by Jeni Bone
In a new blow to the commercial fishing industry, the New South Wales Minister for Primary Industries, Katrina Hodgkinson has proposed a raft of new reforms for the commercial fishing industry, citing the benefits for 'the long-term viability and sustainability of the State’s fisheries resources'.
Batemans Bay - holiday haven and fishing town
Central to the changes are an initial fee increase from July 2013, moving towards fees based on resource access.
'A lack of investment, ageing commercial fishing fleets, too many fishers through poorly allocated fishing rights, and excessive red tape has stifled the industry,' Minister Hodgkinson said.
'With 85 per cent of seafood sold in NSW being imported, these new changes are needed to ensure that there is a continued availability of fresh, local seafood.'
Esmay Hropic, third generation prawn fisher in Batemans Bay sees the proposed reforms as the death knell for the local fishing industry.
'There are just under 1,000 commercial fishers in NSW, and the Minister is proposing cutting this by half in two years. Our fees going up 40% next year, then they will start charging us per share. The more shares you buy, the more nights you can fish.
'These are huge reforms that will impact on fishing families. It will drive people out of business.
'We are totally dumbstruck by this. This will be the end of the town and the whole south coast.
Esmay Hropic - professional prawner
'The co-ops are on the brink, the ice works are close to going out of business, the diesel suppliers for the boats and the truck drivers won’t have work, and we will be importing 95% of our seafood.
'Once the fishers are gone, there won’t be seafood coming to the co-ops. The fishing licenses are going up 40%, which means it will cost them more to catch it and they will pass that price on to the public. People will then say ‘why will I pay $40 per kilo for local prawns when I can get imported stuff from Woolies and Coles for $15 a kilo’.
'People in small towns are struggling now without these so-called reforms. Fishermen are going to close up and say why bother? Those who do stay on, are risking their lives on the road driving 300km round trip to catch fish for their local community.'
This weekend, Esmay has arranged meetings with government officials – a Senator, local Member of Parliament and advocate for the fishing industry – who will travel from Canberra to Batemans Bay to discuss the issues and the prospects of getting back some fishing grounds.
'They want to raise fees, but we're still locked out. We have less water to fish. We want to work with them. We want to go to work, feed the community with fish and prawns that are fresh, local, clean and affordable.
'We are asking for a review of the zoning, to be granted a permit to conduct independent scientific trials to prove there is no reason it should be closed, to prove that our modern methods are workable, sustainable and of benefit to the community.'
Some, like former fisher, Matt Barber, see the reforms as the first step in a larger 'conspiracy'.
'The fish stocks are there, we just can't get to them. The attraction of little towns like Batemans Bay is for tourists to come and enjoy local seafood while they look at the water. Fishing underpins tourism. When they can't get that, and eventually, when there's no bait and tackle shop, no fuel, people will stop coming.'
Matt is already seeing this first hand. He is skipper on a Clyde River ferry that takes tourists 20km up the river and back again. They tell him they are planning to drive another two and a half hours south to Merimbula because they can fish there.
'I tell them they can fish in Batemans Bay, but only in certain places. But because there are 'invisible boundaries', nobody wants to risk it and get caught. There's that uncertainty. Nobody wants a $750 or $2000 fine.'
Matt's own fishing business went under a few years ago. On boats since he was 17, alongside his dad, also a commercial fisher, he bought his own trawler at 24 with help from his mum and her retirement payout.
During the drought years with back to back El Nino conditions, which impacted on prawn breeding, Matt managed to make a living with other fishing methods.
'Then the marine parks came and we couldn't operate. We can't just relocate. We have thousands of dollars invested in boats and equipment. Now they want to increase the fees. Even if I could afford another $100,000, it would be for no extra gain.'
Matt surmises that the government is aiming for 'five big operators', like the supertrawler.
'They've squeezed out all the smaller fishers and now they're going to price out those that are left. It will wipe out the industry and leave it open to the multinationals. We are selling ourselves out and if our forebears who fought and died for this country could see this, they'd be disgusted. Aussies have lost their rights to employment.'
More at http://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/fisheries/commercial/reform