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Effect of Tradeable Property Rights on Fleet Capacity and Licence Concentration in the Western Australian Pilbara Trap Fishery, N.J. Borg and R. Metzner

Fisheries Western Australia
Locked Bag 39, Chifley Square Post Office, Perth, 6850, Australia


1.1 Current spectrum of commercial fisheries access-rights in Western Australia

In Western Australia (WA), there are a number of different commercial management categories which confer a spectrum of commercial fishing-rights:

i. managed fisheries
ii. interim managed fisheries
iii. condition-based fisheries
iv. exemption-based fisheries and
v. “unmanaged” fisheries.
“Managed Fisheries” are formally ‘declared’ under the Fish Resources Management Act 1994[56] and are governed through a management plan. There are 30 “managed fisheries”[57] in Western Australia at present. The property rights conferred by, or associated with, licences in these fisheries are the strongest under the fisheries legislation, because the licences are automatically renewed annually unless the licence owner commits three serious breaches of the fisheries legislation; under such circumstances, the licences may be suspended or cancelled. The majority of managed fishery licences are transferable, but they are not divisible because the licence is issued in respect of a boat. However, in some instances, the licences may be the platform for holding transferable units, which may be able to be transferred individually and, thus, are more divisible.

“Interim Managed Fisheries” are fisheries for which there is little or no long-term management direction. These fisheries are also declared under the Fish Resources Management Act 1994 and are governed through a management plan. Currently, there are three “interim managed fisheries” in Western Australia. Permits for these are renewed annually for the life of the plan and are not divisible. Although permits for such fisheries are often non-transferable, this is not the case for the current three interim managed fisheries, all of which serve as platforms for management systems based on individual transferable effort (ITE) units.

“Condition-based fisheries” are those where access is granted through a permissive licence condition which allows the licensee relief from a current prohibition. These fisheries are gradually being reviewed by the fisheries management agency and decisions are being made about the most appropriate form of long-term management for each fishery. Some may become managed fisheries, some may continue with licence conditions or have management regulations placed on the fishery licences under the Fish Resources Management Regulations 1995[58]. The rights associated with access to these fisheries are usually lower-level property-rights because there may not be a guarantee of long-term access to the fish resources within these fisheries.

A final category of access-rights results from a specific exemption from a specific prohibition, i.e. specific permission to engage in a clearly defined activity. The access-rights are granted under “exceptional” circumstances and are not given via a ‘licence’. Instead, these rights are conferred via an ‘exemption’ certificate that sets out the details of the allowed fishing activity (gear, area, etc.), and the time within which the fishing activity may take place. The exemptions and the associated rights have a limited life, are non-divisible, and non-transferable.

Outside these categories there are a small number of ways in which licensed fishers can engage in open-access fisheries (generally referred to as “unmanaged” fisheries). Fishing activities can be undertaken just by virtue of having a Western Australian Fishing Boat Licence, which entitles the registered boat to be used within a commercial fishery; this licence is generally transferable. These activities are not governed under formal management, that is, there is open-access to any fish resources not covered by other forms of management[59].

There is nothing static about either the different categories of commercial fishing management or the various rights they confer. Historically, a fishery has been able to - and typically will - move from relatively unmanaged status to increasingly formalized management arrangements, with the associated rights evolving along the way in response to the pressures and needs of various stake-holder groups[60].

1.2 Fisheries management in Western Australia

During the 1960s and 1970s, some of the major invertebrate fisheries within the State were brought under management plans, but the majority of fishing (mainly finfish) activities in the State were still open-access in nature. By 1985, there was concern that competing pressures and uncontrolled development would erode the sustainability and economic viability of the remaining open-access fisheries.

It was at this time that the Western Australian Government, with extensive involvement from the commercial fishing industry, undertook a complete review of fisheries management in Western Australia with the view to determining how the remaining open access fisheries should be developed. This review consisted of consultative stages that are still the basis for consultation in Western Australian fisheries today.

When considering changes to management arrangements in a fishery, in most instances the first stage is for the Government (through the fisheries management agency) to write a management discussion paper setting out the issues and a number of possible management options to address these issues. The next phase involves some level of consultation. Where there is a working group or a Ministerial advisory committee[61], the issues are thoroughly discussed in this forum before seeking comments from the wider industry, and in some cases, the general public. If there are broader issues to be considered, the Agency will often hold industry and public meetings to allow for wider discussion on the management issues. If there are any submissions gathered as part of this phase, they are analysed by the relevant industry/government group advising the Minister for Fisheries on the particular matter. Finally, as a result of Ministerial prerogative and discretion, the process may involve a number of rounds of consultation until the Minister is satisfied that the recommendations resolve the management issues before him.

In 1985/1986 the Agency conducted a major review of fisheries using such a process: a government management position paper was developed and released, the industry convened a major workshop in 1986 to consider its position, and the report from the workshop made a series of recommendations to the Minister about future directions for management of the remaining open-access fisheries in Western Australia. The majority of the recommendations were accepted by the Minister, including a recommendation to manage five types of open-access fishing activities in order to ensure their sustainable development.

The five fishing activities to be managed included the trap-and-line activities off the State’s northwest Pilbara coast, and it is the management and rights-related changes in the Pilbara trap-fishery which are the subject of this case study.

1.3 The Pilbara trap-fishery

It was during the early to mid-1980s that trapping for finfish gradually moved north up the Western Australian coast into the Pilbara area. The only requirement for access to the fishery was a Western Australian Fishing Boat Licence. Thus, fishing activities were virtually unmanaged and had minimal associated property-rights. Although the total number of available state fishing licences had been frozen in 1983 there were nearly 2000 fishing units in the state and these licences were freely available on the open market at a price within the reach of most crew.

The waters off the Pilbara coast were fished extensively for finfish by foreign trawl fleets until the late 1980s. Very little fishing effort was exerted by Australian boats off north-west Australia at this time, with the exception of prawn (shrimp) trawlers which fished in adjacent shallow inshore waters.

It was not until the mid-1990s that the fishery came under increasing fishing effort and hence management scrutiny as a result of: adjustment in adjacent fisheries, the appearance in the fishery of experienced trap-fishers, the desire to rebuild stocks after the Taiwanese fleets had left, and increased consumer demand for deep-water tropical fish.

As a result of the 1985/1986 review and the decision to manage the Pilbara trap-and-line fishery, extensive consultations continued throughout the Pilbara in 1986 and 1987, including the release of a management paper by the Agency. In lieu of any formal management advisory committee for the Pilbara fisheries, an industry/government working group was established to put recommendations to the Minister on management arrangements for a suite of Pilbara fisheries, including the trap-and-line fishery. This working group met in early 1988, submitted a draft interim report in April and, after further consultation in the region, submitted its final report in August of that year.

Concurrently, and as an interim measure to curb the development of the fishery pending the outcome of the working group, the government gazetted Notice No. 313 in 1988 prohibiting the use of fish-traps in WA waters unless authorised to do so via a licence endorsement[62]. Then, in March 1990, the then Minister for Fisheries approved a series of management recommendations, which included establishing a limited-entry fishery (now re-named a “managed fishery”) for trapping[63] of finfish off the northwest Pilbara coast of Western Australia, roughly between the longitudes of 114ºE and 120ºE, landward of the 200 metre isobath.


2.1 Phase One: The Allocation of Non-transferable Licences

The Pilbara Trap Limited-Entry Fishery Notice (ostensibly, the management plan) was gazetted on 24 March 1992 with a commencement date for the fishery of 1 May 1992. Initially, the rights issued with the commencement of the limited-entry fishery were non-transferable. The intention of non-transferability was that the number of participants would decrease over time through natural attrition, to a level where latent effort was removed and the remaining participants were taking the available sustainable catch (which had been estimated to be 250-300t of the target species of deep-water finfish). The non-transferability provision was to be reviewed three years after the introduction of the management plan with the view to removing the provision if latent effort had been removed.

The initial allocation of these non-transferable licences was based on:

i. a benchmark (or cutoff) date, which was the date after which fishing activity may not be considered when deciding access under future management arrangements and

ii. fishing history, which took into account catches not only for the three years before the benchmark date of 11 February 1988, but also continued performance in the fishery based on catches in 1988 and 1989 of at least one tonne per year.

Other management elements included:
i. the creation of two zones[64] within the scope of the fishery

ii. implementation of performance criteria (minimum tonnage and days-fished)

iii. closure of the inshore portion of the fishery in recognition of the importance of recreational fishing in the region

iv. no limit on the number of traps used by each operator at the commencement of the fishery[65] and

v. “supplementary-access”[66], mostly for those fishermen in the adjacent prawn trawl-fisheries who had also trapped in the area of the fishery.

The then Fisheries Department of Western Australia assessed against the entry criteria the monthly fishing returns[67] of all fishermen with current trap endorsements. Those who met the entry criteria were granted a limited-entry licence for the Pilbara Trap Fishery. Those who did not qualify were given the opportunity to appeal to the then Minister for Fisheries, who was the final decision-maker on who gained access to the commercial fishery. After the appeals process was concluded a total of 20 licences were issued: eight for Zone-1, six for Zone-2 and six supplementary licences.

2.2 Moving towards more flexible rights

By 1995, a number of licensees had left the fishery as a result of: voluntarily relinquishing their licences, the transfer of fishing-boat licences (whereby any attached Pilbara Trap licences were forfeited), or licence cancellations due to the failure of participants to meet performance criteria based on minimum catch requirements. As a result, given the level of remaining effort that was being exerted at the time, catch-levels in the fishery appeared to be sustainable. However, it was becoming obvious to both the government and the industry that the fishery was in a process of change.

Adjustment in adjacent fisheries, market demand for quality deep-water tropical fish, and the financial incentives for the new fishermen who were fishing on leased licences in this fishery[68], meant that effort in the fishery was likely to increase and that, as a result, the current arrangements would no longer be adequate to ensure sustainability in this fishery. In addition, the changing dynamics of the fishery were placing demands on the management system to allow restructuring, and with that, to increase the strength of access-rights held by the fishermen.

A major concern was that, given that the fishery was estimated to be only capable of sustaining a catch of 250-300t of the key target-species of red emperor, Rankin cod and job fish, the fishery would not be able to sustain the increased catches, which could happen if transferability was introduced. New entrants would likely want to catch more fish, but the existing management rules would not prevent this.

This obvious need to reassess the suitability of the Pilbara Trap Fishery management arrangements coincided with the previous undertaking that the fishery would be reviewed three years after the introduction of the management plan. The review commenced with a government and industry meeting in June 1995. The main subjects of the review were: the provisions on non-transferability, the number of traps permitted for each licensee, and the retention of performance criteria. The review used scientific recommendations from Agency research scientists, economic parameters provided by the fishers, and offered management options suggested by the Agency based on this information.

In order to gain ownership from industry, the Agency presented a picture of the status of the fishery at that time, assisted fishers in identifying problems within the fishery, and discussed the possible solutions with them. The result was a request from industry for consideration of an individual transferable effort (ITE) system.

Following the meeting, the Agency put a proposal to industry for a limited-access management-system based on transferable trap units within the system of transferable fishery licences[69]. The proposition was that, to maintain a sustainable catch below 300t at current fishing-effort and trap-utilization levels, no more than 80 traps could to be allocated within the fishery. Should such a system be implemented, each of the 7 fishermen in the full-time fishery would receive 11 traps. There would be full transferability allowing for flexibility of fishing operations, yet total effort would be capped at 77 traps, and for consistency with management arrangements in an adjacent trap-fishery, each licence-holder would continue to hold no more than 20 traps. In addition, as the licence was only a platform for the trap-units, if all trap-units were removed from a licence then that licence would be cancelled.

The holders of supplementary access licences were not included as part of the 80-trap fishery-limit. The Agency proposed that, because these participants were applying little fishing effort in the fishery at that time, each should receive a non-transferable allocation of 11 traps.

The proposal was supported by the trap fishermen but not by the Minister for Fisheries. In particular, he was not satisfied that the proposal adequately dealt with the potentially high level of effort that supplementary-access holders could exert if they chose to do so, prompting him to request that the issue of supplementary-access be better addressed. Eventually the Minister invoked the clause under the Pilbara Trap Fishery management plan that allowed him to remove supplementary-access. In doing this he provided supplementary-access holders with the opportunity to ‘explain’ why their access to this fishery should not be revoked.

The process of removing supplementary-access took considerable time because of a number of factors:

i. There was no pre-specified process for showing cause. This resulted in fishers being given a number of opportunities to show cause, that is, to argue their case to the Minister why their licence should not be cancelled.

ii. Before he made a final decision, the Minister wanted a thorough discussion of the matter with all licence-holders at the 1995 Annual Management meeting[70] for the fishery.

iii. The introduction of the Fish Resources Management Act 1994 (FRMA), part way through this process in October 1995, moved the decision-making power for access to fisheries from the Minister to the Executive Director of Fisheries. This change of jurisdictions and responsibilities required legal direction on how to proceed.

After one final opportunity for review, the Minister moved to cancel all supplementary-access to the Pilbara Trap Fishery in April 1996[71]. However, the new FRMA provided a Right to Object which gave holders of supplementary-access the ability to seek an independent tribunal’s decision on any decision affecting access with which a licensee did not agree. One of the supplementary-access holders submitted an objection and, given that the initial allocation of trap-units was a function of the number of licensees, the Pilbara Trap Managed Fishery Management Plan could not be changed until the objection was resolved. The Tribunal, which did not report until October 1996, found in favour of Fisheries WA. This opened the door for the management changes to be legislated.

Finally, in March 1997, amendments to the management plan introduced measures allowing the full transferability of licences and an individual transferable effort (ITE) system that was denominated in traps. The traps were to be allocated equally amongst the licence-holders, thus the six licensees in the fishery received an allocation of 13 traps each[72].

2.3 Phase Two: Tradeable input-controls and changing harvest-rights

The gradual introduction of licences, transferable traps, and then transferable trap-units opened the way for the fishery to change. Licences could be traded on the open market and individual trap-allocations could be traded between licence-holders; or they could continue to be leased. Financial institutions recognized the status of these fully transferable assets and this enabled participants to finance further expansion in the fishery and, as a matter of course, provided the impetus for additional management changes.

The pressure for these changes came from two sectors. The commercial participants wanted to improve their economic efficiency, gain market advantage and maximise individual profits. The fisheries management agency, although interested in economic efficiency, was primarily concerned with the sustainability of the targeted fish stocks.

With increased transferability, the predicted increase in fishing effort occurred. At the October 1998 Annual Management Meeting for the Pilbara Trap Fishery, the scientists reported that trap numbers needed to be reduced by 50% if the catch was to be constrained to 300t in 1999, and that there might need to be further reductions in the numbers of traps in the future. If this reduction were to occur, each fisherman would receive only 6 traps[73]. Despite the size of the proposed reduction, the scientists also noted that the reduced number of traps would not cut the catch in the fishery; the cutback would only remove a significant amount of the existing latent effort, thereby making it more difficult for catch levels to increase.

This recommendation was based on the following facts:

i. increasing catch - even with the input-controls which were in place, the average trap-catch from the fishery over the five years to 1998 had been 250t, with a range of 179t to 302t and

ii. increasing efficiency - in the 1990s it took about half the number of fishing-days to catch the same amount caught in the 1980s, and it was clear that the Agency’s desired target catch of 300t could in theory be caught by 2-3 full-time boats instead of the six that were in the fishery.

Although the industry recognised that there was considerable latent effort in the fishery, they resisted the proposed cuts in trap numbers on two grounds. First, the nature of the cuts severely limited their ability to respond to the business challenges in an equitable way. Second, the trap fishers felt that there was no equity in the size of the cuts they were being asked to make, compared with the cuts being required from a finfish trawl-fishery that overlaps the trap fishery in both area and certain of the species that were exploited.

After further industry representation and a meeting with the Executive Director, the latter determined that there would be no reduction in trap numbers for 1999, but that new management arrangements were to be formulated for 2000. On 1 January 2000, eight years after the gazettal of the Pilbara Trap Limited-Entry Fishery Notice, the amended management arrangements for the Pilbara Trap Fishery’s unitized time/gear-based access-system came into effect under a management plan which clearly spelt-out participants’ entitlements, how entitlements could be changed, and the operational conditions for participating in the fishery.

There is a de facto minimum holding of units, because if all the traps on a Pilbara Trap managed fishery licence are leased or sold, the licence is automatically cancelled. Fishermen have fully tradeable, annually-renewable harvest rights, which can only be revoked as a result of serious breaches of fisheries legislation. There is no maximum to the number of units a licensee may hold, thus enabling participants to pursue their respective business requirements with minimal involvement of the Agency in such changes. The Government maintains a full register of entitlements for this and other managed fisheries, and this register is accessible to the public. It includes a register of interest in entitlements where this is required by third party interests.

An example of a typical vessel in the Pilbara trap fishery


3.1 Characterising fleet composition and capacity

In 1987 the average trap-boat operating off the Pilbara coast was about 14-15 metres in length. These vessels, although dedicated in their fishing activity, had come from other fisheries and were not purpose-built trap-boats and were not necessarily configured for trap-fishing. On average, the fishers worked 6 traps for about 9 months of the year, making 3 trips per month. During the summer months of November to February, boats would be repaired and refitted.

By the early 1990s, the majority of dedicated trap-fishers had moved north out of the Pilbara fishery, following the availability of target species. The remaining small number of boats used a variety of gear types including traps, and pursued a variety of fish stocks. Boats generally ranged from 11 to 15 metres in length, used a small number of traps, and mostly only operated 9 months of the year in total, mainly because of cyclones.

In 1999 the average boat in the fishery was still not a purpose-built trap-boat although a couple of larger boats were now participating in the fishery. The average boat still did not work more than 11 traps, due to its size, despite the fact that provisions in the management plan now allow participants to work more traps than this.

There are inherent difficulties in providing a useful measure of fishing-capacity in this fishery. One of the difficulties is accessing data about the vessels themselves, but the more significant point is that the type and size of vessel has had little impact on the fleet’s harvesting-capacity. Capacity is more a function of:

i. the number of traps used
ii. the number of times they are pulled each day and
iii. the experience of the skipper and crew.
Thus, for the purposes of this analysis, capacity has been measured in terms of:
i. the number of licences in the fishery at each stage
ii. the number of traps available for use in the fishery and
iii. the number of months these traps were employed.
Since 1 January 2000, the fishery has operated on a system of time/gear units which, although an additional factor in determining fishing-capacity, has not been in force long enough to be able to analyse its long-term effect. Finally, it is important to remember that fishing experience, although difficult to quantify, is a critical factor because the highliners (i.e. the most skilled skippers and crew) can and do affect the level of catch in this fishery independent of the characteristics of the boat.

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

The composition of the fleet began to change around 1996 once it became likely that transferability would be introduced into the fishery. Prior to this time the changes in the fleet were mostly due to the cancellation of licences that occurred due to fishermen not meeting the performance criteria in the fishery, or through sale of licence packages containing a Pilbara trap licence. Participants’ activity-levels were relatively stable and there was little, if any, leasing of licences.

Table 1 shows the change in licence numbers over time, but it does not tell the story of what was happening with actual fishing activity over the past five years. Its does, however, show the reduction in boats that has occurred since the introduction of the time/gear access-system in January 2000. Fishermen have bought or leased time/gear units and concentrated their use on a smaller number of boats.

Table 1. Number of boats/fishermen licensed for full-time access (Zones - 1 and - 2)


No. of managed fishery licences(a)

No. of boats licensed

No. of boats active

At initial issue of licences


14 (8+6)


8 (7+1)

After transferability introduced





After transferability and unitisation





(a) Only one boat allowed per licence.
(b) Currently one owner has two licences but only one boat.
The season, or the number of months fishermen were active each year, has also changed with the introduction of transferability. Nine months of fishing had been the norm for the dedicated operators until 1997, however, with the introduction of transferability, dedicated trap-fishermen increased the number of pulls per day and began fishing up to 11 months of the year. Some participants also began using alternating crews in order to keep the vessels working more days per month.

The introduction of unitised time/gear access in 2000 has changed fishing patterns once again. The numbers of traps is no longer the basic unit of harvesting-capacity - units of time/gear are now the critical operating factor. Fishing is now undertaken at times when fishermen expect to maximise the catch in the time they have available to them, and leasing or purchasing of additional time/gear units also occurs.

In reality, the fleet’s harvesting capacity has more to do with the fishermen than the characteristics of the vessels, because the type of boat used has not changed significantly during the development of the fishery even though the harvesting capacity of some of the fishing units has changed. As mentioned previously, the size and style of the boats currently used limits the number of traps that can be carried, so the difference amongst the participants is a function of the fishermen’s trapping experience and the number of times per day the traps are pulled.

Fishermen retrieving a fish trap containing Red Emperor - (“Red Things”) - Lutjanus sebae

3.3 Consequences of changes in fleet-capacity

It appears that major changes within this fishery are only just commencing and hence many of the consequences can only be speculated at this stage. At present, effort is increasing in response to declining catch-rates, with fishermen having to travel further from the original grounds in order to maintain catch-rates acceptable to their level of operation. The fishery appears to be evolving into one consisting of two to three dedicated, full-time operators, with diversified operators opting to move out of the fishery by selling their units or trading their licences. Because it does appear that there are returns to scale, the consolidation of units onto two or three licences should maintain or even increase the profitability of the remaining operations.

Fishers now have the option to exit the fishery with a financial gain, rather than losing any benefit attached to the right to the Pilbara Trap Fishery, as was the case prior to transferability. This money provides fishers with the option either to remove themselves entirely from fishing or to reinvest in alternative fisheries.

Because of the small size of the fishery, the employment impacts coming from such changes are likely to be small and will be the result of the new operating strategies that some participants have developed (such as alternating crews so that the boat can operate on a continuous basis for a large part of the year). Thus, regional employment is unlikely to be significantly affected.


4.1 Status prior to the unitised time/gear programme

The concentration of ownership has been triggered by three stages of management changes:

i. the introduction of limited entry in 1992
ii. the introduction of transferability in 1997 and
iii. the unitisation of access in 2000.
The use of the 1988 benchmark-date plus qualifying criteria meant that 14 full-licences and six “supplementary-licences” were initially issued in 1992. Over the following four years, 1992-1996, these numbers were reduced to six full-licences and no supplementary-licences, through the various means mentioned previously. Hence, immediately prior to transferability, there were six licences operated by six licensees, who operated at various levels of effort.

Access to the fishery had already been decided through the introduction of limited-access in 1992. The introduction of unitisation resulted in the only change in the allocation-method. In itself, unitisation did not change the distribution of licences among participants; it only changed the nature of trap-units held by each licensee, because trap-allocations were expressed as trap-units rather than actual number of traps[74]. However, unitisation did provide a market-based mechanism that participants could use to alter their unit holdings and hence, the distribution of units.

4.2 Restrictions on transfers of ownership

Prior to the introduction of transferability in 1997, licensees could only sell or lease traps to other holders of Pilbara Trap Fishery Managed Fishery Licences. However, even though these licences were formally non-transferable prior to 1997, there was de facto change in ownership through what is known as a “one-dollar lease”. The licence would remain in the name of the original licensee who would still own a small portion of the licence. The lessee would pay most of the purchase price for the licence and then lease the total package for a minimal amount. With the introduction of transferability, the buyer would pay the “last dollar” and the contract would be filled.

After transferability was introduced there were no restrictions on who could buy a Pilbara Trap Fishery Managed Fishery Licence, but it is not possible to buy trap-units unless one held a Pilbara Trap Managed Fishery Licence, as there is no “platform” on which to place the units unless a licence is held. The other restriction on ownership transfers is that if all trap-units are transferred off a licence, the licence is cancelled.

4.3 Prices received

There is currently no specific mechanism in place to require the reporting of actual ex-vessel or other prices of the fish landed in this fishery. Any prices that are used for calculations by the Agency are obtained through spot checks at fish markets and by surveying a small number of processors. The total value of the fishery is based on a weighted average according to the species mix taken in the fishery. The average prices used by Fisheries WA are public information and are published in various reports, but are biased by the extent processors desire to give this information to the government, and a reluctance of fishers to divulge where fish are sold or prices received for those fish. Additionally, and more recently, because fishing access-fees are currently based on gross value of product from the fishery, fishers are loath to provide information that may result in an increase in access-fees.

4.4 Effectiveness of regulations governing ownership of rights

The regulations governing ownership of rights in this fishery prior to 1997 did little to restrict effective ownership. New players moved into the fishery in anticipation of the change in management arrangements, by skippering existing boats and, if satisfied that there was potential, by leasing the licences under long term leases, effectively changing the ownership of the licence and boat. This practice undermined the use of non-transferability as a management tool to a large extent, but not totally. Non-transferability did help to reduce the number of licences from the original 14 to six immediately prior to the change in rights-structure.

The actual restructuring of the fishery, in this case, trading of trap-allocations and licences, did not commence until the transferability provisions were legislated. The introduction of time/gear units has allowed further restructuring, which appears likely to continue until only two or three licensed boats remain in the fishery.

4.5 Effects of introducing transferability

The effects of introducing transferable licences and trap-allocations can be followed through licence numbers, trap numbers, and the number of months these traps were employed each year. For example, with the introduction of transferability, the effects of management changes could be seen in the movement of traps, that is, the change in the number of traps held by each licensee. Although this movement of traps was not directly caused by the introduction of transferability, it was facilitated and made more explicit by it.

Some of the participants who had previously been leasing licences bought them, but the total number of licences was not affected by the change in ‘rights’ status brought about by the introduction of transferability (a couple of licences changed hands, but there was no aggregation of licences and, hence, no change in the number of licences). Concentration of licences did not commence until the introduction of the unitised time/gear access system in January 2000.

Another effect of introducing transferability provisions was that it enabled operators to more accurately determine their level of activity in the fishery. One group of participants in the fishery has not altered their behaviour greatly. These are the multi-fishery fishers, or diversified operators, who trap when convenient and who undertake other fishing activities at other times. These fishers have not changed their season or increased fishing effort within the existing fishing season. Thus, the programme has had minimal impact on these fishermen, except that they now have the option to sell or lease trap-allocations that are not being used within their fishing operation, to their obvious financial advantage. A second group who wanted to exit the fishery could sell their licences to those who wanted to increase their level of participation, and this third group of dedicated trap fishers could then extend their fishing activities from nine to eleven months, being primarily limited only by bad weather, particularly cyclones. These fishers also increased the number of times that traps were pulled each day and the number of trips undertaken each month.

Because of transferability of trap-units, there was little reason for a licensee to invest in multiple boats in the Pilbara Trap Fishery. There was no advantage in accumulating licences to gain access to the trap-allocations because traps could be traded separately. Although there was a natural limit on the traps that could be used due to the size of the boat, it has not yet been worth investing in a larger purpose-built trap-boat. This may change if consolidation results in sufficient accumulation of units to warrant operating a larger boat.

The effects of introducing time/gear units, although early in their implementation, are already evident through further trading of licences and the first movement towards eventual concentration of licences. Although there are still six licences, there are only five licensees (one now owns two licences) and four operators in the trap-fishery. Another owns one licence, and leases all but one trap from another who is not active in the fishery. The other two licensees retain their units but do not fish extensively within the fishery at this point in time.


5.1 Reduction in fleet-capacity

Within the broad objective of maintaining sustainable fisheries, the more specific policy objectives for management of this fishery have varied at each stage of its development. Initially, the objective was to limit the number of boats with access to trapping off the Pilbara coast and to reduce the numbers of those boats over time.

The objective set out through the 1995 review, which was the basis of all future management decisions in this fishery, was to maintain fishing effort levels such that the total catch did not exceed the estimated sustainable catch of 300t.

In both these stages of development, the objective has been reached. The initial system of non-transferability and licence cancellations assisted in successfully reducing the number of participants/boats to six which, with fishing practices at the time, was considered a reasonable number to take the available catch. When fishing practices changed through the introduction of more experienced trap-fishers into the fishery, management arrangements were modified to allow the management agency to limit trap numbers as a proxy for limiting the total catch to a maximum of 300t.

Later, the introduction of transferable licences and transferable trap-allocations allowed more flexibility among different operators in the fleet. It kept the mechanism for reducing fleet trap-allocations through across-the-board trap reductions, but allowed fishers to trade their traps and to more closely hold the number they needed for the nature of their particular operations. The next stage of introducing transferable unitised trap time/gear access has further increased the flexibility of fishermen to be able to maximise their return and fishing times within the constraint of the estimated sustainable catch-level.

The success of the gradual changes in management can be attributed to the fact that participants and managers have not had to address both catch-reduction issues, at the same time that they were making the transition from non-transferable to transferable access, largely due to:

i. early intervention by government to limit access to the fishery off the Pilbara coast, to issue trap-licence endorsements that identified the pool of trap fishermen in Western Australia, then to analyse catch data to identify those that fished off the Pilbara coast

ii. a small participating pool of fishers, which facilitated consultation and the discussion on management issues and

iii. early scientific advice which estimated a sustainable catch limit of 300t and was accepted at an early stage of management and which still serves as the recommended maximum for the fishery. This means that there have not been catch-reduction issues to be faced concurrent with the transition of the fishery from non-transferable - to transferable-access.

The fishery is still in a process of change. The opportunity now exists for a change in fleet-capacity, but this will take time. The system now provides the business environment and incentives for further investment and the concentration of ownership; whether this will happen remains to be seen.

5.2 Concentration of ownership

Consolidation in the fishery began with the introduction of individual trap-allocations and has been facilitated by the increased divisibility offered by the transferable time/gear unit system. To date the movement of transferable time/gear units suggests that the fishery may be moving towards one based on two to three dedicated boats, but as mentioned previously, the concentration of ownership of licences has yet to occur to any great extent.


I would like to acknowledge the assistance of staff of Fisheries Western Australia, particularly John Nicholls, Peter Millington, Dr Mike Moran, Heather Brayford, Peter Stephenson, Christine Mary Keys, and David Donatti.


Chairman’s summaries from Annual management meetings of the Pilbara Trap Fishery 1993 - 1998 (unpublished).

Fisheries Department of Western Australia, 1985. Arrangements for Entry to all fisheries off and along the WA Coast. Fisheries Department of Western Australia. Perth, WA.

Fisheries Department of Western Australia, 1986. Fishing access arrangements FINS Vol 19 No 4: pp 12-14.

Malone, F. (unpublished). Report by the Chairman Mr F. Malone to the Executive Committee. 1986. Australian Fishing Industry Council (Western Australia Branch).

Stephenson, P. and J. Mant, 1998. Fisheries Status and Stock Assessment for the Pilbara Demersal Scalefish Fishery in relation to the Pilbara Trap Managed Fishery. Fisheries Western Australia (unpublished).

[56] The enabling legislation for fisheries management in Western Australia is the Fish Resources Management Act 1994.
[57] These fisheries were previously referred to as Limited Entry Fisheries under the Fisheries Act 1905.
[58] A variety of administrative- and management-related regulations are promulgated under these Regulations.
[59] Future management of these open-access finfish fisheries is a subject of the State’s Coastal Finfish Initiative, which will address ongoing resource sharing and security of access issues.
[60] More recently, Fisheries Western Australia developed and implemented a “Developing Fisheries Strategy” which moves new fisheries through an increasingly defined and explicit set of management systems of associated rights. However, this strategy does not apply to fisheries which were already in existence.
[61] In most major fisheries in Western Australia there is a Ministerial advisory committee (MAC) appointed to provide advice to the Minister on the management of a particular fishery. Where such a MAC does not exist the Minister may establish, on an ad hoc basis, a working group to provide management advice on a particular matter. Both a MAC and working group comprise members of key interest groups in the fishery, such as commercial fishers, recreational fishers, processors, community representatives, and government fisheries staff.
[62] The number of these licence-endorsements peaked at 31. The endorsements were not transferable in themselves, but could be transferred with the licences to which they were attached.
[63] Line fishing-effort was so low that it was not considered necessary to manage this component of the fishery and it was left open-access.
[64] Until the plan was amended in late 1999, there were two zones in the fishery: Zone-1 access covered the entire area of the fishery, while Zone-2 covered only waters east of 116o45’E. The two zones afforded extra protection to the waters west of 116º45’E, which were more exploited than waters in the east of the fishery. Access-criteria for Zone-1 were more stringent than those for Zone-2.
[65] After consultation with industry, this entitlement was modified in 1994, again through legislation, to limit the number of traps that could be used by each licensee, to 20.
[66] “supplementary access” was for those fishers who had participated in the trap-fishery but who could not meet the entry criteria because their primary fishery was the adjacent prawn-fishery. It was considered at the time that this access was an important component of their fishing business. They were not subject to performance criteria, however the management plan for the fishery allowed the Minister to revoke this access if necessary.
[67] Under Western Australia’s fisheries Regulations, fishermen are required to submit monthly returns of catch and effort for all commercial fishing activities.
[68] See Section 4.2 for further discussion of this subject
[69] The fisheries legislation requires licences to be issued for fishing activities and these form the basis for any transferable fishing units, however, it was a matter of management culture within the State at the time that licences remain limited once transferable units are attached. This may change over time.
[70] The main consultation and reporting mechanism for the Pilbara Trap Fishery is an Annual Management Meeting. These meetings have been held each year since the fishery was established in 1992. The small number of fishermen involved in this fishery has meant that these meetings, supplemented by extra meetings or correspondence, has been the most efficient and cost-effective method of consultation.
[71] The Tribunal process can be a lengthy one. It involves establishing a new Tribunal for each objection, setting hearing dates, preparing and presenting cases, and receiving a decision.
[72] The total number of 78 traps in this fishery was based on scientific advice and reflected the belief that such a number would permit a sustainable catch.
[73] The management plan in force at that time allowed the Executive Director of Fisheries to determine the maximum number of traps which could be used in the fishery and to make such adjustments to the units of effort within the fishery.
[74] For example, instead of six licensees being licensed to use 13 traps each and the fishery consisting of 78 traps, the capacity of the fishery was determined for the year 2000 at a maximum of 5867 trap-days. Because one trap unit was defined as one trap-day at the commencement of the amendment on 1 January 2000, for every trap owned, 75 units were allocated. (With 78 traps in the fishery, the initial conversion meant that every trap could be fished for 75 days.)

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