Abel Tasman (FV Margiris) – Controversial Super-Trawler

In September 2012 a national argument erupted in Australia over the arrival of a 9,500 ton super-trawler in the country’s waters. A company called Seafish Tasmania had brought the vessel to Australia with the intention of allowing it to fish for pelagic species. 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. After much protest, debate and legal wrangling it was eventually decided that the ship (which the operators renamed the Abel Tasman in a failed attempt to win over the public)  would leave Australian’s waters without catching a single fish.

FV Margiris is the second largest fishing vessel in the world. Pictured here in the Dutch port of IJmuiden in 2016.

In 2019 a similar situation occurred in Britain when the same vessel, now renamed the  FV Margiris, began operating in the English Channel off the south coast of England. However, due to the way Britain’s fishery regulations are tied into the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy it was not possible for the UK government to send the vessel away in the same manner the Australians had, and the vessel continued to operate in UK waters.

The Abel Tasman / FV Margiris Fishing Vessel

The vessel was built in Norway in 1985 and originally named the FV Margiris (it has had a number of names over the years). At 142 metres long and displacing 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 (1). 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 (1).

Beginning of the Abel Tasman Dispute

Abel Tasman

Abel Tasman.

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 and the wider marine environment. The vessel’s name change also caused outrage (2), 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” (2).

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)(3).. 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 vessel continued. 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 (3).

Jack Mackerel

Small pelagic (mid-water) species such as jack mackerel were the main target of the Abel Tasman in Australian waters.

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. 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 (4).

Tony Burke

Australian Environment Minister Tony Burke was instrumental in banning the operation of the Abel Tasman.

However, these attempts to highlight the positive aspects of the Abel Tasman failed, as the re-flagging was still delayed. An interim ban preventing the Abel Tasman from fishing was announced and eventually Australian Environment Minister Tony Burke states that legislation had been passed which meant that the Abel Tasman was effectively banned from fishing in Australian waters for two years from November 2012 to allow time for research into the impact that super trawlers would have on Australia’s marine ecosystem to take place (6). Seafish Tasmania were furious and accused Tony Burke of ignoring scientific advice that the vessel would have a low impact on fish stocks and would create employment. Despite these claims the ban stood, and attempts to have the ban overturned failed. 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 (7). This compromise deal was also rejected.

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. During this time the vessel reverted back to being named the FV Margiris.

Australia’s Permanent Ban on Supertrawlers

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 and would lead follow-on effects for other forms of fishing and tourism (8). Following this the Australian Federal Government passed laws which permanently banned super-trawlers over 130 metres long from operating in Australian waters meaning the vessel would never be able to return (8).

FV Margiris in British Waters

In October 2019 the UK media reported that the FV Margiris was operating off the coast of southern England. Now registered in Lithuania, the vessel spent more than a week fishing in the English Channel for herring and mackerel off the coast of Sussex, and at one point came into Weymouth Bay and was within three miles of the coastline. Fishermen from across the region expressed their concern over the impact that the vessel would have on fish stocks in the area (9), while there were also fears that marine mammals such as dolphins and threatened species such as bluefin tuna could be caught as bycatch (9).

Margiris in English Channel

The movements of FV Margiris in the English Channel between 1st and 8th October 2019. Map taken from Wikipedia.

However, unlike the Australians the UK government has no power to expel the vessel from British waters. This is because Britain only controls the waters up to twleve nautical miles from the UK coastline – the waters beyond this are part of the shared European Exclusive Economic Zone. Banning super trawlers, in the way Australia has done, could only be done on a European-wide basis with all countries agreeing to do so and any country able to veto the decision. This means that despite the outrage caused by the FV Margiris operating so close to the British mainland and the impact it would have on the entire marine ecosystem there was nothing the UK government could do to stop it. Indeed, ITV News reported that the UK authorities had inspected the vessel and found no infringements of fishing regulations and therefore allowed the FV Margiris to continue operating (10). By the weekend of the 19th of October FV Margiris had left British waters returned to the Dutch port of IJmuiden.

Summary

The difference between the way the Australian and British government could deal with the FV Margiris starkly illustrated the differences between the fisheries policy of the two nations. Australia’s full control of its territorial waters mean that the Australian government make the decisions over which vessels can fish in the country’s waters and have the power to expel and ban any vessels which it believes will damage its fish stocks and marine ecosystem. The UK (which is at the time of writing still a member state of the EU) has much more limited powers, only able to control its own waters to a distance of twelve miles from its coastline, with any changes to regulations having to be decided on a Europe-wide basis and ratified by all fellow member states.

References: 

  1. Super Trawler Margiris Will Change Name to Abel Tasman and Nominate Brisbane as Official Home – News.com.au
  2. Fury Over Super Trawler Rename – The Mercury
  3. Australia Rallies Support for Super Trawler Vote – BBC News
  4. Will Super Trawler Abel Tasman (Margiris) Destroy Our Fisheries? – ABC.net.au
  5. Seafish Tasmania Sues Australian Government – Undercurrent News
  6. Environment Minister Tony Burke acused of Trashing Marine Science After Slapping a Two-Year Ban on Super Trawler Abel Tasman – News.com.au
  7. Trawler Could Become Fishing Mothership – Port Lincoln Times
  8. Super trawlers set to be banned from Australian waters permanently under Federal Government regulations – ABCNews.net.au
  9. A Sad Day for Fishing Around the Isle of Wight – County Press
  10. The Supertrawler Just 14 Miles Off Brighton Capable of Landing 6,000 Tonnes of Fish – ITV News
Share this page: