THE FACTORS AND PRESSURES AFFECTING SUSTAINABILITY
1. THE FISHERIES MYTH
The "vast potentialities of our seas" is one of the enduring myths of Australia. The utilisation of that potential has been the illusive objective of Government development schemes. Justification for the use of taxpayers funds to kick-start the development of a major industry inevitably rested on a foundation of three piers:-
1) the well known "fact" that the coastal seas were teeming with fish;
2) an immense coastline converted observations of schools of fish into major industries;
3) as imports of fish exceed "£1 million" therefore a market opportunity existed and the desirability of import replacement commended the development of the fishing industry.
For at least a century the tripod has been the foundation for - Governments justifying expenditure and oppositions chiding Government for its inaction, developers seeking capital, fisher's groups demanding Government aid and or preference, and research organisations seeking bigger budgets. Predictable in the euphoria of federation, and understandable in wartime when Australia's most important scientist Sir David Rivett made the claim in 1941, but such an extravagant claim is highly questionable today. Yet, on 12th October 1988 Senator Boswell (Qld), voted "Fisherman of the Year" by Queensland commercial fishermen in 1987, began the debate on the recent ASTEC report on Post-harvesting Technologies and Opportunities in the Fishing Industry by referring to the "immense coastline" and untapped resources of fish.
Until 1940 the tripod was unchallenged. Only some scientists and more conservative fishermen demanded more proof of the size of the resource and the behaviour of fish as a precursor to a development scheme. A Tariff Board Report in 1941 was the first official recognition that Australia's fish resources may not be extensive. Since then research has shown that phenomena such as large surface schools of jack mackerel off south eastern Australia and the colourful shoals teeming through the Great Barrier Reef are not indicators that a fishing industry, of the size of the industries of Japan or Norway, is just waiting to be developed.Australia has valuable but limited fish resources constrained by the fertility of coastal waters most of which are fully exploited. New fisheries such as those in deep water are capital and energy intensive and may be difficult to manage in a sustainable. Aquaculture also requires substantial capital investment and considerable energy is used in culturing most commercially viable fish.
The attitude of Australian fisheries organisations to development and conservation is dominated by their organisational culture thus it is instructive to examine the history of some representative examples. In the more populous States there is a suggestion that fisheries was more of an irritant to government than a vehicle for development. The large numbers of recreational fishers loom larger than the commercial fishing industry. In contrast Western Australia, Tasmania and latterly the Northern Territory governments have readily fostered commercial fisheries development. The interest of these Governments in fisheries development has also allowed the fishing industry and the Departments to gather government support for the management of existing fisheries. For most of Australia's history as a nation the interest of the national government in fisheries has been exclusively devoted to development. The dominance of the development ethic has contributed to the undervaluation of Australian fish stocks in two ways. Firstly by fostering the acceptance of new discoveries to replace over fished stocks and secondly having discovered a new resource effort must be made to encourage conservative fishers to exploit it (eg. Tasmanian jack mackerel, northern prawn stocks, Bight trawl stocks, squid.). Properly priced access to the new fishery would have been counter-productive to the development imperative and in this way an expectation of free, and in some cases subsidised access, was engendered by government.
2. DEVELOPMENT - THE NATIONAL RELIGION
Throughout Australia's history, development has been the principal goal of governments. Horne refers to "the secular faith of national development" and suggests that this faith is "our national religion". In this regard the fishing industry has been no different from the rest of the economy. The drive to harvest virgin stocks of whales, seals and, later, fish was similar to the impetus behind the clearing of the land for agriculture, harvesting timber and prospecting for minerals. Governments supported development in other industries both directly and indirectly but fisheries were largely left to grow in a free market economy with minimal assistance. Government aid to the industry was in the discovery of new resources. The absence of property rights, the British common law right to fish and the doctrine of "freedom of the seas" may all have played a part, but other countries, including Great Britain, directly assisted the fishing industry. Australian parliaments regularly included farmers and miners but rarely anyone with a background in fisheries. Among those developing public policy and influencing public opinion is a reasonable number of graduates from agricultural colleges and schools of forestry and mines and university departments of agricultural science and geology, but Australia still has no university school of fisheries and the formal education of fishermen and fisheries technicians, notably by the Australian Maritime College, began less than a decade ago. Consequently there is widespread ignorance of the true prospects, and limitations, for developing Australia's fisheries. A major conference in 1981 entitled "Resource Development and the future of Australian Society" arranged by the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies of the Australian National University made no mention of fisheries at all. Whilst many Australians are familiar with fishing as a recreation they are profoundly ignorant of both the principles of fisheries science and the difficulties of fishing as a business. With this lack of understanding, and no effective lobby, Government support for fisheries was bound to be fickle.
Fisheries development world wide has been heavily regulated by four groups of factors
- the invention of new fishing gear
- the application of technology to fishing
- the debate about depletion of stocks
-the impact of scientific discoveries
Fig 1 suggests that two periods have been particularly influential in stimulating development - the impact of the industrial revolution from 1870 to 1905, and the application of technology developed for World War II from 1945 to 1960. Australian fisheries developed in step with arrival of of those influences. First canning and then refrigerated transport offered the prospect of fish reaching substantial, but distant, markets. Canning demanded low priced fish and fishermen could only supply them if they could regularly land large quantities. By the end of the nineteenth century the otter trawl and the purse seine provided the technique to make such landings but the use of this gear was only economic when popular species were available in large numbers. Government played a major role in facilitating the arrival of the first wave in particular. The modern Australian fishing industry is a product of the second wave but the administration and management of Australian fisheries grew from the impact of the first.
It is pertinent to the current debate to recall that at the beginning of both of the major periods of industrialisation there were serious calls for the regulation of fishing to ensure sustainability. In 1880's the "Fisheries Parliament" in England called for both regulation and research, in 1946 an Overfishing Convention was agreed to. Governments allowed both initiatives to wither. Management of fisheries through control on effort is quickly undermined by technological advance, limits on catches are immune.