that support fishing communities and balanced ocean environments in the south east – a known climate change hotspot, warming at 3 to 4 times the global average,” he said.

“There are management problems in these fisheries which have been problematic for many years. Some stocks, like the endangered school shark, have been overfished since the ’90s. Climate change impacts are going to make these management issues even worse.

“One of the fisheries most concerning to us is the Southern and Eastern Scalefish and Shark Fishery (SESSF), which operates across southeastern Australia. This huge fishery has driven several fish stocks that used to be among its mainstays such as school shark, orange roughy and the eatern gemfish onto Australia’s endangered species list. More than 60% of the fish stocks caught in this fishery are continuing to decline or failing to recover.

“Recently released CSIRO climate projections predict a 40% decline in the next 20 years for some of the current major targets of the fishery, including blue grenadier and orange roughy. Instead of climate-safe management, both these fisheries have allowed a massive increase in effort from a New Zealand-owned fleet of industrial freezer trawlers in recent years. Yet current management arrangements do not explicitly consider the rapidly changing climate these fisheries operate in.

“Unless reforms are introduced, we are now expecting more fish stocks in the SESSF to end up on Australia’s endangered species list than on any list of fully recovered stocks in the foreseeable future. That is no good place for our Commonwealth-managed fisheries to be.”

Mr Meder said the SESSF needs to immediately introduce climate-resilient catch limits, and introduce cameras on boats to reduce the uncertainties around how much fish is being caught and brought to market, and how much is being discarded at sea and unreported. The data will help fisheries managers make more informed decisions to ensure the sustainability of fish stocks.

Mr Meder added the ABARES figures show that progress made in rebuilding fish stocks following a $220m taxpayer-funded bail out 16 years ago appear to have ceased.

“The goal back then was to rebuild all these fish stocks, and much of it should have happened by now. But the progress made appears to have halted around five years ago,” said Mr Meder.

“Some of that money should have been spent on cameras on boats. In 2021, there are cameras on boats in only three of the 22 AFMA-managed fisheries.”

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