A long-awaited report has found the New South Wales Government’s sweeping fishing industry reforms that were supposed to solve major structural problems, have plunged fishermen into debt and business insecurity.
The report by Professor Kate Barclay of the University of Technology Sydney, measured the socio-economic impact of the reforms, has also highlighted uncertainty around further regulation changes, and called for better consultation and engagement between the government and fishermen.
The number of commercial fishermen dropped from a high of 3,500 in the 1980s to 1,100 prior to the reforms, and 300 have left since.
In 2016, the NSW Government tried to address the overallocation of fishing licences during the 1990s and early 2000s, to prevent overfishing, and restore the sector to profit.
The Business Adjustment Package (BAP) was designed to help inactive or older fishermen retire their licences.
‘Nothing good in this reform’
Paul Sullivan, an ocean trap and line fisherman and president of the Wild Caught Fishers Coalition, said his members were deeply unhappy about the reform process.
He said the reforms also had “dire consequences” for businesses on land such as restaurants and fishing co-ops like Wallis Lake.
“You’ve got co-ops buying their own trucks, because the transport companies that used to cart fish won’t do it — because there’s not enough fisherman.”
More debt, less certainty
For the first time, the Barclay report quantified the amount of debt that fisherman have incurred to stay in the industry.
Overall NSW fisherman spent $21.4 million to continue working in the industry which includes $14 million of new debt or savings spent.
The NSW government subsidized the share trading process to the tune of $11.6 million and allocated $6.5 million for buyouts.
While this was intended to secure their future, according to the Barclay report, the process left some fisherman worse off despite the government support packages.
At Eden, Drew Mudaliar has an ocean trap and line business and made the decision to sell some fishing licences to reinvest in the trawl fishery.
He said higher debt levels meant fishermen like him, would be exposed if access to the fishing resource was changed again.
“If you take out substantial debt to continue fishing, but then all of a sudden, you lose a fishing area or you’re severely restricted in what you can catch — how do you service that debt?” he said.
“I suppose we came through it okay, but we lost assets and an income from those assets,” he said.
Mr Mudaliar said the reforms have not removed latent effort in the fishery and have not made the industry more profitable.
‘Damning report’: State opposition
Labor’s agriculture spokesperson Jenny Aitchison said the report that shows the government has not been listening to fishers.
“It’s a damning report … the reforms started years ago [and] it’s a bit late to count the impact.”
One of the recommendations suggested the Department of Primary Industries consider better methods for consultation and policy development.
“They didn’t need an independent report to tell them that, they could have just rung up any commercial fisher in the state,” said Ms Aitchison.
Government won’t commit on compensation
Professor Barclay said there needed to be a framework to measure the long term economic and social impact.
“It’s probably too early to say [if the BAP has been successful], some of the reforms really only were implemented fully last year — the right kind of data to monitor changes isn’t there yet.
“That’s why I’m really pleased that the government response to the recommendations includes setting up a social and economic monitoring framework.”
NSW Agriculture Minister Adam Marshall said he was pleased the report had been completed and accepted all the recommendations “in principle”.
“It was a massive reform process where it literally tore the industry apart to put it back together.”
He would not be drawn on any additional compensation for fisherman left worse off after the reforms.
“It’s a bit early to give any indication yet what the government will do in response to this report.”