In septermber 2012 a national argument erupted in Australia over the arrival of a 9,500 ton super-trawler named the Abel Tasman. An Australian company called Seafish Tasmania had brought the vessel to Australia with the intention of allowing it to fish for pelagic species (1). The arrival of the ship was instantly controversial and led to a huge public outcry over the damage it would have on Australia’s fish stocks and the knock on effects for species such as seals and seabirds which would have the pelagic species they feed on reduced in number. After much protest, debate and legal wrangling it was eventually decided that the ship would leave Australian’s waters without catching a single fish.
The episode showed how strongly the general public felt over the welfare of the oceans, and also underlined the power that public opinion could have in stopping the industrial scale overfishing of the world’s seas and oceans.
Beginning of the Abel Tasman Dispute
The Abel Tasman was built in Norway in 1985 and originally named the FV (Fishing Vessel) Margiris. At 142 metres long and 9,500 tons it is the second biggest trawler in the world, with only the equally controversial Atlantic Dawn eclipsing it in size. The ship can catch around 250 tons of fish each day in its nets which are 600 metres long and 200 metres wide (2). Like Atlantic Dawn it has a complex system of pumps and conveyor belts to sort and process the catch, and can freeze all of the fish it catches on board. The vessel can hold around 6,000 tons of catch on board, much of which will be exported to the developing world (2). The FV Margiris had been fishing in the seas of the west coast of Africa but in late 2012 the news broke that it would be travelling to Australia. It was at this time that it was announced that the ship would have its name changed from the FV Margiris to the Abel Tasman, in honour of the Dutch explorer and sailor from the 1600s who led the first European to discover and map Australian and New Zealand.
Immediately many Australians were concerned about how much damage the Abel Tasman would do to fish stocks. The vessel’s name change also caused outrage, as Abel Tasman is regarded as a hero by many Tasmanians, and the idea that a ship which was emptying their seas was to be named after such an important figure in their history was seen as an insult. Martin Haley from the Tuna Club of Australia told Hobart-based newspaper The Mercury:
“This is an absolute national disgrace and a total embarrassment to Tasmania’s international reputation and image. Tasmanians are very proud of our heritage and history and at no time do we invite a super-trawler capable of plundering and decimating our fisheries to be renamed after our most famous explorer” (4)
Attempts to Stop the Abel Tasman
Once the vessel arrived in Australia it docked at Port Lincoln in the state of South Australia. The Abel Tasman had a commonwealth quota to catch around 18,000 tons of pelagic species, mostly common jack mackerel and redbait (also known as bonnetmouth). However, under the country’s laws the vessel had to be re-flagged as an Australian ship – as long as it was foreign flagged it could not begin fishing. While the ship’s owners and the Australian authorities arranged for the re-flagging to take place the protests over the ship gathered momentum, making both national news and gaining international coverage. This led to the re-flagging of the vessel to be delayed while the debate about the operation of the vessel continued. Greenpeace pointed out that the vessel was subsidised by the EU and, having fished out both European and West African waters, the owners were desperately searching for new fisheries to exploit (5). Local small-scale fishermen protested against the ships operation, saying it would decimate their livelihoods, while plenty of people with no connection to the commercial fishing industry petitioned politicians to stop the ship from becoming Australian flagged.
The owners of the Abel Tasman hit back, talking up the employment and economic benefits the ship would bring. They also pointed out that the vessel would be fitted with ‘excluder devices’ which would stop large animals such as seals and dolphins being caught in the nets by funnelling them to an escape hatch, and due to modern technology bycatch of non-taget species would be less than 1% of previous operations of a similar scale (3). Furthermore, they also stated that the 18,000 ton quota of redbait and jack mackerel was only 5% of the total size of the fishery (5).
However, these attempts to highlight the positive aspects of the Abel Tasman failed, as the re-flagging was still delayed, costing the ships owners an estimated $10,000AUD per day (6), and it was announced that the Australian government was working on a bill which would stop the trawler from operating until more scientific research on its impact on fish stocks had been gathered (7). An interim ban was announced while the issue was looked into, and eventually Australian Environment Minister Tony Burke announced that legislation had been drafted which meant that the Abel Tasman was effectively banned from fishing in Australian waters for two years in November 2012 (8). Seafish Tasmania were furious and accused Tony Burke of ignoring scientific advice that the vessel would have a low impact on fish stocks (9), and pointed out that the ship had only been brought to Australia on the basis that it would be allowed to fish. Despite these claims the ban stood, and attempts to have the ban overturned failed (10).
A New Role for the Vessel and Legal Issues
However, Seafish Tasmania made a last ditch attempt to utilise the Abel Tasman’s presence in Australia. In early 2013 they put a proposal to Australian authorities that the ship would go to sea but not to fish. Instead, it would be used as a mother ship, with other vessels loading their catch on board the Abel Tasman where it would be processed and frozen (11) (in this way the Abel Tasman would be carrying out a similar role to the one which the Lafayette plays). This compromise deal was also rejected.
In February of 2013 news emerged that Seafish Tasmania were planning on suing the federal government over the whole episode and believe that they had a strong case based on the way they had been treated by the Australian government in general, and Tony Burke in particular. The following month the owners gave up plans for the vessel to be used in any capacity in Australian waters, and the ship left, apparently seeking registration in Lithuania – a nation where it had previously been based (12). The vessel appeared to have had the name Abel Tasman removed and had reverted back to being named the FV Margiris.
The fact that the vessel had finally left Australia was celebrated by campaigners and conservationists who had feared that the fishing ban on the vessel would be overturned, or the mother ship compromise deal would be resurrected. The fact that the Abel Tasman/ FV Margiris was gone was seen as a final victory in the battle over the super-trawler and those seeking to fish on an industrial scale. Two years later in November 2014 a scientific study was published which confirmed fears that the vessel would have had a disproportionately high negative impact on Australia’s marine environment (13). Following this the Australian Federal Government set plans in place to pass laws which would permanently ban super-trawlers from operating in Australian waters (14).
While this was undoubtedly a victory for conservation-minded people in Australia the vessel – under whichever name it has been given and under whichever nation it is flagged – will still be operating somewhere in the world. It was possible that it was heading from Australia to South American waters, and a return to West Africa was also likely at some point in the future. Industrial fishing in the waters of impoverished nations is a common way for super-trawlers to operate (Atlantic Dawn has often fished around the African nation of Mauritania), and it must be remembered that that the local people less developed nations often lack the resources to campaign against industrial fishing in the co-ordinated way which the Australians were capable of doing. Only a move to restrict, or even ban, industrial scale fishing on a global basis would truly protect the world’s oceans. With this near impossible it is likely that only national victories like that enjoyed by Australia are possible, and the world’s industrial super-trawlers will be pushed towards the seas around the poorer and less developed nations of the world.
- Greens Call for Rejection of Seafish Plan – TheAdvocate.com.au
- Super Trawler Margiris Will Change Name to Abel Tasman and Nominate Brisbane as Official Home – News.com.au
- Margiris Super Trawler: Destructive or Sustainable? – Animals Australia
- Fury Over Margiris Rename – The Mercury
- Will Super Trawler Abel Tasman (Margiris) Destroy Our Fisheries? – ABC.net.au
- Seafish Tasmania Sues Australian Government – Undercurrent News
- Australia Rallies Support for Super Trawler Support – BBC News
- Labor to Confirm its Interim Two Year Ban on Super Trawler – The Australian
- Environment Minister Tony Burke acused of Trashing Marine Science After Slapping a Two-Year Ban on Super Trawler Abel Tasman – News.com.au
- Super Trawler Seeks Overturn of Fishing Ban – The Herald
- Trawler Could Become Fishing Mothership – Port Lincoln Times
- Super Trawler Abel Tasman Sails from Port Lincoln – Adelaide Now
- Expert Panel Warns of Supertrawler Environmental Risks – The Sydney Morning Herald
- Super trawlers set to be banned from Australian waters permanently under Federal Government regulations – ABCNews.net.au