darren.chester.mp@aph.gov.au 1300 131 785
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February 9, 2012

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (12:47): I rise to raise concerns about the extraordinary increase in licence fees charged by the Australian Fisheries Management Authority to commercial fishing operators in my electorate. It has come to my attention that AFMA fees have increased to such an extent that they are threatening the future viability of fishermen in the region. At least one person has indicated that the increase in fees has been so exorbitant that it will be uneconomical for them to continue in their small business. By way of explanation, in the past three years the licence fee for that particular business has increased from $5,287 to $7,138, and this year it is to increase further to $14,183. I am struggling to think of any other business that has had to bear such exorbitant fee increases in such a short period of time. As a small operator they have decided that it is simply not worth going to sea just to pay a licence fee to the government.

Another account has been provided to me by a larger operator who has had an increase in fees from $35,000 to $45,000 in one calendar year. This particular operator wrote to me and said:

The only explanation I can get for the increase is that management costs have risen. In recent years the Lakes co-op— that is, the Lakes Entrance co-op— has participated in a three year co management trial with AFMA in a bid to reduce the costs of management. This effort and the results seem to have been largely ignored and brushed aside. If these increases were to continue at this rate it would make it extremely hard to run a profitable business as we are unable to pass the costs on. The increase also impacts the income of our crew as their wages are based on a percentage of the catch. It seems as if AFMA are unable to run to their allocated budgets and the industry is being forced to cover the shortfall.

It is impossible for fishermen to budget with any certainty whatsoever when they are hit with such exorbitant fee increases. The fishermen simply cannot pass on these costs to consumers because they operate in a market based system, and I fear the local economy will suffer considerably if the individual operators have less disposable income.

By way of background, Lakes Entrance is home to one of Australia’s largest and most diverse fishing fleets, with an average of about 6,000 tonnes per year landed at the port by Commonwealth operators. As I said, every dollar the government takes in AFMA licence fees is another dollar that is not available to be spent in our town.

I have written to the federal minister and urged him to intervene and help secure the future viability of the Lakes Entrance fishing industry. Keep in mind that the regional economy is already under pressure, and stripping wealth out of Lakes Entrance to prop up a bureaucracy that cannot live within its means will be a significant blow to my community. Over the years, the commercial fishing industry has been hit with a constant barrage of new challenges, ranging from cuts in their quotas to increases in fuel prices, competition from cheap overseas imports and reduced access to fishing grounds due to oil and gas activities in Bass Strait and the government imposed reserves. As one industry source said to me, ‘If we continue on this path, there will be nothing left to manage.’

On a separate but related topic to fishery resources, I want to take the opportunity to remind Gippslanders and visitors to my region of the need to be well informed when it comes to state government rules and regulations. As someone who has occasionally dived recreationally for abalone in the past, I have become aware of regulation changes which may not be widely known throughout the community. There are now regulations that prevent the taking of abalone from an area that is described as the intertidal zone, but for all intents and purposes the intertidal zone means water less than two metres deep. As I found out, to considerable personal expense, fisheries officers are patrolling the Gippsland coast and will issue on-the-spot infringement notices for any breaches. Of course, ignorance of these regulations is no defence for any recreational diver and I have paid my on-the-spot fines, but it is timely to remind all recreational fishermen to keep abreast of these changes.

I thought I was quite well informed of these regulations about the need to hold a current recreational fishing licence, the revised bag limits and the catch sizes, but I was totally unaware of the two-metre ruling and the need to carry a flat-headed device for removing abalone from the rocks.

As someone who reads local papers and tries to keep up with the latest in regulations it concerns me that I was not aware of these changes, which were made several years ago, so I thought I would take the time to check with other locals I knew had taken abalone in the past. From the conversations I have had in recent weeks with several of friends and colleagues, some of them parliamentarians in fact, and other recreational fishermen, anecdotally it appears that there is quite a gap in knowledge in the community and that it is quite significant. I have heard of other people who have been fined recently through lack of understanding of these and other fisheries regulations, and I believe we need to do more to make sure that everyone who plans to take marine life is better informed.

Managing our fisheries is a serious issue, which I think members on both sides of the House take seriously, and the enforcement officers have a very important job to do. But there is also a need to make sure we improve the education and awareness about regulations, particularly when those regulations change. It does not help, of course, when signage which has been erected for that purpose at popular recreational areas such as Cape Conran, where I was visiting, has been vandalised to the extent that it is actually unreadable. But there are other sources of information and I refer people to websites and to the recreational fishing licence handbook, which is updated regularly. I would urge all recreational fishermen to get a copy and familiarise themselves with it for the species they are targeting.

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