New guides to future fisheries

New science and technologies help managers build on the fundamentals of sustainable fisheries

By Catherine Norwood

Conversations around the sustainability of Australian fisheries have come a long way since the status of individual species was singled out as the primary indicator of performance.

From a single species, to multi-species fisheries, bycatch, habitats and now even the performance of fisheries managers themselves – all of these have come under scrutiny as fisheries management continues to evolve.

New guidelines released in November 2018 are part of this increasingly integrated approach, adding to the rigour of Australia’s Commonwealth fisheries management processes. They provide an evidence-driven approach that could also provide value in other fisheries jurisdictions around Australia. They are:

  • Guidelines for the implementation of the Commonwealth Fisheries Harvest Strategy Policy; and
  • Guidelines for the implementation of the Commonwealth Fisheries Bycatch Policy.

The first of these, the revised Harvest Strategy Policy guidelines, was co-funded by the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources and the FRDC, and is a companion to the updated Commonwealth Fisheries Harvest Strategy Policy. The originals of both of these harvest strategy documents were released in 2007.

In launching the updated editions late last year, Assistant Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources Senator Richard Colbeck said they provided the foundation for the management of Commonwealth fisheries, carried out through the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA). This included a framework for an evidence-based approach to setting sustainable harvest levels.

“The policy now gives even greater guidance on managing for variability in our ocean environment, and more explicit consideration of recreational and Indigenous fishers,” Senator Richard Colbeck said.

“It also ensures consistency of management across fisheries to provide the industry with a more certain operating environment.”

Harvest strategies

In the Commonwealth, harvest strategies are a set of pre-agreed rules designed to achieve defined biological and economic objectives for commercial fish stocks in a given fishery.

The key biological objective in the policy is to maintain with high confidence all fish stocks above a biomass limit where the risk to the stock is regarded as unacceptable (the biomass limit reference point).

When the original Commonwealth Harvest Strategy Policy was introduced more than a decade ago, a primary objective was to maximise economic returns from each fishery. It formally introduced maximum economic yield (MEY) as the target for Commonwealth fisheries management.

“MEY is usually a more biologically conservative approach than maximum sustainable yield (MSY), and it focuses on the economic performance of the fishery rather than the maximum yield that may be achieved for a stock,” says James Larcombe, senior fisheries scientist with the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences, who has led the redrafting of the harvest strategy guidelines. “In general, MEY focuses on maximising the value from fishing rather than maximising the quantity of catch. This often means that more fish are left in the water, increasing a fisher’s catch rates, which in turn increases profitability.”

Since the introduction of the first Commonwealth Fisheries Harvest Strategy Policy in 2007, overfished or depleted stocks have been rebuilding. No fish stock solely managed by the Commonwealth has been classified as subject to overfishing since 2012. The value of Commonwealth fisheries has seen improvements over the same period (Table 1).

James Larcombe says these results, and the generally positive feedback from stakeholders, pointed to the success of the original Harvest Strategy Policy and guidelines. But following an extensive review, the second edition of the Harvest Strategy Policy and guidelines have been updated to incorporate more than a decade of new fisheries science and experience in implementing harvest strategies along with feedback from stakeholders.

Some key changes include the application of the policy to byproduct species, more direction on meeting environmental and economic objectives in multi-species fisheries, additional clarity around internationally managed fisheries, and guidance on applying harvest strategies under changing environmental and climatic conditions.

“In this edition of the guidelines we have also really focused on how to design harvest strategies that target maximum economic returns across the wide range of fisheries that AFMA manages,” James Larcombe says. “For example, in the valuable Northern Prawn Fishery, harvest levels are determined from a complex bioeconomic model designed to maximise future profits across four different species.

“In the guidelines we also suggest approaches that are suitable for smaller, lower value fisheries, and other kinds, that seek to balance the costs of implementing a harvest strategy while at the same time delivering on the policy requirements for sustainability and profitability.”

Proactive management

Australian management agencies have been on the front foot for many years when it comes to managing for, and demonstrating, the sustainability of fisheries, says Alistair Hobday, research director of marine resources and industries at CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere. “Many countries have a harvest strategy; we’re one of the few that has a bycatch policy as well.”

Alistair Hobday and his team have developed the new Guidelines for the implementation of the Commonwealth Fisheries Bycatch Policy, which supports the recently revised Commonwealth Fisheries Bycatch Policy, both released last year. The original Commonwealth bycatch policy dates back to 2000.

Key revisions in the policy include improved guidance on species classification and policy coverage for all species, and the inclusion of a risk-based approach to monitoring, assessing and managing bycatch. There is consideration of cumulative impacts on bycatch species, and a performance monitoring and reporting framework is also provided.

The development of the new bycatch guidelines was funded by the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources.

Alistair Hobday says the revised policy and new guidelines consolidate and extend existing practices to minimise the impact of fishing on bycatch. The aim is to reduce bycatch to the lowest levels possible through a process of continual improvement. “We don’t set any acceptable level of bycatch. If it has no commercial value our aim is to reduce it to zero.”

However, ‘value’ is a nuanced issue when it comes to bycatch, he says, as some species that could be consumed are often returned to the water because of their low market value. “It’s not just about the fishers; it’s also about the consumers. If Australian seafood consumers eat more broadly they can help us reduce bycatch by eating the things that are caught in association with other species.”

The bycatch guidelines in particular provide impetus to improve data collection to help fishers demonstrate that they are meeting the obligations. This was identified as a gap in existing practices, and has reinforced the need for cost-effective and smart data collection through technologies such as electronic monitoring and digital logbooks, which can provide fast, easy and accurate reporting, in near real time.

Table 1: Commonwealth fisheries production 2006–07 to 2016–17
 Year  Volume (t)  Value $ $/t 
 2006–07  56,855  294,191  5174
 2007–08  56,277  288,933  5134
 2008–09  51,467  314,692  6114
 2009–10  46,630  305,994  6562
 2010–11  46,840  320,811  6849
 2011–12  43,186  308,244  7137
 2012–13  39,118  317,814  8124
 2013–14  42,907  340,453  7934
 2014–15  41,868  350,276  8366
 2015–16  56,773  438,829  7729
 2016–17  48,592  403,350  8300

Source: Australian fisheries and aquaculture statistics 2017, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences

National best practice guidelines for Australian fisheries management agencies

Alistair Hobday has also been involved in the development of the Best practice guidelines for Australian fisheries management agencies. Unlike the other documents, which have been developed to help AFMA deliver against specific policy requirements, these guidelines have much broader application.

They provide a voluntary framework to evaluate the core functions that a management agency is likely to undertake. There are 21 core functions, across the following five categories:

  • development of policy and legislation – setting the stage for good management;
  • operational management – day-to-day functions for management agencies;
  • review and performance evaluation – checking agency performance;
  • communication and reporting – outward-facing agency communication; and
  • cross cutting – issues that are explicit or implicit in many management functions.

“In order to have a sustainable fish species and sustainable fisheries, management agencies need good practice, although that, by itself, is not enough for healthy fish stocks,” Alistair Hobday says.

“But if all of these functions are done well, then an agency will be well positioned to deliver on the goal of sustainable fisheries.”

To test the guidelines, a series of 10 case studies was developed. These case studies involved the Tasmanian and Western Australian abalone fisheries, the Lakes and Coorong and emerging Periwinkle (turbo) fishery in South Australia, the Northern Territory’s offshore snapper and mud crab fisheries, rock lobster in Victoria, Spanner Crab in NSW, the Coral Reef Fin Fish Fishery in Queensland and the Commonwealth Northern Prawn Fishery.

Alistair Hobday says it was a satisfying outcome to see that the guidelines could be applied equally across large and small, new and established fisheries.

He sees best practice as a process of continual improvement – one that could eventually lead to the creation of a fisheries management standard. “In the same way that we certify seafood as being safe by following certain food handling standards, agencies, in time, may want to demonstrate to the outside world that they are capable of being audited and passing performance standards,” he says.

“Adopting guidelines is a step on the journey. Sometimes actually moving to a standard might provide a benefit in transparency and market access. In other cases, guidelines will continue to be sufficient.”

FRDC Research Codes: 2016-234, 2015-203, 2015-2018, 2010-061

More information

The Commonwealth Fisheries Harvest Strategy Policy and guidelines

The Commonwealth Fisheries Bycatch Policy and guidelines

The Best practice guidelines for Australian fisheries management agencies is available from the FRDC’s website

James Larcombe

Alistair Hobday