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Australian Fisheries Management

Who manages our fisheries?

School of fish

Wild fisheries in Australia are managed either by the Commonwealth (federal) government's
Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) or by state and territory fisheries departments. Broadly speaking, state governments manage inshore waters while the Commonwealth manages the seas from three nautical miles offshore out to the 200 nautical mile limit of our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). There are exceptions such as the fisheries of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park which are mostly managed by the Queensland Government.

Over 80% of Australia's seafood catch by weight is caught in state waters. In addition, the value of state fisheries is over seven times that of Commonwealth fisheries, so state fisheries play an important role in the way that our oceans are managed. Highly migratory fish that traverse our waters and international seas, such as tuna, are managed by regional and international fisheries management organisations.

How are they managed?

Australia's fisheries are managed through a range of measures tailored to the type of fishery. The most common include catch limits or quotas, known as 'output controls', which set a maximum limit on the amount of fish that is allowed to be caught from a stock in a given year or fishing season. 'Input controls', such as limits to fishing vessel size, specific gear restrictions and areas closed to certain types of fishing, are also common.

Traditional output and input controls have not always been effective at eliminating overfishing or mitigating the impact of fisheries on the environment. A precautionary approach is needed in setting catch limits for stocks under pressure. Many of our fisheries must also move away from their outdated focus on managing single species or stocks in isolation, as this overlooks the effects of fishing on other fish species, other wildlife and the marine ecosystem.

It is encouraging that increasingly Australian fisheries are introducing controls to protect the marine environment. For example, gear modifications to reduce the bycatch of threatened species are being introduced, such as the Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) used in many prawn trawls. However, there is still an urgent need for fisheries management in Australia to move towards an 'ecosystem-based approach' where the full impact of the fishery on the ocean ecosystem is considered in determining how the fishery is managed. This critical shift in management is needed as the foundation for future sustainability of Australian fisheries.

How does the quality of management differ around Australia?

While a number of the high-value fisheries tend to have significant research funding devoted to high quality stock assessments, the smaller volume and lower value fisheries suffer from a lack of investment in essential research. In undertaking the assessments for the Australia's Sustainable Seafood Guide, there were many fisheries where the stock levels and impacts of fishing on stocks simply aren't known.

Similarly, in many fisheries there is limited information on the impacts of fishing on threatened and protected species, or the extent of habitat damage caused by fishing activities. This information is crucial in order to ensure that our fisheries are sustainable.

There has been a consistent trend in some of the states in recent years to reduce funding to fisheries departments. Consequently there has been a significant loss of expertise in some jurisdictions. The main NSW fisheries research centre at Cronulla was closed in 2012, the staffing at the fisheries department in Victoria has been drastically reduced and the QLD fisheries department has closed their independent observer program across all QLD fisheries. The outcome is a reduced output of publicly available information on the health of many fisheries.

A note on independent observers

Sea Lion credit: Vanessa MignonFisheries observers monitor fishing activity, documenting information such as volume of fish caught and numbers of threatened or protected species killed during fishing operations. As observers are independent of the fishing industry, their reports provide valuable information on the extent of fisheries impacts on marine wildlife.

Fishers have a legal responsibility to record protected species mortalities in fishery logbooks, and fishery logbooks are important records. However, independent observer reports have identified some circumstances where fishers have not recorded instances of catching species such as Australian sea lions and dolphins. Without a full understanding of what is being caught and in what numbers it is not possible for fishery managers to develop strategies to reduce fishing impacts.

Sea Lion image credit: Vanessa Mignon