If a movie director was going to invent a name for the “ship of doom” they’d probably come up with “supertrawler”. 

Big doesn't necessarily mean bad. Graphic: News.com.au
Let’s face it, supertrawler sounds bad. It’s super (and not in the good way) and it “trawls” the ocean rapaciously consuming fish into its vast nets and freezers of doom. When the word “supertrawler” is said out loud it almost deserves its own soundtrack.

But it’s politics that led the Gillard government to turn its trawl of duty from the Netherlands to Australia a wasted journey. Now the government’s legislative response means the same quota of fish can be taken out of Australian waters by smaller, less efficient boats. Their net sizes can be the same. And they can waste fuel and emit greenhouse gases by returning to shore to dump the fish before going out to get extra catch.

Unsurprisingly some scientists are arguing the government’s moves smack of “populism before science”.

Congratulations Environment Minister, Tony Burke. You’ve really chalked up another victory for the environment.

Sadly the government’s reaction fits into a much broader pattern of behavior by our nation’s politicians and their indifference to how legislative action can deliver environmental outcomes.

Take the Federal government’s current progressing of its Illegal Logging Bill.

The point of the Bill is to stop timber illegally felled in other countries from making its way into Australia and being sold as the desk that your computer sits on top of.

The objectives sound admirable on environmental grounds. Illegally logged timber “bad”. Legally logged timber “good”. And in many ways the government’s motivations are right.

But good motivations don’t ensure the policy response attracts the same qualities. Especially when the government’s own advisers concluded an Illegal Logging Bill wouldn’t work.

The Centre for International Economics was commissioned by the Federal government to investigate what any illegal logging law would do.

Their study concluded “0.034 per cent of global timber production, and 0.34 of products incorporating illegally logged timber … [so the Bill] could reduce the global costs of illegal logging by 0.34 per cent … and may not be fully effective in eliminating illegal logging”.

Put more bluntly, a new law won’t stop the small problem but we’ll all feel a warm inner glow.

The problem is it that the Australian timber industry will pay for our good intentions by carrying more cost to prove they’re not illegally logged impacting on their international competitiveness.

Not that illegal logging is alone.
Taxpayer-funded organisations are similarly lobbying the government to make consumer boycotts against palm oil easier.

You know the drill - forests are being converted into agriculture land to grow palm oil in parts of Malaysia and Indonesia. And those palm oil plantations threaten orangutan populations.

So if we legislate to label palm oil on products, consumers can haze products that use it as an ingredient and save the orangutans.

Except, it isn’t that simple.

A recent study published by the New York Academy of Sciences found that there are a range of measures causing orangutan population loss, including farming practices and hunting by those on a subsistence living.

The study identified that ‘singling out a particular industry as the main culprit in this process ignores the contribution from others and is unlikely to lead to lasting solutions’.

Using simplistic measures like consumer boycotts might make ourselves feel better, but it only have a modest impact on addressing the root problem.

Worse, it could have the reverse effect and make it harder for subsistence farmers to survive meaning they convert more forest land for agriculture, not less.

That hasn’t stopped local retailers, like Subway, being targeted to change behavior in the false expectation that it will actually save orangutans.

That outcome wouldn’t be a victory for the environment. Unless a problem that is out of sight, is also out of mind.

Despite the reality of these simplistic campaigns their consequences were largely ignored in Parliamentary hearings into a Bill designed to drive consumer boycotts. Again, the passage of the Bill would have allowed us all to feel good about ourselves, even if it did nothing for the environment.

Businesses are rarely perfect. But in all three cases working with the companies involved seem like a more logical solution to achieving good environmental outcomes.

But as political responses to the supertrawler, palm oil and logging show, facts and evidence only play a small part behind grandstanding politicians who want to be seen to be in favour of the environment – even when there is no environmental benefit at all.

Tim Wilson is Director of the Sustainable Development Project and the IP and Free Trade Unit at the Institute of Public Affairs – www.ipa.org.au.

Comments on this post will close at 8pm AEST.

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    • Keith Hammersmith says:

      06:22am | 18/09/12

      Letting it be called a Super trawler was just poor marketing, they should just have gone with ‘eco-trawler’.
      Excellent article btw, So many people refuse to look past the simple and the warm fuzzies they get to see what they are actually talking about, and they need a reality check.

    • Rickster says:

      01:52pm | 18/09/12

      know one is asking the question…..where did it come from? answer; somewhere where the are no more fish, why did it change it’s nane? answer to shake off any bad reputaiton from the previous location that has a decimated fish stock.

    • Keith Hammersmith says:

      04:59pm | 18/09/12

      somewhere this is no more fish, or somewhere a sustainable fish quota had been met?

    • FlyOnTheWall says:

      06:49am | 18/09/12

      Hard to disagree with any of Tim’s piece. I think more should be made of the precedent set by Bourke and Labor more broadly with the Margiris ban.
      I too thought “ban it!” when all I knew about this boat was what I was hearing in 10 second grabs on the news. Phrases like “hoovers up all life in the ocean”, “supertrawler” etc… I’m picturing a gigantic death machine.
      Turns out the reason it’s so big, is because it processes the catch on-board, too.
      The nets used are actually smaller (yes, smaller!) than many used already in Australia!

      This last minute pandering to [another] green scare campaign has further damaged our international reputation. The live cattle export debacle was almost exactly the same.

      This mob clearly will not learn from their mistakes, and daily re-enforce the perception that they’re a bunch of student politicians.

    • Get rid of both parties says:

      08:11am | 18/09/12

      If we keep populating (and we will according to both parties) nothing else we do matters.

    • Dr B S Goh, Australian in Asia says:

      11:22am | 18/09/12

      I agree with you 100%. Each FOUR months the increase in global population is greater than the TOTAL population of Australia.

    • Al says:

      08:24am | 18/09/12

      I have heard (but have not been able to confirm or dispell this, admittedly I didn’t spend much time looking into it as I simply shook my head and thought ‘another pandering PR excercise by the government despite already having been approved by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries’) that despite the size of the boat being larger, the size of its net would not actualy be the largest currently operating in Australian waters.
      If this is true then wouldn’t this basicly remove all the reasons (not considering that there are smaller boats that are operating with a net of very similar dimensions anyway) for the banning of this trawler?

    • Joel B1 says:

      08:39am | 18/09/12

      The Abel Tasman aka “Supertrawler” was going to have a permanent pro-dolphin (and other cute megafauna) observer on board.

      If something cute was caught, fishing would be moved to another location.

      Can the Greens assure us that there will be observers on all the replacement or substitute vessels?

    • Northern Steve says:

      12:46pm | 18/09/12

      So we’ll have multiple observers rather than one, along with associated salary and overhead costs.  Will this cost be borne by consumers or taxpayers?  Either way, we pay.

    • Rickster says:

      05:03pm | 18/09/12

      So what does the dolphin obsever do ? get the dead dolphins out of the net and throw them overboard. Why not do a Mr Burns and turn the whole lot into Dynamite.He calls it the OMNI NET it strips the sea clean who wants all those slimy creatures cluttering up the place anyway.

    • Steve Putnam says:

      06:21pm | 18/09/12

      Listen mate its not about what you call “cute megafauna”, its about bio-diversity. The bycatch of this boat includes many endangered species of turtles, rays and sharks. There is also the problem that the Australian Fisheries Management Authority has no reliable information on what the super-trawler’s operation in Australian waters would do to our fish stocks. The super trawler was not invited into our waters. Bourke did the right thing.

    • Alfie says:

      08:54am | 18/09/12

      I like the comment by Scott Morrison: “The Government has finally stopped a boat.” LOL

    • Rickster says:

      05:05pm | 18/09/12

      Yeh thats as funny as a fart and thats as funny as the Noalition get.

    • Bazza the oracle says:

      09:17am | 18/09/12

      Let me see… the government approved it. Then get Up( Labor party propoganda wing) protest loudly providing all sorts of enviromantal nonsense. This gave the government a get out of jail free card’.And when they ban it all of a sudden they’re hero’s after first approving it. This is deceptive incompetent government at its worst. The company that spent all the money in good faith to bring the trawler here will sue our arses off.

    • SAm says:

      10:21am | 18/09/12

      I havnt heard much about the issue but all I have heard has been off 2GB, not something I’d be calling Labor’s propaganda machine…
      And they were against it

    • Killer Kowalski says:

      09:21am | 18/09/12

      Unsurprisingly some scientists are arguing the government’s moves smack of “populism before science”.

      These wouldn’t be the same scientists that you get your climate change information from would they?

    • iansand says:

      09:44am | 18/09/12

      What is popular about doing something about climate change?  If populism was driving a response to climate change nothing would be done.

    • TheRealDave says:

      09:39am | 18/09/12

      That net only looks under 300m long to me…and not 600m as claimed in the graphic….the lead ropes don’t count….

    • Dan says:

      09:56am | 18/09/12

      So you’re essential argument, Tim, is that a solution that isn’t perfect isn’t worth implementing at all? If 100 percent success can’t be guaranteed, what’s the point?

      The super-trawler. The fishing quota for the Small Pelagic Fishery, the region in the nation’s South where the super-trawler was set to fish, was lifted to 18 thousand tonnes for this year. That was done by AMFA, under the assumption the super-trawler was coming, to make the venture worthwhile. The trawler would have led to an unprecedented hit on local fish stocks - to suggest otherwise is misleading.

      You’re correct, as far as I’m aware that quota hasn’t been lowered since. Small boats will do their very best to reach it, and fill the void. That is a mistake - it should be lowered to 2011 levels, if the trawler is banned.

      Even if it isn’t, the message sent to the global fishing industry is clear. Australia won’t house these sorts of super-trawlers. We may have to concede the higher-quotas mistake now, but won’t be pressured into lifting it again anytime soon.

      On illegal logging, you’re missing the point. It sounds much like your anti carbon-tax argument,  suggesting out contribution is so small it renders the action worthless. But adding the regulations will remove one more destination for the sale of illegal timber, and encourage other nations to do the same. And the burden on local industry is no more than paperwork.

      And on palm oil, the point is much the same. There are many causes for the drop in numbers of orang-utans, and palm oil is certainly one. Forcing distributors to label their goods would see them abandon the industry - image is everything. It’s a small but significant step in solving a larger problem.

      Solutions don’t have to be perfect, to make a difference.

    • Over the Hill says:

      01:34pm | 18/09/12

      The Super Trawler is able to venture much further out than the smaller “local” boats due to not having to come in to unload regularly. This would mean that the quota is being reached from a much broader area of the ocean, NOT from the “same old fishery”, thereby actually helping to preserve fish stocks closer to the ports for future generations.

    • Tayug says:

      10:14am | 18/09/12

      the shipping owners lost the plot when they changed the trawlers name to “Abel Tasman”, trying to play on the Aussie, Aussie, Aussie mentality

      they would have been better of calling it a neutral name, e.g. “Trawler # 18”

    • Rickster says:

      01:58pm | 18/09/12

      or they could have gone for the wiggle aproach and called it the BIG RED TRAWLER that would get the mums onside.

    • Alfie says:

      06:03pm | 18/09/12


      ...and Captain Feathersword promoting wholesome Fish Fingers for all the kiddies. You could be on to something.

    • daniel says:

      10:40am | 18/09/12

      And therein lies the problem with addressing issues concerning biodiversity. One potential cause behind its impact is addressed. The rest is ignored because they (politicians and environmental groups) figure it’s the one and only cause. It’s only when the population of a species or ecosystem is on the brink of extinction that they demand scientific research to come up with a suite of solutions.

      In regards to the Subway petition, that’s just classic. At recent student elections [at university] the Marxist/Left/Socialist group have been campaigning that they’ll bring in a Subway. The same group that ask people to sign petitions every week on environmental, human rights and political issues. At least I’ll have new ammunition when I walk past them this week during the student elections.

    • jorgen flenswing says:

      11:02am | 18/09/12

      I finally get modern day politics…..its based on emotion ..not measurement..its based on the easy lie…..... not the harder truth…twitter for the twits….................. not research, planning and execution…

      7 years of quiet deliberate and sober planning destroyed..
      The fisheries managements independence and credibility shredded,they must be vulnerable as never before…

      For what….the 18000t take was allowable and conservative,and was food for someone to eat..

      The percentage of the biomass of dolphins and seals at risk would be neglible.

      The precautionary principle is not science..its politics…

      Thousands of native animals are killed on our roads by vehicles in the course of a year,by vehicles ..yet that is seen as a regrettable consequence of our lifestyle…but injure one seal at sea!!

      The sleep of reason brings forth monsters….....

    • Steve Putnam says:

      06:42pm | 18/09/12

      @ jorgen flenswing “7 years of quiet deliberate and sober planning destroyed” Where do you get off telling porkies like that? The Dutch operating company Seafish Tasmania Pelagics was only registered on 21st of April this year.

    • Last Man Standing says:

      11:52am | 18/09/12

      1. Australia has a TAC (Total Allowable Catch) for specific fisheries

      2. The Australian fleet has boats with bigger nets

      3. The target species was Jack Mackerel in abundance not exploited for 10 years

      4. The difference with this boat is it is a factory vessel that packs the fish “food grade” on board

      5. The Jack Mackerel biomass research is 8 years old

      Tony Burke is just trying to hang on to anti-voters he caught in his big feel good flawed science no fishing zone closures by seeming to care.

      Its why the fisheries minister has that stupid smile on his face knowing that its all tinsel and christmas ball balls

    • Rickster says:

      02:05pm | 18/09/12

      seems to be working, anything to stop the noalition.

    • Last Man Standing says:

      12:21pm | 18/09/12

      To add further

      A TAC Total allowable catch quota is measuring and measuring is managing

      The no fishing zone does not measure nor does it protect the pelagic species that do not know what a zone is.  A no fishing zone puts 100%  of the effort on the more fragile areas surrounding it

      Like Bali more and more recreational fishermen are taking their tourism dollar overseas to cheaper catch and release fishing tourism destinations where fish are worth thousands of dollars in sustainable tourism

      Each angler in boat fees alone is worth $2000 x 6 anglers = $12000 per week on a boat which represents a fantastic income for an Indonesian business

    • Rickster says:

      02:11pm | 18/09/12

      But you’d have to agree that no go zones would be a hard sell while letting this ship rape the sea’s elsewhere. Ask the question where did it come from? answer; somewhere there are no more fish

    • Last man Standing says:

      07:07pm | 18/09/12


      The fish in the south are slow growing with poor recruitment

      The fish in the north have better recruitment and faster growing and have more pelgaics

      Tony Burke has his underpants on back to front

    • Northern Steve says:

      12:51pm | 18/09/12

      At least it adds to the ALP’s Legislation Tally.  It must prove how effective this government is.

    • NigelC says:

      01:07pm | 18/09/12

      Oh the irony. This week is ‘Science Meets Parliament’ week. Just when they trough out all the science on the basis of Tony Burke’s hunch. More like ‘Witchcraft meets Parliament’ ...

    • TheOzTrucker says:

      01:03pm | 18/09/12

      This is a clear example of feel good politics. But I feel sure that some lawyer will make a mint out of legal action against the government. We will pay the bill, of that I have no doubt.

      If I owned the lease on the vessel and I complied with the laws of the country and jumped through the hoops of the regulators and had my proposal approved only to have it banned by an after the event change of law I would be unimpressed and be looking for some sort of compensation.

      The worst part of all this is the simple fact that the government, yet again, has not let the truth get in the way of a good story. The truth which is adequately expressed by last man standing.

      As side issue though the ALP are not alone in this. I remember the knee jerk politics from the LNP after Martin Bryant allegedly shot some people at Port Arthur. I say allegedly because I (along with many others) have difficulty believing that a person of his proved inability could have achieved the level of accuracy required to get twenty head shots out of twenty nine shots.

      Is it just me or has anyone else noticed that our governments both liberal and labour are quite happy to change the laws based on isolated incidents?

    • Rickster says:

      02:15pm | 18/09/12

      If you ownd the lease on the ship you wouldn’t be driving some dumbarse truck mate.

    • TheOzTrucker says:

      03:35pm | 18/09/12

      Rick idiot. I know it’s not worth it but…...

      At least I work and pay tax and contribute to our country and I have for my whole life. Where would you be if blokes like me didn’t drive our dumbassed trucks mate?

      Go back to pulling the wings off flys.

    • Dr B S Goh, Australian in Asia says:

      03:45pm | 18/09/12

      @ TheOzTrucker. My fishing industry contact says Australian taxpayers are up for at least $30,000,000 compensation payment to the trawler. Actually it may be a better return on their investment rather than actually doing the fishing.

      Funny our feel good ALP-Greens Govt do not mention such things.

      Also they keep quiet that the Hon Combet signed an Agreement at Cancum last Dec to give 10% of the carbon tax to be wasted by UN on some feel good trips.

      I feel it is a total obscenity that the worst power stations in Australia are better off by some $400,000,000 under the carbon tax. Did the ALP_Greens say they were going to punish the big CO2 polluters with the carbon tax? See:  http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/political-news/carbon-tax-leaves-big-polluters-better-off-20120905-25exz.html#ixzz261BIGJAc

    • Rickster says:

      04:55pm | 18/09/12

      Sorry Oz trucker from the land of OZ I didn’t bother reading the rest of your rant at the time but the bit about the Bryant conspiracy is just pure gold. and your calling me an idiot remember breath in breath out

    • Rickster says:

      02:02pm | 18/09/12

      Anyone know what they were planning on doing with the catch? I’ll bet they were going to make fish oil tablets for all the soc’s.

    • RobJ says:

      03:29pm | 18/09/12

      They were going to sell it in West Africa, you know, the last place this vessel over-fished.

    • realist joe says:

      02:08pm | 18/09/12

      What’s the use anymore?  Al Gore makes a doco, the whole world turns green and implements carbon taxes, but oops, forgot about the trillions of tons of plastic floating in the sea.  Then there’s forests felling left and right, out-of-control human populations and mass animal extinctions every month.  Forget it, the way i see it, a distant civilization will look back on the human era most notably by the thin layer of plastic in deep core samples.

    • Rickster says:

      03:59pm | 18/09/12

      yep so just give it up Joe, whats the use.

    • Sam says:

      03:24pm | 18/09/12

      Just when you think you couldn’t be surprised by the inadequacy of some people in positions of importance… Along comes the super trawler debate!

      The scientist, and fisheries management team, go about for years doing what they are experts at, and then BOOM along comes the greens doing what they are experts at, and produce a smear campaign based on nothing but terrifying words, and extremist cuddly save the world garbage. The super trawler didn’t stand a chance! Geez what ever happened to sustainability?!?!

      We as a public are so quick to jump on a sensationalist band wagon, with no thought for right or reason, and i’m afraid our pollies are even worse. When ol mate Tony Burke got on his high horse, do you think he did his research, did he called any of the governing bodies, scientist, or marine fisheries experts to see if he actually needed to get involved? NO, he saw an opportunity to be a crusader for the great uneducated masses.  And while he smashed the super trawlers chances with one hand, he used the other to slap the scientific community in the face.

      Well i’m not sure what terrifies me more, that the nation can make such a mountain out of a molehill, or that our politicians can fail us so badly.


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