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Walter Starck's Blog

Walter Starck has a PhD in marine science including post-graduate training and professional experience in fisheries biology.

His reef experience includes some 50 years of fishing and diving on coral reefs including those in the eastern, western and central Pacific areas as well as the Indian Ocean and tropical western Atlantic region.

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West Australian fisheries in decline: Over-management, not overfishing
Thursday, 26 November 2009 10:53
Article Index
West Australian fisheries in decline: Over-management, not overfishing
Page 2 - Flaws in the DoFWA report
Page 3 - Filletgate
Page 4 - Ecologically sustainable development
Page 5 - Where we are and where we are headed
All Pages

Last year I was contacted by fishermen operating out of Broome, Western Australia. who wanted some independent scientific advice regarding the validity of a need for effort reduction claimed by their Department of Fisheries (DoFWA).

Upon looking into the matter I found that seven boats fishing a total of 220 traps with 160 days annual access were said to be overfishing a shelf area in excess of 200,000 square kilometres in the heart of some of the highest primary productivity waters around Australia.

I also found that:  

  • Catches were better than ever
  • Even assuming an overly generous catching area of a hectare per trap, at existing effort, it would require about 300 years to cover the fishing grounds just one time
  • The maximum sustainable yield for the fishery estimated by the department was only 800 tonnes per year total for all species of which there are over a dozen
  • Taiwanese trawlers using 100-metre wide pair trawls fished the same region for 25,000 hours in the 1970s and 1980s. Their scientists estimated a sustainable yield of over 50 times greater than the DoFWA estimate.  
  • The average catch per trap pull was also almost 50 times greater than the average biomass density implied by the DoFWA estimates.
  • To explain the catch rate, the department claimed the fishermen were targeting limited concentrations, yet fishing was widespread over thousands of different locations.
  • Even when fishing nine widely-spaced locations along a line near the middle of the fishing grounds were selected by the department for sampling purposes, the catch was above average.
  • Video camera observations revealed that only a small portion of fish seen immediately around a trap were actually being caught.
  • Management was effected by remote control from air conditioned offices a thousand miles away in Perth relying on projections from a computer model
  • None of the DoFWA managers had ever been out on one of the boats in the two decades they had managed the fishery

After my report drew attention to these and other disparities, an independent review was agreed upon. Jim Prescott, a Senior Field Manager from the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, was chosen to conduct the review.  

Mr Prescott has a wealth of experience but is not a computer modeller and the high level of certainty claimed for the department’s stock modelling was the central issue. However, if he was expected to skim over the modelling and approve it without really being able to critically examine it, a bad judgement was made.   

When Mr Prescott realised the modelling was the key issue, he sought the assistance of an expert modeller from New Zealand, D. Nokome Bentley.

Before permitting examination of their model by Mr Prescott and his expert, DoFWA then required signing of a confidentiality agreement which, “Ensures that draft versions of final reports will be made available to DoFWA for review through the chair of the review panel, allowing DoFWA to ensure that conclusions and analyses are consistent with other analyses so that issues pertaining to limitations of the data are consistently dealt with,” and which, “ensures that all copies and versions of DoFWA's data, models and model-derived outputs are destroyed at the completion of the review to ensure confidentiality of data and intellectual property of the model”.  

Scientific secrecy

Science employing what amounts to censorship, secret methods and results which cannot be disclosed is a travesty of the fundamental principles of science.

Worse yet, there are no extenuating circumstance for such secrecy. These are public servants using public funds to manage a public resource.

The public, and especially those whose livelihoods are at stake, have a clear right to know what is going on. The intellectual property claim is patent nonsense. The basic model used was developed elsewhere and is openly available.

DoFWA can only lay claim to their own implementation of it, the most important value of which would seem to be as a cautionary example of mistakes to avoid.