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VESSEL LICENCES, GEAR CONTROL AND FISHERMEN LICENSING IN AUSTRALIA: Australian Experience of these and Related Management Measures


R. Bain
Fisheries Division
Department of Primary Industry
Canberra, ACT, Australia


The Australian fishing zone (AFZ), which was declared on 1 November 1979, is one of the largest fishing zones in the world. However, the current output of Australian fisheries, about 15,000 tonnes valued at A$390 million, represents less than 0.2 percent of the total world production. The major developed fisheries in Australia are shown in Figure 1. The primary reasons for Australia's small production are the relatively low biological productivity of Australian waters and the relatively small size of the domestic market for fresh fish. In 1981/82, exports - chiefly crustaceans and molluscs - were valued at A$325 million, and imports - mainly comprising canned and frozen fish - were valued at A$218 million.

The Australian fishing industry maintained its profitability through much of the 1970s, assisted by rising real prices for most of its exports. However, the rise in fuel and associated costs in the late 1970s caused a sharp drop in returns and rising interest rates added to the financial problems of vessel owners. In addition, the introduction of larger vessels with increased engine power and more sophisticated fishing equipment was accompanied by declining catch per unit of fishing effort in a number of major fisheries.

Australian fishermen face foreign competition in all their major markets. Much of the output of Australian fisheries is exported to Japan, Europe and North America in competition with products of other fishing nations. On the domestic market, the Australian fishing industry faces competition from imports which are admitted largely free of duty. Thus, over the longer term, seafood prices are heavily influenced by supply and demand on world markets and the industry faces a continuing challenge to ensure that its economic efficiency does not decline relative to its major competitors.

Most of the decisions on catching, processing and marketing are taken on a private basis with a view to achieving maximum profit. However, governments in Australia are involved in such areas as product inspection and management of the catching sector. Measures such as gear restrictions, limited licensing and maximum vessel sizes are used to achieve a number of objectives, ranging from stock conservation to the protection of traditional ways of life.

Continued increases in fishing costs and declines in the rate of growth of revenue could result in pressure for increasing government intervention in the management of Australia's fish resources. In the remainder of this paper, the institutional arrangements for managing the AFZ and some important issues in the management of specific Australian fisheries are outlined.


Jurisdiction over waters surrounding Australia is shared by the Australian Government, six State Governments and the Government of the Northern Territory. State-Government jurisdiction applies in coastal waters up to three miles from the coast. The Australian Government exercises fishery jurisdiction over Australian vessels in proclaimed waters extending from the outer edge of coastal waters to 200 nautical miles, and over foreign vessels in the AFZ. Where the AFZ overlaps another country's 200-mile zone, it is delimited by agreed boundaries.

Figure 1

Figure 1

The objectives of the Australian Government in the administration of fisheries within its jurisdiction are:

State Governments share these objectives. The stated aims of State fisheries legislation also include the development of fisheries and the fishing industry and, in some cases, the promotion of the industry and/or the welfare of its participants.

The development of the fishing industry is not generally regarded by Governments in Australia as one of the principal means to achieve regional economic development, although in the Northern Territory and Tasmania the role of fisheries in economic development is given greater emphasis. However, all State Governments and the Government of the Northern Territory recognize the fishing industry as an important source of employment and income in some areas. Where local or regional concerns about employment and income conflict with national concerns about stock conservation and optimum resource use, the objectives of the Australian Government and State Governments do not always coincide. However, as most Australian fisheries have been developed relatively recently, policy makers are not faced with the major problems of restructuring traditional or artisanal fisheries which are common in many other parts of the world.

Consultative mechanisms play an important role in the management and development of Australian fisheries. The Australian Fisheries Council (AFC) provides a forum for consultation between the Federal and State Ministers responsible for fisheries, on all aspects of fisheries, and the fishing industry. The AFC is serviced by the Standing Committee on Fisheries (SCF) which comprises senior fisheries officials. The SCF is serviced by a number of committees which are largely organized on a regional or species basis and comprise government and industry representatives. The Australian Fishing Industry Council, a voluntary national industry organization, also advises the Australian Government on major issues.

Jurisdiction over the AFZ may be modified when recently enacted legislation for the Offshore Constitutional Settlement is proclaimed. The Settlement provides that the Australian and State Governments may enter into agreements on the management of specific fisheries, to be implemented by joint Australian and State fisheries management authorities or by the Australian Government alone or one State Government acting alone. Implementation of agreements envisaged in the Settlement should permit some rationalization of both consultative procedures and the administration of fisheries management programmes.


The objectives of fisheries management can be defined as follows:

Conservation and economic efficiency can be achieved by controlling catch directly, or indirectly by regulating fishing effort.

Licensing and gear control is used extensively in Australia to control fishing effort. Licensing of fishermen, vessels and gear is frequently insufficient to control effort. In fact the introduction of a limited-entry management regime within a fishery frequently encourages rapid upgrading of vessels and fishing equipment because it is regarded as providing greater security of tenure. Financial institutions are much more inclined to lend to fishermen with exclusive rights in specific fisheries.

Controls on mesh size and gear design and on vessel replacement and restrictions on vessel length and engine horsepower have been used to supplement limited licensing in Australia. Closed areas and seasons have also been used. Supplementary controls have only proved to be partially effective in restraining effort, and vessel-replacement policies have adversely affected efficiency in some areas. However, the use of supplementary input controls has coincided with improved profitability in some fisheries, and the schemes in operation have been relatively inexpensive to administer.

In order to achieve stock conservation and efficient harvesting, it may be necessary in the future to reduce the numbers of vessels or gear units when a limited licensing scheme is introduced. Improvements in the availability and use of technology can be expected to necessitate further reductions over time. The number of fishermen, gear and vessels in a fishery may be reduced by means of policies of persuasion, retirement without replacement or buy-back. Of these, persuasion may be ineffective and retirement without replacement is unlikely to achieve a rapid reduction in effort. Buy-back has been discussed in the context of several Australian fisheries but is only being implemented in one, the barramundi fishery in the Northern Territory. The choice of fishermen to be retired may be controversial, whether selection is made by administrative or market means. Funding buy-back schemes presents further problems.

Where limited licensing is introduced, fisheries managers have the option of allocating licences to existing participants in the fishery, to ‘bona fide’ fishermen in general or to any individual or company with appropriate attributes. Generally, Governments in Australia have given first preference to existing participants in the fishery. However, there is a need to encourage the entry of potentially efficient operators with entrepreneurial skills and financial backing. It is also necessary to facilitate retirement from fishing owing to age or changing economic circumstances. In most fisheries, unrestricted licence transfers have been permitted to facilitate entry to and exit from the fishery.

If the issue or transfer of licences is restricted to one per bona fide fisherman, these fishermen are likely to be vulnerable to fluctuations in fish prices and fishing costs. If fishermen are allowed to hold licences in different fisheries or to have business interests other than fishing, their incomes are likely to be more stable and their effort in one fishery can be reduced if necessary without reducing their income excessively. In addition, holding licences for more than one fishery may be required to allow the exploitation of seasonal fisheries without enforcing extended idle periods for vessels. Although there have been concerns about a concentration of licence ownership in some fisheries, licensed fishermen are allowed multiple holdings of vessel licences and diversified business interests in most Australian fisheries.

The value of transferable licences in a limited entry fishery reflects the estimated present value of the expected future stream of net returns to fishing. Thus a transferable licence can be a valuable capital asset. It has been claimed that it is inequitable for licence holders to receive the full value of a licence at sale. However, fishermen argue that a fish resource has no value until a commercial fishery is developed and that fishermen who develop a fishery should earn at least a share of any profits. Substantial licence fees are levied in some limited-entry fisheries in Australia and they are making a significant contribution to the expenses of fisheries management.


Seventy percent of Australian fisheries are covered by limited licensing. Six fisheries have been chosen to illustrate the variety of experience of fisheries management in Australia. In four of them, the western rock lobster, the Spencer Gulf prawn, the northern prawn and the south-east abalone fisheries, there are established limited licensing schemes. In the south-east trawl fishery and the southern bluefin tuna fishery, management schemes are under consideration.

4.1 The Western Rock Lobster Fishery

The western rock lobster fishery is one of Australia's most valuable fisheries. It is also of particular interest, because there is a long history of gear control and vessel licensing in the fishery.

4.1.1 The Fishery

The western rock lobster lives in shallow coastal rock beds for the first four to five years of its life. At the end of this period, juveniles are reaching maturity and are about the legal minimum size for harvesting. In mid-November they commence migration to deeper water. The fishing season lasts until the end of June of the following year.

The commercial fishery extends along 1,000 km of the western Australian coastline from Shark Bay to Cape Naturaliste. The fishery is exploited by about 800 vessels, mostly between 7.5 and 13.5 m, employing about 1,800 men. Over half of the fishing fleet is concentrated in the ports of Geraldton and Fremantle. Developments in the fishery are an important influence on the welfare of the population of these towns. Much of the rest of the fleet is highly dispersed and many small communities are dependent on the fishery to a high degree.

In 1981/82, landings were about 11,000 tonnes, valued at more than A$60 million. The majority of the catch is processed for export to the United States, where Australia currently supplies about 40 percent of the market. The annual total catch in the fishery has been relatively stable for the last 20 years and, if this trend continues, the outlook for the participants in the fishery is good. The major influence on the economic performance of the fishery is the export market price. In real terms, the unit price received by Australian fishermen was stable over the period 1967–80 and is now about A$7 per kg. The continuing high price of the product has encouraged new entrants into the industry. The current market price for a licence to fish is in excess of A$2,000 per pot, with most fishermen operating between 75 and 100 pots. This reflects the high value of access to the rock lobster resources.

4.1.2 Management of the Fishery

After a rapid expansion in the fishery in the early 1950s, between 1955–56 and 1961–62, the total catch increased by only 8 percent, whereas the number of lobster pots in use increased by 60 percent. Consequently, concern arose about stock conservation and the long-run economic prospects of the industry.

To conserve rock lobster stocks, the legal minimum size at first capture was regulated and restrictions on pot design and closed seasons were introduced. In 1963, limited licensing was introduced and the number of pots per vessel was restricted. Subsequently, the total number of pots in the fishery was frozen at 76,000 and the replacement of vessels was controlled. The implementation of these and other management measures was facilitated by the coordination of industry attitudes and Government policy through a Rock Lobster Industry Advisory Committee, established by the Western Australian Government.

The management of the western rock lobster fishery has been successful in many respects. Stocks have been conserved by gear control and seasonal closures, total catch has been maintained over a long period of time and the excessive entry of vessels has been prevented. Close cooperation between industry and Government has been established. The welfare of fishermen and the standard of living in many communities dependent on the fishery has been maintained, although depressed conditions in international markets have resulted in periods of economic hardship. The licensing programme is relatively simple and inexpensive.

However, there have been difficulties in adapting the management system to deal with technological improvements. Despite restrictions on vessel replacement, the size and speed of fishing vessels has increased, permitting the number of fishing days to rise. Although the total number of pots in use has been restricted, the use of echo sounders to improve pot placement has further contributed to increased fishing effort. The fishing season was reduced by a further six weeks in 1977, to ensure conservation of the stock.

The reduction in the fishing season has increased the annual idle period for the industry. The number of vessels in the industry is greater than that which would be required to harvest the sustainable catch over a longer season. In the event of further increases in the efficiency of fishing vessels, the managers of the fishery will need to consider whether a further reduction in the season is compatible with continued industry profitability. Alternatively, controls on vessel size and inputs, reductions in pot numbers and a vessel buy-back could be considered.

4.2 The Spencer Gulf Prawn Fishery

The objectives of management in this State-controlled fishery are primarily based on economic considerations. The fishery is based on the exploitation of a highly valued species and potential gains from good management are substantial. The fishery has been subjected to limited entry virtually from the start and the effects of management can be studied relatively easily.

4.2.1 The Fishery

The fishery is located in the Spencer Gulf, an area estimated to exceed 16,000 square kilometres, in South Australia. A single species of penaeid prawn is exploited and fishing is concentrated on grounds adjacent to nursery areas.

The output of the fishery fluctuates but the long-term trend is stable at about 2,000 tonnes per annum. The output was valued at A$18.5 million in 1980/81. The economic performance of the fishery is good, as demonstrated by the value of licences which is believed to exceed A$200,000.

4.2.2 Management of the Fishery

Although the fishery is not vulnerable to over-fishing, seasonal area closures were imposed at the outset, to prevent excessive fishing on and near nursery grounds.

Since the commencement of the fishery, both Government and industry have been conscious of the need to prevent excessive entry from dissipating returns. Initially the issue of licences to fish was restricted to bona fide fishermen with a history of participation in the fishery and with adequate vessels. The number of vessel licences has been frozen at 39 since 1974/75.

Despite the freeze on vessel licences and associated controls on vessel length and subsequently on engine horsepower, there have been further increases in fishing effort. These increases have arisen partly from increased fishing time, owing to the use of stabilizers and the employment of relief skippers, and partly from the introduction of more powerful vessel engines and double- rigged trawls. It is estimated that fishing effort in the Spencer Gulf fishery rose by 50 percent between 1970 and 1978 and most of the increase resulted from the increased fishing time and fishing power of vessels.

Extensions of the closed seasons and areas have been imposed to restrict increases in effort. These closures are not an ideal method of restricting effort, because of the associated reduction in vessel fishing time. However, returns to fishing have remained relatively high, which indicates that limited licensing and associated input controls have assisted in maintaining industry profitability.

Licences to fish are not transferable in theory but in practice transfers have been allowed to occur without Government intervention. After discussions between Government and industry, licence fees were increased substantially, in recognition of the value of access to the resource, and are currently in excess of A$7,000 per annum. Although these fees are intended to fund research and development, they could also contribute funds for a future vessel buy-back programme, if such a programme was deemed to be desirable and feasible.

4.3 The Northern Prawn Fishery

The northern prawn fishery is one of Australia's most valuable fisheries. The development of a management regime for the fishery illustrates some of the hazards of management by limited licensing.

4.3.1 The Fishery

The northern prawn fishery extends across the northern coast of Australia from Cape York to near the border of Western Australia and the Northern Territory, and includes the Gulf of Carpentaria. The major species caught in the fishery are banana prawns and tiger prawns. Although the stock of banana prawns is not thought to be endangered, the declining length of the fishing season suggests that effort is in excess of the amount needed to take the current catch. Tiger prawns and related species comprised an increasing proportion of the total catch in recent years. It is not possible to determine whether further increases in catch of these species can be sustained.

The total number of vessels permitted to operate in the fishery doubled between 1971 and 1980 and is currently 292. There was a rapid increase in the number of freezer trawlers over 21 m in length. The number of persons employed on vessels in the fishery is about 1,200.

During the early development of the fishery, Governments viewed it as a means of stimulating economic development and employment in northern Australia. However, shore-based processing establishments on the northern coastline have experienced difficulty in overcoming logistical problems and high operating costs in remote areas. A substantial proportion of the fish landings are transported by road and sea to plants elsewhere in Australia for processing, while an increasing proportion is processed on board the larger trawlers.

The total catch in the fishery rose from an average of 7,249 tonnes in 1969/71 to an average of 11,049 tonnes in 1978/80. Most of the catch was exported. Despite continued increases in the size of vessels and the efficiency of gear, catches have not risen commensurately with fishing effort. Many operators experienced financial difficulties in the late 1970s and early 1980s. These difficulties are reflected in the value of transferable vessel licences which have declined well below their peak value of about A$150,000.

4.3.2 Management of the Fishery

Early attempts at management were confined to seasonal closures, directed at reducing the catch of small prawns. These closures were intended to preserve the unit value of the catch rather than to conserve stocks. Closures are still applied.

Subsequently, a working group set up by the Northern Fisheries Committee (NFC), a body comprising representatives of concerned Government departments, recommended that a limited- entry policy be introduced to ensure stock conservation and promote industry efficiency. A freeze on vessel licences, together with a one-to-one equivalent vessel replacement policy, was introduced, pending the preparation of a comprehensive management plan.

A number of constraints impeded the introduction of a management plan capable of meeting Government and industry objectives:

The expectation that a tighter boat replacement policy would be introduced, together with a shipbuilding bounty on boats of over 21 m, provided incentives for an accelerated introduction of larger vessels in the northern prawn fishery.

Many owner operators sold their vessels and fishing licences to large companies, returned to Queensland and bought new vessels to use in the Queensland east-coast trawl fishery. The companies replaced the original boats with larger vessels and sold the smaller vessels to other Queensland fishermen. Consequently, there has been a rapid increase in effort in the Queensland east-coast trawl fishery which is causing management problems. These problems underline the need to coordinate fisheries management programmes in overlapping ecological or economic environments.

The entire management plan for the northern prawn fishery is currently under review. The earlier proposals to divide the fishery and to introduce a vessel-replacement policy based on underdeck tonnes have been revised. Division of the fishery is not widely supported but it seems clear that, if fishing effort is to be contained, the vessel replacement policy will need to be revised.

4.4 South-Eastern Trawl Fishery

The south-east trawl fishery is a multi-species fishery operating in a complex biological, economic and political environment. The fishery illustrates some characteristic problems in establishing a management regime for a multi-species fishery.

4.4.1 The Fishery

The principal area of this demersal fishery extends from Port Stephens along the central and southern coasts of New South Wales and eastern Victoria. The principal species are gemfish, redfish, flathead and morwong. Seasonal catches are obtained off western Victoria and north-western Tasmania. The width of the continental shelf, the condition of the sea bottom and the composition of the catch vary considerably over this area. A large proportion of the catch is taken from the deeper waters of the outer continental shelf and continental slope.

Some stocks, including flathead and morwong, are thought to be fully exploited, while others which occur in deeper waters further from shore, especially blue grenadier, are under-exploited. The maximum sustainable yield has been estimated at 25,000–35,000 tonnes but recent catches of lightly-exploited fishes such as blue grenadier, ribbonfish and orange roughy indicate that it could be higher.

About 180 vessels, employing 400 men, operate in the fishery. The average vessel size is 15–20 m in length. In recent years, vessels of over 20 m have become increasingly common. The vessels employ either otter trawl or Danish seine, though the proportion of Danish seiners is declining.

The south-eastern trawl fishery has an annual output of approximately 18,000 tonnes, valued at A$17 million. Most of the product is sold locally; the fishery is the principal source of Australian-caught fish sold through the Sydney and Melbourne fish markets. Some school whiting is exported, mostly to Japan. Most of the product faces competition from imports.

Economic performance in the fishery varies by area and by type of fishing vessel. Danish seiners and otter trawlers under 18 m in length yield relatively low returns, whereas larger otter trawlers perform relatively well. The profitability of the fishery has fallen in recent years, owing to increases in costs, particularly the cost of fuel. Further development of the fishery may occur through the increased exploitation of under-exploited stocks in deeper waters. The main influence on industry revenues is expected to continue to be the domestic price of finfish. This in turn is principally determined by domestic supplies and the price of imports. In the longer term, changes in consumer tastes and developments in marketing arrangements may have a major impact on this fishery.

4.2.2 Management of the Fishery

The south-eastern trawl fishery is relatively lightly regulated. The number of vessels over 32 m permitted to operate in the fishery is limited to four. There are also regulations on the minimum length of some species of fish at first capture and on the minimum mesh size of trawl nets.

The relative lack of regulation has not resulted in over-exploitation of the stocks in the past. In periods of economic downturn, some vessels have moved to other fisheries. However, because of increasing effort in alternative fisheries, the options for switching effort are diminishing. There is also continuing concern that operators may upgrade their vessels, in order to improve their competitive position, without bringing about any improvement in the aggregate economic performance of the fishery. Consequently, serious thought is being given to an appropriate management regime.

The particular problems in the design of a management programme arise from the variety of exploitation of the stocks and the seasonality of fishing. Broadly speaking, the fishery can be divided into a traditional fully-exploited sector and an under-exploited offshore sector. Some seasonal movement from the developing to the traditional sector is needed to underpin the economic operation of vessels in the developing sector. The vessels required in the offshore sector are larger than those operating in the fully-exploited sector. This implies that, to achieve stock conservation and efficient harvesting throughout the fishery, the average size of vessels in the fully-exploited part of the fishery should be allowed to increase and the number of vessels should be reduced.

In these circumstances, there appears to be no ideal system of management. Mesh regulations and input controls, such as the regulation of tonnage or engine horsepower, are not flexible enough to achieve stock conservation and efficient harvesting of fish of mixed species and sizes, at different depths and in varying conditions. A system of vessel catch quotas would allow a precise approach to stock conservation but would be complex and expensive to enforce. The managers of this fishery may have to consider management measures which sacrifice some degree of efficiency and equity to gain simplicity and acceptability from a conservation viewpoint.

4.5 The South-Eastern Abalone Fishery

This fishery is of particular interest because Australia provides a substantial proportion of world output and, therefore, the level of production greatly influences international market prices.

4.5.1 The Fishery

The fishery is situated in coastal waters of New South Wales, Tasmania, Victoria and South Australia. The predominant species are black lip abalone and green lip abalone. The stocks have some degree of natural protection from over-exploitation. Juvenile abalone are secretive, avoid light and are hard to find. Adults are distributed over a wide area and exploitation is limited to areas where diving is safe. Although the most abundant year class in the overall catch is the one immediately above legal minimum length, which indicates a high fishing pressure, stocks are not believed to be over-exploited.

Currently, approximately 600 divers and crewmen participate in the fisheries. Divers harvest abalone by prising them from the rocks. The divers use relatively small vessels of 5–7 m as platforms. These vessels are fast through the water and easy to transport by road. After landing, the catch is processed locally and nearly all of it is exported, principally to Japan and Hong Kong. Exports are equally divided between canned and frozen products.

The fishery developed rapidly from the early 1960s to produce about 6,700 tonnes, worth A$37 million in 1980/81. Australia produces about one-third of the total world abalone catch. The trend of economic performance of the fishery has been relatively good. The cost of a vessel and diving equipment are relatively low, while the unit value of abalone landings in Australia was about A$3.50/kg in 1981. In general, the economic prospects of the abalone industry in south-east Australia are good. The chief problem is periodic over-supply in key export markets, especially Japan. However, being a leading producer and Japan's major supplier of imports, Australian producers can influence prices if they regulate supply.

4.5.2 Management of the Fishery

It is prohibited to take abalone from waters outside the 3-mile territorial limit adjacent to Tasmania, Victoria and South Australia. There are regulations on minimum lengths at harvest in coastal waters adjacent to all concerned States. These lengths vary between 102–103 mm. In addition, all States control the entry of divers into the fishery by limited licensing. These measures have been successful in maintaining stocks and industry profitability. There is little scope to improve the technology of abalone diving by labour-saving devices.

The major problem in the abalone fishery is likely to continue to be control of production to prevent excessive fluctuations in price. Changing the number of licensed fishermen is not an appropriate method of achieving such fine tuning.

As mentioned above, Australian abalone producers are in the fortunate position of being able to exercise some control over international prices. In 1982, a major build-up of stocks in Australia occurred, owing to depressed markets in Japan and elsewhere. Following consultations between industry and concerned Government authorities, abalone divers voluntarily restrained production to allow stocks to clear and to minimize further reductions in prices. Processors gave divers some financial assistance in the belief that they would gain more from higher prices than they would lose from payments to divers. The action of abalone divers and processors demonstrates the potential value of industry self-regulation. However, voluntary restraint can only be expected in Australia where relatively small groups of fishermen are involved and collective action can be confidently expected to achieve substantial gains.

4.6 The Southern Bluefin Tuna Fishery

The southern bluefin tuna (SBT) is a highly migratory species with special management problems. It is the only international fishery in which Australia is a major participant.

4.6.1 The Fishery

SBT is a migratory species which spawns between Java and north-western Australia. Juveniles migrate down the west coast of Australia and most of them follow the Australian coast eastwards before migrating eastwards into the Pacific chiefly in a band between 40° and 50° S.

In recent years, up to 50 percent of the global catch of SBT has been taken in the AFZ, with the remainder being caught in the southern ocean from New Zealand to South Africa. The stock is exploited extensively by Japanese distant-water longliners.

The Japanese catch peaked at 70,000 tonnes per annum in the 1960s and has subsequently fallen to about 28,000 tonnes, of which about 10 percent is taken in the Australian fishing zone. New Zealand has a small but growing SBT fishery; currently the total catch is several hundred tonnes.

After the initial development of the Australian tuna fishery in the 1950s, catches were relatively stable between 6,000 and 14,000 tonnes in the period 1960–80, with fishing concentrated off south-eastern Australia. In the last two fishing seasons, there has been a marked increase in production and total Australian production was 21,585 tonnes, valued at A$35 million, in 1981/82. Although much of the product is consumed in Australia, the quantity of exports, which fluctuates according to demand in export markets, has reached several thousand tonnes.

The composition of the Australian tuna fleet varies from State to State. In western Australia, there are now up to 100 vessels of 8–14 m engaged in seasonal pole-and-lining for tuna of 2 to 3 years in age.

In South Australia and New South Wales, there are now about 55 vessels, averaging over 22 m in length and fishing for tuna of 3 to 6 years of age. Most of the vessels are pole-and-liners, although there are five purse seine vessels. Some vessels only fish seasonally for SBT and operate in the south-eastern trawl fishery for the rest of the year. Port Lincoln in South Australia is the major port for the fleet. There are important onshore processing facilities at Port Lincoln, at Eden in new South Wales and in Western Australia.

The economic performance of the Australian tuna industry has been generally satisfactory, although price fluctuations and high interest rates at a time of rising costs created difficulties for some vessel owners in 1982. However, fishing power has been expanding considerably more rapidly than catch, indicating increasing over-capacity in the industry.

4.6.2 Management of the Fishery

Recent developments in the management of SBT have been prefaced by two important legal and institutional developments. Article 64 of the Law of the Sea convention directs States concerned in the exploitation of highly migratory species to:

“Cooperate directly or through appropriate international institutions with a view to ensuring conservation and promoting the objective of optimum utilization of such species throughout the region, both within and beyond the exclusive economic zone.”

The declaration of the Australian fishing zone in 1979 was accompanied by an agreement between the Australian Government, Northern Territory Government, State Governments and industry that foreign fishing inside the AFZ would only be permitted where Australian fishermen could not harvest the optimum catch. The recent expansion in Australian fishing effort can be partly attributed to an expectation that foreign fishing in the zone would be phased out if local industry demonstrated its capacity to harvest the available resources.

When the zone was declared, a freeze on vessel licences for the tuna fishery in south-eastern Australia was in force. This licence limitation, which placed no restriction on the size of replacement vessels, was ineffective in restraining vessel improvements in the south-east Australian tuna fleet. The number of vessels in the West Australian fishery was not restricted. Furthermore, industry argued that it was contrary to the agreed policy for managing the AFZ to limit Australian licences to fish SBT while Japanese vessels were catching SBT in the AFZ. Consequently, the freeze on vessel licences was removed in April 1981.

To protect the interests of the growing Australian tuna industry, the permitted areas of operation and fishing season of Japanese fishermen in the Australian fishing zone have been progressively reduced since the Australia/Japan Fisheries Agreement was signed in 1979.

Recently, scientists of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) concluded that SBT stocks were in some danger of collapse with the passage of time, if effort was sustained at current levels. The Australian Government is considering the introduction of a management regime in the fishery.

As a first step towards international management, the Governments of Australia and Japan have agreed to actively consider the international management of SBT as a means of conserving the resource. The first discussion on SBT management between Australia, Japan and New Zealand took place on 13–17 December 1982 in New Zealand. Effort control by means of an international vessel licensing system is unlikely to be feasible because of differences in national law and custom. One potential solution to the management problem is the negotiation of a set of national quotas. Each country could then administer its own input or output control system, bearing in mind any limitations on the fishing seasons, fishing areas and the use of gear included in any international agreement for the purpose of stock conservation.


The Law of the Sea Convention directs Australia, as a coastal State, to permit access to the AFZ by foreign vessels to fish for any resources surplus to Australian harvesting capacity. The Convention also grants Australia the right to take account of all relevant factors, including the significance of the living resources of the zone to the economy of Australia and its other national interests. The principal policy objective in considering joint Australian foreign fishing arrangements is the maximization of Australian ownership of and/or participation in harvesting, processing and marketing in the fishery.

Joint fishing arrangements are confined to fisheries which are not yet adequately developed by Australian fishermen. If arrangements are approved, foreign fishing in the AFZ is subject to a number of regulations, including reporting requirements and arrangements for the accommodation of observers and the provision of data. Joint fishing arrangements may take these forms.

Joint feasibility fishing arrangements provide a fast and inexpensive method of resource assessment for species which are not fished or very lightly fished by Australians, and assist in conserving and in managing resources in accordance with international obligations. Licences are granted to foreign vessels to engage in feasibility fishing for periods of not more than two years. There have been no restrictions on the catches of vessels engaged in such fishing and no fees have been charged. When resources have been proved by feasibility fishing or stock assessment research, foreign fishing may be permitted under joint ventures or bilateral agreements if the resource is surplus to Australian harvesting capacity.

There have been a large number of feasibility fishing projects which have confirmed the limited extent of commercial fisheries around Australia. However, a large squid resource in south-eastern waters was identified.

Joint ventures are longer-term commercial propositions which offer benefits to Australia by mobilizing foreign capital, vessels, crews and expertise to develop new fisheries. Joint-venture proposals receive preference over proposals for bilateral fishing because they encourage the development of fishing by Australians.

Stock conservation is facilitated by assigning catch quotas to foreign vessels and by restricting their permitted fishing season and area of operation. Joint-venture companies are liable to pay fees based on a percentage of the market value of the catch. These fees contribute to the expense of surveillance and administration of the AFZ. Fees may be waived in recognition of benefits received from the joint-venture company. The interest of the local shipbuilding industry is protected by controls on the importation of foreign vessels. Finally, to prevent excessive export of company profits, joint venture companies are obliged to ensure that Australians hold majority shareholdings and voting rights.

Joint fishing operations undertaken in Australia to date, include pearl culture, prawn fishing in northern waters and a trawling venture in the Great Australian Bight. The pearl-culture and prawn fishing ventures proved commercially successful and subsequently foreign vessels have been phased out.

If Australian fishermen cannot harvest resources and there are no joint venture proposals which are acceptable to State Governments and the Australian fishing industry, bilateral fishing arrangements may be approved under which foreign fishermen are granted access to the Australian fishing zone, subject to the payment of a fee based on a percentage of the market value of the authorized catch and compliance with Australian regulations relating to foreign fishing. If these regulations are breached, further fishing licences may be refused. Bilateral agreements are subject to annual renewal which allows the Australian Government to reduce or withdraw quotas and restrict areas if Australians wish to enter the fishery and/or viable joint-venture proposals have been received.

Prior to the introduction of the AFZ, the only foreign vessels fishing around Australia in substantial numbers were Japanese tuna-longliners and Taiwanese pair-trawlers and gillnetters. In order to ensure that these operations were subject to controls under Australia's extended jurisdiction, fisheries' agreements were signed with Japan and with Taiwanese commercial interests in 1979 and have been renewed annually. The areas available for Japanese and Taiwanese bilateral fishing in 1981/82 are shown in Figure 2.

Discussions have recently commenced with the Republic of Korea concerning a bilateral squidjigging agreement to fish in south-eastern waters of the AFZ.


The development of Australian fisheries is likely to be constrained in the 1980s by the limited extent of new fish resources, sluggish markets and continuing increases in fishing and transport costs. Improved fisheries management cannot solve these problems but they may be eased if Government objectives for fisheries management are met. These objectives include stock conservation, efficient exploitation of marine resources and stabilization of incomes in the fishing industry.

A wider variety of management measures have been used to achieve these objectives in Australian fisheries. Limited licensing of fishermen, fishing gear and vessels has been predominant among these measures and controls on the type of gear and vessels, fishing seasons and fishing areas have also been widely used.

Available information indicates that stocks are robust in most Australian fisheries, although there are problems in the southern bluefin tuna fishery and questions about some stocks, such as banana prawns, in fisheries where effort has increased rapidly in recent years. Limited licensing has not been sufficient to control fishing effort and prevent stock depletion. In most limited-entry fisheries additional controls have been required.

The success of management in achieving economic efficiency has been mixed. Limited entry has restricted over-capitalization arising from excess numbers of fishermen, gear and vessels. However, the increased security of operations in limited-entry fisheries has resulted in improved access to finance and encouraged the upgrading of vessels and equipment. Additional controls, including restrictions on mesh sizes, fishing areas and seasons, vessel length and tonnage, and engine horsepower have been required to prevent further increases in fishing effort in limited-entry fisheries.

These controls have often constrained increases in productivity, although in some fisheries, including the Spencer Gulf and northern prawn fisheries, restrictions on fishing areas and seasons and on mesh sizes have prevented the harvest of prawns before they reached acceptable market size and, consequently, enhanced yields and profits.

It has proved difficult to reduce the numbers of gear units and vessels used in fisheries or to introduce comprehensive input controls. These difficulties have been experienced in the western rock lobster and Spencer Gulf prawn fisheries. They are emphasized further by the history of the northern prawn fishery, which also illustrates the need to coordinate the management of different fisheries.

Turning to equity issues, Australian fishermen are sharing an increasing proportion of the cost of management in some limited-entry fisheries, notably the Spencer Gulf prawn fishery. In limited-entry fisheries, where licences are transferable, they may attract large transfer fees which in turn attract criticism on equity grounds. However, if licences are non-transferable, adjustment problems can arise and efficiency can be impaired, particularly where older fishermen feel unable to leave the fishery.

The introduction of limited entry in Australian fisheries has been accompanied by expectations that fishermen's incomes would increase. However, fishermen's incomes cannot be guaranteed in the face of fluctuating catches and prices. Furthermore, the impact of limited entry on fishermen's incomes depends not only on its success in promoting stock conservation and economic efficiency but also on the distribution of fishing licences in limited-entry fisheries. This raises several issues.

Restriction of licences to bona fide fishermen may protect the interests of existing fishermen but it could discourage efficiency by restricting the entry of entrepreneurial and financial resources. Restriction of licence holdings by any one individual or company may prevent concentration of licence holdings and consequent exploitation of fishermen. However, it may also prevent fishermen from diversifying their activities. Diversified fishing is necessary to allow the efficient exploitation of seasonal fisheries; it can add to fishermen's security and it may facilitate the adjustment of effort in individual fisheries if required.

Finally, limited licensing is inconvenient for licencees and expensive to administer in fisheries where there are several licensing authorities and multiple licensing is required. Several important fisheries in Australia cross State boundaries and licences are required from the Australian Government and concerned State Governments. Further complexities may arise in licensing for multi-species fisheries.

In view of the drawbacks of limited licensing, management options which use output quotas are being examined with increasing interest. Where fisheries are exploited by relatively small fleets and fish landing and processing is concentrated, as in the Australian SBT fishery, the costs of policing vessel catch quotas may be kept within reasonable limits.

In the remainder of the 1980s, there are several factors which are expected to encourage developments in fisheries management in Australia. There is a growing recognition of the potential contribution of fisheries management to alleviating fishing industry problems. The Offshore Constitutional Settlement has provided an opportunity to rationalize consultative procedures and administrative arrangements for fisheries management. Finally, the experience of management in Australian fisheries is beginning to offer some insight into the relative merits of various options and industry and Governments are gaining a better understanding of the issues and limitations of fisheries management.

Figure 2

Figure 2

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