‘Alarm bells ringing’ as Queensland Fisheries Minister responds to scallop stock collapse
A stock assessment of scallops has revealed critically low numbers off the Queensland coast, just 6 per cent of their original biomass.
Catches in the past year are at the lowest level since records began almost 40 years ago.
Terry Must from Arabon Seafoods says alarm bells have been ringing for a decade on declining scallop stocks
Queensland’s Fisheries Minister Bill Byrne, only six days into the portfolio after the departure of former minister Leanne Donaldson, admits the situation is so dire, the Government had considered imposing a total ban.
Instead, it had opted to permanently close a number of ‘replenishment areas’, covering 11 per cent of the scallop grounds, that were due to reopen in January.
An annual spawning closure from May 1 to October 31 would also be introduced in an urgent bid to rebuild stocks.
Keeping these closed and implementing winter closures were expected to impact on up to 40 per cent of the annual catch, based on recent fishing history.
“We’ve gone from an industry with a commercial value of about $16 million some years ago to recent numbers being in the order of $4 million,” Mr Byrne said.
“And with the best advice being that we are at about 6 per cent biomass and now we are in possession of that research, it really puts the Government in the position that we need to act.”
Fisheries managers accused of being ‘asleep at the wheel’
The revelation of Queensland’s scallop fishery being in crisis has come as no surprise to Bowen seafood wholesaler and retailer Terry Must, who has witnessed a dramatic decline in the industry.
“Scallop fishery in Bowen before 2004 was 2,000 tonnes in approximately 15 weeks,” Mr Must said.
“So, it was a huge employer. We’d employ up to 15 people to unload one berthed boat at a time. Some of the boats would come in and turnaround on the tide so we’d have to shift six tonnes an hour so you can imagine how big a part of our business it was and that disappeared overnight and no-one gave two hoots.”
PHOTO Bowen scallops are smaller but renowned for their sweet flavour, although have been in short supply.
But Mr Must said “alarm bells” should have been ringing about the sustainability of scallop stocks for the past decade but successive governments, including the current Minister, had failed to act.
“I question his science when he says it’s down to 6 per cent of biomass, who was asleep at the wheel when we lost the other 94 per cent?” Mr Must said.
“You know this just hasn’t happened overnight. We must have some accountability to say ‘Well, what went wrong?'”
Mr Must said it was too simplistic to blame overfishing when other mollusc fisheries, including oysters and mussels, in New South Wales, South Australia, and Tasmania had also experienced failures.
“I think the scallops, being a bottom feeder, is like the canary in the coalmine, they’re the ones telling us what’s going on down there.”
“Is the water quality the same as it was 200 years ago when we first inhabited Australia? No, it’s not.
“This problem’s been going on for a long time. It needs a lot more science to look at all the fisheries about what the problems are.”
Fisheries officials to hold urgent talks with commercial fishers
Minister Bill Byrne said he was acting on a formal stock assessment by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAFF) and the University of Queensland’s Centre for Applications in Natural Resource Mathematics (CARM).
He rejected criticism of his response.
Queensland fisheries minister Bill Byrne says urgent closures are necessary to rebuild depleted scallop stocks
“I’ve been sworn [back] in for six days, and I can assure you my previous term it wasn’t a matter that was visible to us and it’s really been coming from industry noticing a depletion in take rates,” Mr Byrne said.
Queensland Fisheries officials will hold urgent meetings next week with commercial fishers to outline the changes and work on a program to better understand the “root causes”.
“There are those who would argue that it’s a simple case of a massive over-harvesting, overfishing; there are others who would argue it’s a function of climate change, variations in sea temperatures, pollutants and so forth,” Mr Byrne said.
“I have to say honestly we’re not precisely sure which or if all of those factors are at play.
“If we do not do something in the short term, the industry has every prospect of becoming essentially non-viable in every way, shape and form.”