Embattled West Australian Fisheries Minister Dave Kelly has been accused of disrespecting commercial barramundi fishers after banning them from a popular fishing ground without consultation.
King Sound near Derby, 2,300km north of Perth, has been the scene of a long-running dispute between locals and one commercial operator over access to its rich barramundi stocks.
In October, Mr Kelly announced an end to the “conflict” by “ordering a permanent commercial fishing closure” for King Sound South.
This was the result of a “mutual agreement” between the operator Big Blue Fishing Pty Ltd, the WA Fishing Industry Council (WAFIC), Recfishwest and locals following negotiations facilitated by the State Government.
The agreement included an undisclosed compensation payment to Big Blue Fishing, whose area of operations have been most affected by the ban.
Other fishers ‘not consulted’
Mark Ainsworth of Ainsworth Fishing is one of three other operators licensed for the area and said the first he heard of the agreement was from other fishers at the Derby boat ramp.
“It was just local gossip, that’s how I found out,” Mr Ainsworth said.
While he has avoided fishing in King Sound out of respect for the community, Mr Ainsworth was entitled to operate in the area as a Kimberley Gillnet Barramundi Fishery (KGBF) licence holder.
He said he felt that he had been been punished for doing the right thing.
“We need to look after the Derby locals it being a recreational fishing town, but I wasn’t consulted in any fashion at all,” Mr Ainsworth said.
“I’ve been told I missed the boat.”
Wyndham resident Mark Douglas, who holds a licence to operate off the Kimberley coast, echoed Mr Ainsworth’s frustrations at the lack of consultation from the State Government.
Government, industry groups play blame game
In a statement to the ABC, Mr Kelly said consultation was the responsibility of his colleagues at the Department for Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD).
“Following an agreement between WAFIC and Recfishwest, the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development undertook formal consultations with all licence holders, affording them the opportunity to comment, prior to the closure.”
In correspondence received by Mr Ainsworth two months after the agreement was announced, a DPIRD representative admitted he was not adequately consulted, blaming WAFIC.
“The Department had assumed that WAFIC would consult with all KGBF fishers potentially affected by the closure,” the email reads.
“Unfortunately this assumption was not confirmed at the time and I take responsibility for this error, as it appears you were not adequately consulted as part of the negotiation process.
“I sincerely apologise that you were overlooked during the period of negotiation.”
Fishers ‘deeply pessimistic’
A WAFIC spokesperson said other licence holders were not consulted at the time as mediation was based on conflicts involving a single fisher.
In another turn, the peak body for commercial fishers said it suggested a temporary ban to protect fishing rights for all licence holders but that was rejected by the Government.
It also distanced itself from the decision to award one operator compensation.
“Following mediation, WAFIC played no role in wider industry consultation, or consultation with other entitlement holders impacted by the Department’s compensation policy.”
It is a blunder that Mr Ainsworth believes has unfairly damaged the value of his licence and sets a dangerous precedent for future government decisions affecting his business.