A fight over tropical rock lobster fishing rights in the Torres Strait between traditional fisherman and the authority which regulates catch sizes has flared up this week.
Traditional inhabitant boat licensees —fishers who make up 66 per cent of the region’s fishery industry— have been protesting this week against the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, as new restrictions have been placed on the total allowable catch of crayfish or ‘tropical rock lobster’.
On Monday morning local fishers gathered on Thursday Island, holding signs declaring ‘what’s in our waters belongs to our people’ and ‘we manage our fisheries’ as part of a campaign against the AFMA’s restrictions.
For the people of the Torres Strait, crayfishing is a main source of income and support.
President of the Torres Strait Fisheries Association, Patrick Mills says, “millions of dollars passes through the Torres Strait”, because of commercial fishing.
They have called for for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk to assist in giving Torres Strait people 100 per cent ownership of the region’s fisheries.
As it stands, Torres Strait Islander fisherman are allowed approximately 66 per cent of the Australian share of total allowable catch, the rest is for the non-Indigenous commercial sector, the Transferrable Vessel Holders. There is a small percent allocated to traditional Torres Strait users who fish for personal or community use only. A boat recorded on an Indigenous licence can be crewed by traditional inhabitants, non-traditional inhabitants or a combination of both.
In regards to tropical rock lobster fishing specifically, in the Australian Torres Strait Protected Zone, Australia holds up to around 85 per cent of the total allowable catch, and Papua New Guinea operators are allocated up to 25 per cent.
In an attempt to parole the number of tropical rock lobster catches this year, the carriage or the use of hookah gear in the 2017/2018 fishing season as of the 30 April has been prohibited. Hookah gear is used by many tropical rock lobster fishers, as the practice allows divers to stay below water for longer.
According to the Protected Zone Joint Authority which is responsible for the management of commercial and traditional fishing in the protected zone, tropical rock lobsters catches in Torres Strait are close to exceeding the recommended biological catch, and comes off the back of Australia’s treaty obligations to Papua New Guinea, ensuring co-operative management of catch in the waters between the two countries is maintained.
In a letter sent to licence holders, Dr James Findlay, Delegate of the the Authority wrote, “The RBC for the Tropical Rock Lobster (TRL) Fishery in the 2017/18 fishing season was determined to be 299 tonnes. In accordance with the treaty, Australia’s catch share is 190.65 tonnes. As at 25 April 2018. AFMA’s records indicate that the landed catch from the TRL Fishery was 142.676 tonnes. Given how close the reported catches are to Australia’s catch share, I considered it appropriate for additional management measures to be imposed to limit the effort in the TRL Fishery.”
However, many traditional fisherman believe these figures —which are determined in consultation with the CSIRO— have been overestimated. Many feel the numbers are overly cautious and are restricting income and employment in one of the most economically important activities in the Torres Strait unnecessarily.
One speaker at the rally, Daniel Passi, called it, "failed management by foreign people".
Mr Mills of Thursday Island told NITV News that these fishing restrictions will impact at least 5000 people across the Torres Strait.
“Everyone here fishes and rely on fishing, some sell it and some use it for domestic purposes,” he said.
“We here at the Torres Strait survive on fishing money. Not much Government spending.”
Mr Mills says that commercial fishing brings in a large share of the community's income, with tropical rock lobster fetching up to $60 a kilogram. Without being able to fish for the crayfish, his remaining income will not be able to cover the cost of living in the Torres Strait he fears.
“Especially people with mortgages, this closure will impact us big time,” he told NITV News. “We could lose all our mortgages and it could split families.”
Many people have taken to social media to express support for the protesters and also raise concerns about AFMA’s decision, with one individual posting, “As if living in the Straits isn’t hard enough. Now they’re taking work away from them which generates income to feed families. Did you know people pay up to $85 for a tin of baby formula [there]”.
Mr Mills says that the protest is a part of a broader issue regarding the ongoing bureaucracy of commercial fishing by Indigneous license holders. He describes the situation as, “Discrimination at its best”.
Although the Torres Strait Islanders have majority of the fishery ownership in the region, the aspiration to own and manage 100 per cent continues to be a source of tension between the Authority and Indigenous people.
Mr Mills says there are approximately 364 Indigenous licenses and only nine licenses belonging to non-Indigenous or foreign divers. He says it allows them more access and less restrictions compared to an Indigenous license. He feels non-Indigenous fishers are looked after, whereas the Indigenous fishing is over-regulated and restricted.
“Their [non-Indigenous fishermen’s] license is valued and ours is nothing, you know, it’s not worth a cent.
“They can dive in two places, dive in the Torres Strait then go down to the East Coast. We can only dive in Torres Straits.”
“They are more or less looked after by the same government that we protested against. Our regulator in fisheries are implementing all these discriminatory policies.”
Mr Mills said there were over 120 people at the protest and hopes to “break the shackles from the system all together and let us be on equal term.”
“Once our licenses have value we get mortgages to buy bigger boats and fish competitively with the others.”
While Dr Findlay, who is currently visiting the Torres Strait, continues to defend the decision that the new restrictions are made in the best interests of the fish stocks, fishermen of the Torres Strait await the result of a Federal Court injunction against Authority's decision.