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<p>AAP Image/Neil Vincent</p>

AAP Image/Neil Vincent

Australian Fur Seals, commonly seen in southeastern Australian Waters

The Super Trawler’s High-Tech Secret Seal-Saving Device

Hang on, isn’t that just a small hole in the most enormous net you’ve ever seen?

A frazzled receptionist was answering phone calls this week to Seafish Tasmania, the company responsible for luring the world's second largest mega-trawler to Australian waters (though it now seems unlikely to catch a single Australian fish).

The poor woman complained that amid the saturation publicity (200 media calls a day) being given to her boss's efforts to operate the 9,499-tonne super-trawler in Australian waters, someone had signed her up to receive daily emails from a dizzying number of religious websites. So many, they were causing the company's email server to crash.

“Any animal that dies in this way, dies a pretty horrible death.”

Emails from Religion Today and The Wisdom Retreat were being redirected straight to the junk mail folder, she said.

Perhaps, given that the nation's parliament is in the midst of banning its megatrawler from the area, the director of Seafish Tasmania Gerry Geen will now have the time to trawl back through that junk email folder and fish out any bit of wisdom he can get his hands on.

On September 12, Geen wrote in an article published in Fairfax newspapers that Seafish Tasmania had carried out research, along with a leading marine research institute, into what he called the "highly emotive issue" of dolphins and seals getting caught up in big trawling nets. And that Seafish Tasmania now has a special device which "will lead these animals to escape".

Seafish Tasmania did participate in research that was conducted by the University of Tasmania's Aquaculture and Fisheries Institute over 13 months to February of 2007.

The research was paid for by the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA), through the Natural Heritage Trust and the Research Fund, the federal Department of Environment and Water Resources and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.

Not a dollar came from Seafish Tasmania, according to the Institute's communications manager.

Seafish Tasmania's role was to allow scientists to use its trawler, the 800-tonne F/V Ellidi, and having its crew help them set video cameras in mid-water trawl nets during trawling operations to assess different devices designed to allow seals and dolphins — air-breathing creatures — to escape from the nets before they drowned.

<p>Chris Crerar/Newspix</p>

Chris Crerar/Newspix

Seafish Tasmania Director Gerry Geen

The F/V Ellidi had already had its fair share of heartache over the issue of bycatch.

Back in late 2004, the trawler accidentally caught 17 dolphins in its nets in three separate incidents in waters off Flinders and Maria islands, even though it had escape devices in its nets.

(A formal AFMA investigation eventually declared the incidents "an unexpected and unusual occurrence" and concluded that Seafish Tasmania had not breached any laws or permit conditions.)

During the 2007 bycatch research project, more than 700 hours of video footage was taken, showing about 170 seals swimming into the nets to steal fish during trawling.

Some of the video footage can be seen on Seafish Tasmania's website. It shows what are most probably Australian fur seals escaping safely from the net through what is called a "seal exclusion device".

But the research, published in 2008, actually showed these failed rather a lot, leaving perhaps as many as 27 seals dead. That's about 17 per cent of all seals which entered the nets. What's more, some of them drowned after getting tangled up in the very safety device, designed to offer them an escape.

The photo gallery in this story shows a still image from that video footage included in the Tasmanian Aquaculture and Fisheries Institute report. It shows a dead seal actually wedged through the bars of a special grid, designed to prevent seals and dolphins swimming further into the net.

“The lessons learnt from this study were applied to the design of an excluder device that will lead these animals to an escape. We are confident this device works. ”

Dr Mike Bosley, a marine biologist with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, which was involved in the research, says such deaths are always a concern because seals and dolphins are air-breathing creatures and slowly drown when they become caught in the nets.

"Any animal that dies in this way, dies a pretty horrible death," he says.

The Australian Fisheries Management Authority is refusing to allow the University of Tasmania's researchers to release any more of the moving video footage, including the parts that shows seal deaths.

In a statement defending its decision to withhold release of the video footage to The Global Mail, AFMA said "Making all footage taken on these trips publicly available will undermine industry confidence in AFMA and jeopardise our ability to use commercial voyages to conduct cost-effective and realistic research that is supported by industry. In turn, this will slow the development of more selective and innovative fishing gear and practices."

But it’s not just The Global Mail asking to see the video. The office of the federal Environment Minister has been seeking the footage all week. Hundreds of hours of the material has now arrived at the Environment Department, waiting to be viewed by some unlucky public servant.

It's a week that has seen ample evidence of a strained relationship between the federal  Minister for the Environment Tony Burke, and AFMA with the minister quoted in parliament saying:  "I do not believe they have been precautionary enough."

Nevertheless Geen seemed confident this week, that Seafish Tasmania has solved the problem of bycatch.

Geen's Fairfax article continued "the lessons learnt from this study were applied to the design of an excluder device that will lead these animals to an escape. We are confident this device works". While confident, he hastened to add, the excluder device still would be monitored by an AFMA "bycatch mitigation expert" and a "European net and excluder design expert". (Of course, carrying an AFMA observer is not an option, it's a requirement.)

The Global Mail asked Seafish Tasmania to send us pictures and details of this new excluder device, but they did not respond to our enquiries. Nor did they choose to comment on any other aspect of the story.

What is certain is that the device tested by the University of Tasmania in 2006/7 — significant international research — did not "lead animals to an escape".

“A smaller trawler with a smaller net might get five seals whereas a bigger vessel might get 20 or 30 before they knew what was happening.”

According to Dr. Bosley even calling it an "exclusion device" is "a bit of a misnomer".

"It doesn't exclude seals and dolphins," says Dr Bosley. "In theory it allows them to escape."

The photos in the Tasmanian Aquaculture and Fisheries Institute report reveal that a “seal exclusion device”, which the scientists call a “SED”, is actually not much more than a hole in the net, coupled with a set of steel bars designed to prevent seals and dolphins swimming too far into the net.

It's a bit like calling a door a "human exclusion device". The scientists concluded that the bigger the escape hole, the better the seal's chance of escaping. Well, yes.

Dr Bosley also said the Institute's research provided no insights on whether the SEDs were useful for dolphins, because no dolphins entered the nets during the 13 months of research. It's left him puzzled as to how Geen can be so confident his device works.

"How can he say that, if there is known bycatch [the seals which died during the research] and it's unknown how dolphins would respond to it?" he asks.

Bosley also makes the point that as far as he is aware, no one has any idea of how effective these devices would be in the giant nets — 600 metres by 200 metres — which are dragged behind Seafish Tasmania's mega trawler, formerly the Margiris, now known as the Abel Tasman after its ill-fated sojourn down under.

"A smaller trawler with a smaller net might get five seals whereas a bigger vessel might get 20 or 30 before they knew what was happening," he says. "And the cameras used in the trials were only at the boat end of the net where the escape hatch is. They don't provide information about the other end. You could have mammals dying down there."

<p>Courtesy WDCS</p>

Courtesy WDCS

Dr Mike Bosley of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society

The lead co-author of the Tasmanian Aquaculture and Fisheries Institute report, Dr Jeremy Lyle agreed that his research proved that these escape hatches work only "up to a point" and that figuring out whether they would work in bigger nets was not certain but an open question.

"Of course it is!" he said, "Until it's been tested in real life, then we won't really know how well it works".

Also under scrutiny is the scientific rigour AFMA has brought to determining whether this mega-trawler should ever have been given the green light to trawl Australian waters and specifically if AFMA should have doubled the allowable quota of jack mackerel, the small pelagic fish that would have been the main catch for the super trawler.

Contributing to this controversy is that Geen was a member of the AFMA committee that increased the jack mackerel quota from 5,000 tonnes to 10,600 tonnes.

The minutes of the March 2012 AFMA meeting showing that Geen noted his "direct conflict of interest as a Director of Seafish Tasmania" but still took part in discussions. He did not, however, take part in the vote taken by the committee to increase the quota.

After concerns about this process were brought to independent MP Andrew Wilkie, he reported them to the Commonwealth Ombudsman, who is investigating why Geen was not ejected from the discussion phase of the meeting in line with the committee's rules.

Ties between AFMA and the industry, specifically Seafish Tasmania, are not unknown; Stuart Richey was on the founding board of AFMA, as well as being chair of the regulator. A couple of years after his departure from the AFMA board in 2001, he says, he became the independent chair of Seafish Tasmania, a position he told The Global Mail he held for around six years until his resignation in August 2011.

Such information might be useful, but asking fishermen to guess how many fish are in the sea ... doesn’t exactly sound like the last word in scientific rigour.

The scientific argument over the quota of jack mackeral revolves around the rates of egg production of the small fish — a major indicator of healthy stocks — and whether the AFMA committee should have relied, as they did, on a survey from 2002 to make the quota decision.

But AFMA has limited funds for scientific research. In response to questions from The Global Mail this week, AFMA has confirmed that of it's total budget of $41.44 million, only about $3.2 million was spent on researching target stocks in 2011-12.

Furthermore, AFMA has confirmed that at least some of the information about the health of our fisheries comes from the industry itself, through a logbook program. According to an AFMA spokesperson, the authority uses information "collected in logbooks … to inform formal stock assessments".

Such information might be useful, but asking fishermen to guess how many fish are in the sea — even if it is cross-referenced with the observations of on-board observers and whatever state fisheries agencies might know, doesn't exactly sound like the last word in scientific rigour.

After the public outcry about the super-trawler, Minister Burke rushed through legislation which would allow the environment and fisheries ministers the power to suspend operations on fishing vessels pending further research. Following the passage of the bill through the House of Representatives on Thursday, after some hasty amendments from cross benchers, it is expected to pass the Senate next week.

With all the scrutiny on AFMA, the Labor government has also announced a review of the floundering fishing management authorities.

Read more Ellen Fanning stories on a radical new plan to improve Indigenous Australians' access to tertiary education; weighing the toll of obesity on the world's population count; and the equal parts dogged and diplomatic lobbying effort behind the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

1 comment on this story
by Monique

I just went to the SeaFish Tasmania website, it read “It will not do any detectable harm to those populations. The seal populations and the dolphin, most of the dolphin populations and seal populations in Australia are actually increasing significantly. And there’s plenty of seals there and there’s plenty of food there for them. And humans are predators also and we need to eat fishes. As I said, we import 70 to 75% of the fish that we eat and we need more. We manage it extremely sustainably and based on the recent track record of Australian fisheries you can be very confident that this fishery will be sustainably managed”. It really is how it's worded, they've done a good job at fooling the nation.

October 5, 2013 @ 7:19pm
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