Concerns ‘social relationships’ of WA fisheries officers are hindering fight against illegal fishing

Concerns ‘social relationships’ of WA fisheries officers are hindering fight against illegal fishing

An auditor-general’s report on the regulation of commercial fishing in WA has raised serious concerns about the efficiency of the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development and its fisheries officers.

Key points:

  • There are fears over the conflicting responsibilities of DPIRD and officers
  • The auditor-general “can’t be confident” illegal fishing is not happening in WA
  • DPIRD has backed the “integrity and effectiveness” of its enforcement work 

The auditor-general found little acknowledgement of the inherent conflicts of interest created when fisheries officers lived in towns where the entire community was dominated by commercial fishers.

The report also found the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) itself faced conflicting responsibilities for promoting the industry while also regulating it.

The data management systems used to regulate fisheries are aged, with many processes still paper-based.

Data that is collected is not used to inform decisions on fisheries enforcement and compliance activities, which are often ad hoc, random, and reactive.

A silver fish near some coral.

The auditor-general says she can’t be confident illegal fishing is not happening.(Supplied: DPIRD)

As a result, auditor-general Caroline Spencer concluded there was no strategy ensuring the biggest threats to WA’s fisheries were being targeted.

“The results of our audit really provide a view that we can’t be confident that there’s not over-fishing and illegal fishing happening in WA fisheries,” she said.

Despite months of investigation and trawling through DPIRD records, Ms Spencer said her office found there was no data to adequately conclude whether current compliance and enforcement activities were making a difference to the health of WA fisheries.

“We can’t tell,” she said.

“We found that there are key weaknesses in the department’s regulation of the commercial fishing industry.”

No ongoing integrity checks

Fisheries officers in WA can exercise significant law enforcement powers, but the auditor-general found they were not subject to any ongoing integrity checks.

The department’s integrity framework does not address the recognition or management of conflicts of interests that fisheries officers are likely to face in their law enforcement role.

Fishing boat off WA coast

The report says the department’s dual roles in the commercial fishing industry leave it exposed to risk.(Supplied: WA Fishing Council)

A key concern raised in the report was the lack of acknowledgement that fisheries officers regularly worked with the same commercial fishers for long periods of time.

“There is also a lack of guidance for fisheries officers on managing conflicts of interest in regional areas where officers may enjoy social relationships with the people they need to monitor for compliance and potentially sanction or prosecute,” the report said. 

“The risk is high in regional areas because communities are often small and there is an increased likelihood of familiarity over time.”

“The department does not have a maximum tenure for regional positions or rotate its staff through regional posts to manage this risk.”

Another key finding of the report was that the risk of “industry capture” – or the department being influenced by commercial operators – was not recognised by the department at a corporate level.

“They have dual roles in the commercial fishing industry, they regulate and support the commercial fishing industry, and they also seek to see the industry grow,” Ms Spencer said.

A smartly dressed woman stands with a slight smile.

Caroline Spencer says there are key weaknesses in DPIRD’s regulation of commercial fishing.(ABC News: James Carmody )

“And those are competing roles that can lead to industry capture or being dominated by industry.

“And that’s a problem where we have an industry that has inherent risks around overfishing and black-market sales.”

Ms Spencer also warned the department did not have an adequate complaints handling mechanism.

Complaints about a fisheries officer are not required to be handled independently of that officer or their local management.

“When we consulted fishing industry members, some told us they have concerns about negative consequences and even retribution from the department for making complaints,” she said.

Data collection failures

The report was scathing of the processes the department uses to collect and manage data.

“My office looked at the regulation of fishing 13 years ago, and what we found was some of the systems and processes, and the failure to use good information for informed regulatory decision-making, is still occurring today,” Ms Spencer said.

“And that’s really disappointing.”

Roebuck Bay commercial gillnet fishing out in the waters near Broome

The process to secure or renew a WA commercial fishing licence still relies on paper forms and the postal system.(ABC: Ben Collins)

This year’s report found the data that was collected was not adequately used, if at all, to inform the activities of fisheries officers.

In some WA fisheries more than 80 per cent of enforcement and compliance activities were classified as random or reactive.

“Fisheries officers will set out for a day and sometimes get a little distracted by what they see in front of them, rather than targeting the planned risk that they were actually setting out to monitor,” Ms Spencer said.

“There are very dedicated professional fisheries and marine officers that work for the department, and many of them are doing a fantastic job day in and day out.

“But in terms of targeting the highest-risk areas in a really strategic way, those risks that are of the highest impact when protecting our fishery resources, there really isn’t that overall strategic systemic risk-based approach in making sure that planned activities are actually conducted.”

The report detailed the department did not evaluate the performance of its regulatory enforcement activities, nor had it established measures or targets to measure progress.

It also noted fisheries’ information systems were “ageing and reports are generally ad hoc and manually generated”.

One example given was the process to secure or renew a commercial fishing licence in WA, which relies on paper forms and the postal system rather than any digital equivalent.

DPIRD ‘confident’ in program integrity

In a statement, a government spokesperson said DPIRD welcomed the “benchmarking and assessment report from the auditor, which will help with continual improvement”.

“We’ve commenced a review of the relevant findings, to identify options to develop and advance our services where required,” they said.

“DPIRD is confident in the integrity and effectiveness of its compliance program and the regulation of commercial fishing.

“We deliver a range of monitoring, surveillance, inspection, and investigation services, using capable, professional, and trained officers.

“DPIRD always seeks to do better, and we remain committed to delivering comprehensive science-backed awareness and education programs, through which we can increase the ability of all West Australians who fish to willingly comply with the regulatory requirements we oversee.”

A boat moored on an island

The department says it is working hard to ensure all WA fishers adhere to the rules.(ABC News: Chris Lewis)

The report noted the department largely accepted the findings of the auditor-general but in some areas had claimed there was no need for change.

In her overview, Ms Spencer noted that made it hard “to be entirely optimistic at this time that the department will improve its compliance monitoring and enforcement”.

A business case was recently completed for the department to embark on a “digital transformation strategy” but it has not yet been approved or funded.

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