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Changes in Fishing Capacity and Ownership of Harvesting Rights in the New South Wales Abalone Fishery, A. McIlgorm and A. Goulstone[87]

Dominion Consulting Pty Ltd,
Suite 7&8, 822 Old Princess Highway, Sutherland NSW 2232, Australia
NSW Fisheries, Cronulla Fisheries Centre, PO Box 21, Cronulla NSW 2230, Australia


The abalone (Haliotis rubra) fishery is a single-species high-value fishery fished by divers exploiting a gastropod mollusc, which lives on the seabed among seaweed adjacent to shore, generally in water depths of less than 20 metres. The divers prefer “Hookah gear” which enables them to breathe using airlines, from small boats whose length is generally not in excess of 8m. A diver would have a crew member assisting him, though there are strict rules over who is entitled to dive in the fishery.

The fishery is driven by overseas demand for abalone with Australia supplying approximately 60-70% of the world market for this species. The abalone sector across Australia has approximately 300 licensed divers and had a value of $A181 million (price at first sale) in 1997-98, being approximately 12% of the total value of Australian fisheries (McIlgorm and Tsamenyi 2000). The NSW abalone fishery is small, producing 333 tonnes in the 1997-98 fishing season and having a value at first sale of $11m for the 1997-98 season. International demand plays a crucial part in keeping the NSW abalone fishery profitable.

Abalone (Haliotis rubra)

Photo credit: Dianna Watkins, NSW Fisheries
The fishery commenced in the 1960s. The largest catches were in the early 1970s, though prices were low until the development of exports to Japan in the late 1970s. Regulations changed causing the shucking of shellfish at sea to be moved: first to wharfs, and then to within processing premises. A minimum shell-size limit of 100mm was introduced in 1977 to curtail over-exploitation, and at that time many transient fishers moved to dive in the neighbouring state of Victoria. By the end of the 1970s the impact of good markets in Japan was being felt by the fishery, and many enthusiasts and amateur dive-club members decided to become specialised abalone divers. Many divers bought fast “sharkcat” vessels giving the industry a glamorous image.

The abalone fishery is the oldest managed fishery in NSW, and access was first restricted in 1980. Since then the fishery has seen a reduction in numbers of diver/operators due to a combination of regulations, restructuring, and further development of fishing-rights regimes. This case study examines the changes in fishering-capacity as the fishery has moved from being managed through a general fishing licence, to species-specific limited-entry licensing, going through several adjustment-schemes and the eventual introduction of Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs). In NSW limited-entry and ITQ-management has been followed by the share-management system, which augments quota-holdings with recognised and compensatable fishing-rights under the NSW Fisheries Management Act 1994 (Watkins 2000).

As a fishery with low numbers of divers and significant biological and management data, the NSW abalone fishery provides an opportunity for a study of capacity over a 20-year period. The change in the fishery has been in adjusting the human-capacity, as opposed to vessel-capacity, and in this way may be in contrast to other studies. It may provide useful information for fishery managers wishing to augment rights-based fishery management, and in understanding the people-element in fishing-capacity issues.


In the 1970s the fishery was administered by the requirement of a general fishing licence that enabled abalone to be taken by any commercial fisher in NSW, i.e. a general access-right to the fisheries of NSW. At that time abalone prices were low and the fishery undeveloped. Market prices increased in the late 1970s and the potential to export into the Japanese market led to greater interest in abalone harvesting. By the late 1970s some concerned fishers were calling for control of the fishery due to its rapid development and diminished catch-rates.

In 1980 a more restricted licence was introduced, enabling fishers who had evidence of previous abalone fishing involvement to hold a fishing endorsement specifying access to the abalone; holders of general licences could no longer harvest abalone. This abalone licence was not transferable except under exceptional circumstances such as sickness, and at the discretion of the Director of Fisheries.

In 1985 saleability was brought in with the “2 for 1” buy-back programme. Under this system an entrant had to buy two licences to get one new consolidated licence in the fishery. This forced divers to discuss the price of the right (which was $A60 000 each), representing an entry price to the fishery of $A120 000 in 1985. For this the divers had an expectation of catches of 15-20 tonnes at $A3-4/kg (Smythe, pers comm.). The floating of the Australian dollar in 1985 led to prices of $8-$9/kg by the end of 1985. This affected the levels of effort by new divers who had to work harder to repay debts incurred in entering the fishery, and it gave incentives for existing divers too, to work harder. This led to new concerns about levels of effort and over-exploitation of the resource.

In this period the licence was technically an annual permit and was renewed each year by the Director of Fisheries. Banks did not recognise licences as collateral and loans were made against divers’ assets (e.g. houses, etc.). Several interstate divorce settlement cases (such as Kelly v Kelly 1990), led to licences being regarded as an asset having “a proprietary interest”. Subsequently the attitude of banks in recognising licences as collateral was mixed “depending on the bank and the different personalities involved” (Smythe, pers. comm.)[88].

In 1988 as a result of over-exploitation concerns, an Individual Quota (IQ) was allocated equally at 10 tonnes of abalone per diver, an initial equal allocation at which fishers were all financially viable. In 1990 a minimal transfer provision of being able to receive 4 tonnes of abalone from other divers, or to sell 2 tonnes, was implemented. For example a diver could trade-up to holding 14 tonnes of abalone, or trade-down to holding only 8 tonnes. Further quota-transfer was implemented to stem “year end arrangements” between fishers who had caught less quota than envisaged and thus arranged figures to keep within the minimal transfer provisions.

NSW abalone diver’s boat

Photo credit: Dianna Watkins, NSW Fisheries
The IQs were subsequently reduced to 9 tonnes per diver in 1992 and were made into fully transferable ITQs in 1994. By this time the banks were more comfortable with lending against ITQs, though lending practices varied between banks and with the financial circumstances of the client. The ITQ per diver was reduced to 8.24 tonnes per diver in 2000.

In the mid-1990s, as a result of the property-rights working-groups and subsequent developments (see Young 1995, Goulstone 2000 and Waktins 2000) the NSW share-management regime was introduced. Provisional share allocations were made in 1996 with a fixed number of shares in proportion to the ITQ being allocated. This was equivalent to 100 provisional shares per diver.

The shares are recognised under the Fisheries Management Act 1994, are transferable, are perpetual in duration, with guaranteed renewal every 10-year period. The management plan is current for a 5-year period. The share-right entitles fishers to compensation under the Fisheries Management Act 1994 if the government decides to close the fishery.

The NSW Fisheries Department has been responsible for maintaining the ownership records under each of the schemes of management e.g. general fishing-licence, restricted abalone-entry license, ITQs and share ownership registries. However there is no obligation on the Department to record financial arrangements such as liens against entitlements. Sale of rights was limited under the original pre-1980 fishing licence, but possible under the restricted abalone-licence after 1985, although requiring the approval of the Director of Fisheries.

In moving to share-management from a restricted fishery, there was a provisional share-management period to confirm initial allocations, settle appeals and develop a management plan before full share-management commenced. Under provisional share-management, transfers required the Director’s approval and only complete bundles of 100 shares could be sold. On introduction of full share-management and the management plan in the year 2000, shares could be sold in lots of 10.

Under full share-management, 100 shares were issued to each of the 37 divers, making 3700 shares available in the fishery. If the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) was to increase there are still only 3700 shares, thus this is the incentive to steward the resource. The permission of the Director is not required to transfer shares, though the management plan specifies the conditions for holding shares. A new entrant diver must have 70 shares to dive and no one entity can hold over 210 shares. This was a design feature of the rights-regime to prevent concentration of ownership (Young 1995).

Under the share-management scheme shares can be sold to anyone who is an Australian citizen, foreign ownership being limited to 20% of a body corporate. The abalone must be taken from the water by a nominated diver holding 70 shares. Under the share-scheme greater third-party ownership of shares is possible than under previous management arrangements.

In 1999 when the management plan was being developed the divers discussed transferability in the consultative draft plan. Greater third-party investment through de-regulated ownership was seen as potentially increasing share value, but it was feared that this would lead to more divers being in the fishery. At a mimimum share-holding of 50 shares per diver, up to 74 divers could be in the fishery. Industry representatives feared that should prices fall then harvests may illegally exceed the quota, in proportion to the number of divers, and threaten the viability of the resource. Divers on the Management Advisory Committee recommended that the minimum provision should be 70 shares per diver. Conversely if the trade led to maximum holdings of 210 shares, the current TAC could be taken by 18 divers. The Management Plan addresses capacity-concerns through having triggers to initiate a review if diver numbers increase or decrease substantially.

In summary, tradeability has on occasions been restricted at the request of industry in order to prevent potential resource depletion. Under share-management trading happens within guidelines that protect the resource and yet release the economic benefits of rights-management.


3.1 Characterizing fleet-capacity

The measurement of capacity in fisheries is proposed as having three elements (Kirkley and Squires 1999):

i. Capacity - potential output
ii. Capacity utilization - observed output to capacity output and
iii. Capital utilization - desired stock of capital and the observed capital stock.
As such, these measures give “...cursory consideration of the role of labour or crew....” (Kirkley and Squires 1999). The abalone fishery’s “fleet-capacity” is not best measured in boat numbers or capital equipment. This makes it representative of many small boat fisheries in Australia where diving and netting from small-boats in estuaries represents approximately 20% of all licensed commercial fishing activity by number of licence-holders (McIlgorm and Tsamenyi 2000). Management experience has shown that dealing with the fishers in such fisheries involves fisher/diver-based capacity-measures, and will also involve catch, effort, regulations and capital values of fishing-rights.

The biology and catch trends with management controls have been plotted over time by Worthington et al. (1998) and are shown in Figure 1. The largest catches were at over 1,200t in the early 1970s prior to regulations on size-limits. The impacts of restricting licences, and of several size-limit regulations are also noted. In 1988 a quota of 10 tonnes per diver was introduced and this was reduced in 1992 to 9 tonnes per diver.

Figure 1. Impacts of regulation and rights changes on annual catch in the NSW abalone fishery

(Source: NSW Fisheries records, and after Worthington et al.1998)
Capacity in terms of catch taken, can be seen to have been adjusted by biological size limits, limited entry, restructuring, and subsequent rights developments.

3.2 Changes in fleet-capacity arising from the introduction of transferable property-rights

The number of divers is proposed as representing a measure of fishing-capacity in this fishery. The historical trend in number of divers (1970 - 2000) is shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. The historical trend of numbers of divers in the NSW abalone fishery.

Timing of management measures are indicated (Source: NSW Fisheries records)
In the period 1970 to 1975, the year of peak activity under open-access was 1971 with 290 divers, dropping to 257, 187, and 140 in 1972, 1973 and 1974 respectively due to size-limit restrictions and depleted catch-rates. Fishers were all part-time participants. Groups of divers would arrive in winter, fish and then moved on to other states when previous catch-rates were not achieved (Smythe, pers. comm.).

Figure 2 illustrates the drop in divers from 100 to 59 at the onset of limited-entry to the abalone fishery in 1980. In 1990 a buy-back scheme cost $A1.32 million to remove 5 entitlements. The number of divers stabilised in the period 1993-2000 at 37.

While the number of fishers is the most significant measure of capacity in this fishery, other indices of capacity are effort (Figure 3) and catch-per-diver (Figure 4). Effort trends across the fishery are reported in Figure 3 and show the reduction in effort with advances in management from 29 000 hours in 1979, prior to limited-entry, down to 16 000 hours in the late 1990s. Figure 4 reports the catch-per-diver and indicates how greatest total catch was taken by many divers at low rates of catch-per-diver in the early 1970s. Catch-per-diver increased with limited-entry and reduced with ITQs, a measure to contain capacity.

Figure 3. Effort in hours fished per year in the NSW abalone fishery (Source: NSW Fisheries records)

In 1992 there was discussion on the basis for ITQ allocations. Those fishers who had bought into the fishery under the “2 for 1” scheme, gaining a consolidated licence, reasoned that each original licence should have an initial quota-allocation. This eventually led to a legal challenge which did not uphold this view, and was only resolved in 1998. This caused much uncertainty in ITQ quota-trading.

A measure of potential capacity may be the current capacity (37 divers each harvesting 9 tonnes for a total of 333 tonnes of abalone), divided by the highest annual average catch-per-diver (in Figure 4, approximately 12 tonnes). This would indicate that the catch in the year 2000 could be taken by 27 divers. Under share-holding rules the industry indicated that as few as 18 divers could potentially take the current total allowable catch.

Capital measures of capacity in the abalone fishery are more difficult to measure because the boats have altered since the 1970s when they were larger as the fishers traversed the coastline by boat (Waugh 1977). the numbers of boats have in fact fallen in proportion to the reduction in numbers of divers: although many of the longer-term divers have kept larger boats, through time, smaller boats that can be towed by trailer have become more common place. This has been the case with the nominated divers who have tended to minimise catching costs and have preferred to tow smaller vessels, travelling along the improved roads rather than travelling long distances at sea (Smythe, pers. comm.).

Boat-capacity has been altered subtly by the development of the ‘nominated diver’. As the original divers from the 1970s became older, they often found the physical nature of diving led to ill health. Nominated divers are now permitted under the Fisheries Management Act 1994 and so enable sons, relatives and other persons to be employed by the original licencee.

Figure 4. Catch-per-diver (tonnes per year) in the NSW abalone fishery (Source: NSW Fisheries records)

Over time this trend has developed with the nominated diver being a worker contracted on a percentage of the landed value or more usually a fixed price per kilo of product landed. While the owner settles management fees and community contribution payments, the nominated diver usually provides boat and diving services on contract. This has led to use of smaller boats (such as 6-metre mono-hulls instead of twin-hull catamarans of the 1980s) in order to reduce costs and lead to greater operating flexibility, as these boats can be easily be towed by 4-wheel drive vehicles. The advent of the live-export abalone market in the mid-1990s has resulted in the smaller newer boats being equiped with “live tanks”, and with the product being cared for at all stages of production and distribution.

The number of nominated divers has increased from 9 of the 37 divers in 1996, to 27 of the 37 divers in 2001 (NSW Fisheries records). This implies that only 10 owners now dive for their own quota. Given the aging of the original licence-holders, this change was essential to prevent under-the-table arrangements in the face of ill-health. Nominated divers also mean that the fishery is now in the current year providing returns to 37 owners, contract payments/wages to 27 divers, wages to 10 owner-divers, plus wages to 37 deckhands. This division bewteen ownership and nominated divers is a significant development arising from the ability within the rights-regime to nominate another diver.

3.3 Consequences of changes in fleet-capacity

The reduction in numbers of divers through limiting entry, and the introduction of ITQ - and share-management have changed the nature of industry, which has become more professional and responsive to market needs and opportunities. The ‘flow on’ from ITQs has been greater industry viability for the 37 quota-holders and thus industry members are more willing to pay for extra services such as compliance, research and enhancement, as well as for the cost-recovery of management services.

Social impacts of the rights-regime have been the creation of diving jobs (nominated divers) for young divers who wish to enter the industry. Many entrant divers are sons, and sons-in-law of share-holders. This means that an old licence to one diver with deckhand (circa 1987), has now been replaced with a share which is supporting an owner, one diver and a deckhand. Many of the young divers will be able to run their diving actvities as a viable business, invest in shares themselves through time, and eventually hold full-shares (Smythe, pers. comm.).

The rights-system has given greater security for the families of share-owners. On the death of a share-holder the family can employ a nominated diver and still receive an income from the abalone shares. On contemplating retirement, the owners can sell-down their share-holding to 70 shares, and still work the smaller quota or use a nominated diver. The time operated by each diver depends on a range of factors such as: skill, experience, and the area being fished. However the quota-system has given more flexibility to the choice of when fishers fish.


4.1 Status prior to programme

In the late-1970s there were many divers operating under a licence open for any fishery in NSW. Figure 2 reports the large number of fishers prior to the introduction of limited-entry in 1980, and Figure 4 confirms the average catch of 3-6 tonnes per diver.

With the advent of limited entry from 1980 to 1988 there was a downward movement in numbers of divers, but with no aggregation of licence-ownership. On the introduction of ITQs, several transfers have had the potential for businesses to hold two permits, but this is rare. The cost of entitlements may be a barrier to entry and aggregation. The share-management system has led to one owner operating three divers within the limit of 210 shares. This is not regarded as a significant concentration of ownership across the 37 blocks of shares.

4.2 Restriction in the transfer of ownership

The original licence system restricted ownership of allocations to those with evidence of previous involvement. On commencement of limited-entry, licences were not transferable - unless under exceptional circumstances and subject to permission of the Director of Fisheries. Licences were made transferable as of 1985. With the introduction of IQs in 1988 the transferability of quota was not possible, until in 1992 limited transferability, and then in 1994 full-transferability, were authorized.

Under the new share-rights regime, in 1996 the provisional shares were transferable in total packages of 100 and with the permission of the Director. On full share-management in the year 2000, the shares could be transferred in lots of 10, though within the holding limits of the management plan and eligibility criteria (a diver must have at least 70 shares, and a business entity can have a maximum holding of only 210 shares.).

4.3 Prices received

Beach-prices (the price at first-sale received by the diver from the processors), are recorded by the Abalone Divers Association. Beach-prices are also monitored by government as they are used in estimating the community contribution due from share-holders under the Fisheries Management Act 1994. Figure 5 shows the average beach-prices in Australian dollars each year over over the last twenty.

Figure 5. Average beach-prices for the 1974-2000 period in the NSW abalone fishery

(Source: NSW Abalone Divers Association)
The annual rise in price has been at 14% over the 20-year period 1979-2000 and at 10% per annum since 1985. The reasons were: strong demand in Japan and the floating of the Australian currency as of 1985 and its depreciation against the Yen. With this demand and sound management, beach-price have resulted in higher values for licences, ITQs and now shares. Prices for licences, quotas and shares are not generally public knowledge, other than prices appearing in sales adverts etc., but are recorded by industry, and monitored by government who must approve the transfer ensuring stamp duties are paid to Treasury. Transaction records of licences prior to ITQs, of ITQ and of share transfers are available from industry. As of 1999, a package of 100 provisional shares, based on an ITQ of 9 tonnes, was selling for approximately $A1.45 million.

Licence-and ITQ-price information was investigated by the Dominion Consulting Pty. Ltd. (McIlgorm and Campbell 1999). From financial theory the capital value per unit of quota is linearly related to beach price (assuming unit catching-costs, interest-rates, tax and finance arrangements are considered constant over time. Figure 6 shows changes in Capital Value Factor (capital values per unit of quota divided by beach price). These are from confidential transactions as recorded by industry and are graphed as annual averages of transactions. Capital value is the value of entitlements only and does not include boats and fishing gear.

Figure 6. Changes in Capital Value Factor (capital value per tonne of quota divided by beach price) for quota and share transfers in the period 1985-2000 in the NSW abalone fishery (Data source: NSW Abalone Divers Assn.)

There is a definite relationship between the capital value per unit of quota and the beach-price. Figure 6 reports that over and above the beach-price there is a rise in the capital value per tonne of quota, of approximately 1.8% per year (1985-1999 period).

The impact of IQs and ITQs on the capital value of quota can be seen from the graph. In the years after the introduction of IQs the capital values adjusted by beach-price declined relative to pre-IQ levels. A reduction in catch limitation from 10 to 9 tonnes in 1992, and limited transferability did not increase IQ values (but there was only one trade in 1992). No trades happened in 1993-1995, inspite of the advent of full ITQs, but 12 trades occurred in 1996. This pattern of trades may reflect uncertainty due to the legal challenge by the “2 for 1” consolidated divers.

A linear regression analysis, using the following model, was done on the available data:

V/q = a1 + a2 P + a3 D + a4 D1

Where capital value is (V), quota is (q), P is beach price, D is a step dummy variable to test whether the market price of licences/tonne of quota was affected by implementation of IQs in 1998, D1 is a step dummy variable to test whether the market price of licences/tonne of quota was affected by implementation of ITQs in 1994. The data are 34 confidential observations on capital transactions held by the Abalone Divers Association. The estimates produced under normal least squares assumptions are reported below:





D 1






t ratio





n= 34, v2 = 0.96, * significant at a 1% level.
The results confirm a strong relationship between the capital values of quota and beach price. The change to IQ-management caused a significant decline in capital value per tonne of quota, whereas the change to full ITQs after 1994 raised capital values per tonne significantly.

The analysis is preliminary, subject to the assumptions of the model, and is made more complicated by the introduction of a community contribution charge to industry in 1996. As a form of tax this would be expected to reduce the capital value per tonne of the beach price (McIlgorm and Campbell 1999). It is also unclear to what extent the post-1994 results reflect the changes to share-management in 2000, announced in 1995. We would expect the new right to have more innate value than previous licences, IQs, or ITQs, as the share would reflect benefits from a recovering stock.

The clearest message is in the relationship between capital values of quota and beach price under a range of management regimes. The fishery has been kept profitable by rising beach-prices, and rights-management initiatives have contributed to this being capitalised in share values.

4.4 Effectiveness of regulations governing ownership of rights

Several issues have arisen as the rights-regime has evolved. The ownership rules were first devised in 1980 with divers as owner-operators only. In the course of time ill-health or old age meant that under original rules the licences could not be operated.

For consolidated licences, from the “2 for 1” scheme, there was an incentive to make legal arrangements, usually through a solicitor, to have ownership changed in practice, but without altering the records held by the Fisheries Department. This happened in several cases, but in the event of a fishing offence by the diver this arrangement could lead to cancellation of a licence.

However, the Fisheries Department recognised that the motivation for such arrangements was to let sons, other family members and contract divers into the fishery, and the advent of the ‘nominated diver’ provisions this informal practice. The message is that as fishers get older, the transfer of their rights to relatives is an important social consideration for the fishers.

4.5 Affects of programme

Through the move from licences to ITQs and shares there has been little concentration of ownership. Under share-management, entities are limited to 210 shares and only one investor has three divers. The family-nature of diving, the cost of entitlements, and the transfer provisions have limited the concentration of ownership to date. The rise in beach prices has also prevented restructuring caused by poor financial viability.


5.1 Reduction in fishing-capacity

The analysis of fishing-capacity shows that limited-entry and quotas have reduced catch and effort, and hence capacity in this fishery towards more sustainable levels. However the development of ITQs and the share-management rights-system has enabled significant rises in the price of abalone to benefit the share-holders. The licence - and ITQ-systems have enabled 37 divers to remain in the fishery, but limiting fishing-effort. However original owner-operators have been able to use nominated divers, with 9 doing so in 1996 and 27 in 2001. Ten years ago there were 37 owner-operators with deckhands. There are now 10 owner-operators, 27 owners, 27 nominated divers and 37 deckhands. The division of owners and nominated divers does not increase fishing-capacity, and illustrates the diversity in outcomes that may follow rights-management - the same catch now supports more people.

There is currently no lack of profitability that might cause further restructuring. When in 2001 the ITQs were reduced from 9 to 8.25 tonnes per diver, the price rises associated with the fall in the Australian dollar more than compensated operators in terms of their overall revenue. Share-holders see this as an opportunity to rebuild the stock levels of abalone following scientific advice and potential economic returns. The situation would be different if prices were falling and it indicates that commercial viability and capacity in a “post-ITQ” fishery are essential for future management.

5.2 Concentration of ownership

In the post-ITQ fishery there have been concerns about the potential for concentration of ownership. To date these have not been realised due to the design limits of the share-management scheme and the position of industry in wanting to limit the number of divers in order to maximise the legal catch. Industry owners consider that they pay divers at rates which encourage the divers to comply with the harvesting regulation and not undertake illegal harvesting and marketing practices.


The price rises in this fishery have led to illegal fishing outside the quota - or share-system. This has been estimated as high as 50% of the current legal TAC, and is a major capacity-issue (Worthington et al. 1998). This is the major risk in the management of capacity in this fishery where sustained price rises and the markets for abalone also give strong incentives to illegal fishers.

Rights-holders are aware of this and have funded additional compliance staff within government to protect their fishing interests. It remains to be seen whether this will be sufficient to reduce the illegal fishery.


We acknowledge the information provided by the staff of the NSW Fisheries department, and by Mr John Smythe of the Abalone Management Advisory Committee and the NSW Abalone Divers Association.


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[87] The paper should not be taken as representing the policy of NSW Fisheries.
[88] NSW Abalone Management Advisory Committee.

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