$220m Lure to Buy out Fishers

More than 1000 commercial fishers are likely to be bought out of the industry, on-shore businesses closed down and retailers forced to import more seafood under a Howard Government plan to replenish Australia’s vulnerable fish stocks.

Through a $220million package detailed by Fisheries Minister Ian Macdonald yesterday, the Government will attempt to buy back half of the 1200 commonwealth fishing licences in the biggest-ever restructure of the beleaguered industry.

“It is a fact well accepted by the industry that there are too many boats chasing too few fish in many of our fisheries,” Senator Macdonald said.

The Australian Fisheries Management Authority will reduce the allowed catch in 17 key fisheries in southern, eastern and northern waters from next year, and enforce more sustainable fishing practices.

Tenders will be called from all licence-holders in commonwealth fisheries under the buyback but the Government is mainly targeting the southern and eastern scalefish and shark fisheries off southern Australia, the eastern tuna and billfish fishery that stretches from Cape York to the South Australia-Victoria border, and the Bass Strait central zone scallop fishery.

Restrictions will also be applied to the northern prawn fishery, and $70 million of the funding will be used to restructure onshore elements of the industry.

Senator Macdonald said those operators who remained would be more profitable, but some communities, particularly along the southeast coast, would struggle as operators took the opportunity to quit the industry.

“My fairly extensive contact with fishermen around Australia … tells me there are many of them just hanging on by their fingernails,” he said.

“Many of them will grab at this lifeline being offered to them by this Government and get out with some dignity.”

Australian Seafood Industry Council chairman Bob Pennington cautiously welcomed the plan and said it would finally provide older operators with the “superannuation” that they needed to retire on.

Mr Pennington said overfishing, overcapitalisation, increased domestic and international competition and rising costs had put the squeeze on the industry in recent years and the Government had been slow to act.

But he did not know if the funding on offer would be fair and equitable. “With the industry having gone through the really horrendous situation involving the Great Barrier Reef, we’d hate to see a repeat of that,” Mr Pennington said, referring to forced restrictions and a limited buyback that prompted a political revolt against the Queensland and federal governments.

Australian Conservation Foundation marine campaign co-ordinator Chris Smyth said the package was long overdue, given that the number of overfished species had risen from three to 17 since the Howard Government came to power in 1996.

He said any attempt to replenish the fish stocks was welcome, but the Government could have done more about marine parks and had only outlined short-term catch reductions.

Mr Smyth called on the Government to properly manage the buyback scheme, warning against a repeat of the assistance offered to the sugar industry, which still had key players “coming back for more”.

Senator Macdonald acknowledged retailers would have fewer local suppliers and that prices may go up but reiterated the Government had to take action to make the industry, and fish stocks, sustainable.

Fishing is not the only industry in which governments have provided incentives for workers to leave the sector for more sustainable opportunities.

Since 1971, the commonwealth has been offering farm exit packages, with significant programs aimed the dairy, pork and sugar industries in the past 10 years.

Source: The Australian