A View to the Future of Australia's Fisheries: According to the Australian Winner of 2003's Prestigious Japan Prize, the Path Forward for Our National Fisheries Is in Improved Data, Ecosystem Research, Cutting-Edge Management Policies, and a Scheme That Rewards Sustainable Practice. Dr Keith Sainsbury Spoke to Wendy Pyper about His Optimistic Vision

Article excerpt

In the days before underwater cameras, CSIRO Marine Research fisheries ecologist, Dr Keith Sainsbury, spent hours diving on trawl nets to assess their impact on marine habitats. It was an exciting time for the young scientist, with hundreds of marine species to discover and a vast array of habitats to explore.

In the late 1970s, exploration cruises across northern Australia, Western Australia's North West Shelf; the Kimberley Coast, and the Timor Sea, led to Sainsbury's first book, Continental Shelf Fishes of Northern and North-Western Australia. The book described some 800 fish species, many new to science, and one, the shovel-nosed ray (Rhinobatos sainsburyi), bears Iris moniker.

Sainsbury and his colleagues went on to show that trawling had a real impact on seabed habitats, causing changes to the productivity of key fish species and species composition. The team subsequently identified and tested management approaches that would allow fisheries to operate while the supporting ecosystem was protected. Some of these still play a key role in fisheries management, and have evolved into an approach known as 'Management Strategy Evaluation', or MSE.

In December 2003, Sainsbury was recognised by the Science and Technology Foundation of Japan for his contribution to the creation of 'sustainable food production systems that are harmonious with the natural environment' and that 'promote ecosystem conservation and management'. Sainsbury acknowledges the support of his colleagues and CSIRO, which allowed him to investigate questions that, at the time, were not 'at the forefront of fisheries regulators' minds'. He is also thrilled that the award has raised the international profile of marine and fisheries sustainability issues and given him an opportunity to highlight the work that has been done and that needs to be done.

'The awarding of a Japan Prize in the category 'food production based on ecosystem concepts' is testament to the rapidly increasing importance of ecologically sustainable development of the oceans,' Sainsbury says.

'The global wild fish catch has stabilised or decreased, despite the fact we're fishing in more places, going deeper, and fishing further down the food chain. Yet demand for fish and fish products will increase as the population grows and consumer wealth increases.

'To meet this demand, we need to recover overfished stocks, reduce the ecological impacts of fishing, manage sustainable fisheries so that they remain that way, and ensure that fisheries on new target species are developed sustainably.'

Optimism in the face of overfishing

It's a big ask given the dramatic decline in major fish populations reported in the journal Nature in May 2003. The study showed that in the past half-century, 90% of some species of large predatory fishes--tuna, swordfish, marlin, cod, halibut, skates and flounder--have disappeared, while 52% of commercial fish populations are fully exploited and 24% are overfished.

In Australia, the Bureau of Rural Sciences (BRS) Department of Agriculture Fisheries and Forestry's Fishery Status Report, lot 2002-03, showed that of 70 principal fished species, 16 (23%) were 'overfished' in Commonwealth-managed waters, including orange roughy, southern bluefin tuna, eastern gemfish and school sharks. Threats to coastal and marine ecosystems from development and pollution are also increasing.

However, Sainsbury says the Japan Prize reflects well on Australia's commitment to recovering from past mistakes and preventing a repetition of them in the future. This commitment is supported by a strong marine science base, management arrangements, and policy, which will help guide both national and international fisheries management efforts.

'While our slate is by no means clean, we do have one of the best reputations for fisheries management worldwide. This is thanks to a combination of our science, to the limited entry arrangements initiated in the 1960s and 1970s, and to the management model we have adopted', Sainsbury says. …