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Impacts of COVID-19

Like many sectors, fisheries experienced significant upheaval in the second half of 2019-20 due to COVID-19 with the impacts likely to be felt for quite some time. In response to COVID-19, AFMA Management implemented its Pandemic Response Plan in March 2020. The plan operates in conjunction with the Business Continuity Plan and outlines AFMA’s response to a pandemic by defining pandemic phases according to the World Health Organisation and agency and staff responsibilities under each phase. AFMA also established the Pandemic Incident Management Team (PIMT). The PIMT is chaired by the Chief Operating Officer and comprises a membership of critical staff from all three AFMA branches. The PIMT is responsible for assessment of pandemic phases under the AFMA Pandemic Response Plan and to ensure actions required under each phase are taken.

The CEO closed AFMA offices in Darwin and Lakes Entrance on Friday 27 March 2020 and in Canberra and Thursday Island on Monday 30 March 2020. AFMA’s ICT mobility enabled an almost seamless transition to working from home arrangements across the agency. Access to AFMA offices throughout the COVID-19 pandemic was restricted to those staff whose attendance at the office was critical to maintain essential functions for the agency. Plans for transition back to work in the office began in late June 2020. New and emerging risks and mitigations continue to be monitored during AFMA staff transition to offices and worksites.

Due to the restrictions on travel and implementation of working from home arrangements, AFMA instituted a range of mechanisms to help to maintain its overall compliance and enforcement program across Commonwealth fisheries. These included:

  • Increased numbers of desktop audits/inspections in place of in field inspections
  • Enhanced use of methodologies to monitor and detect quota evasion
  • Enhanced use of CCTV capabilities to monitor vessel offloads in key ports
  • Enhanced focus on VMS compliance including increased checking and enhanced enforcement
  • Increased engagement with State agencies assistance in completing essential inspections on Commonwealth and foreign vessels
  • Collaboration with international partners to mitigate emerging fisheries risks under international frameworks
  • Participated in virtual joint coordination centres for the running of multilateral coordinated patrols and operations
  • Delivery of capacity building and training packages by virtual means
  • Promoted the use of alternative or additional means of monitoring and independent verification (such as electronic monitoring).

As at the end of 2019-20, all AFMA offices remained closed. Results of all staff working remotely and reduction on field duties during COVID-19 will be reported in the 2020-21 annual report, but it is fair to say that AFMA staff were well served by the agency’s ICT technology, and staff responded positively and proactively to the challenges of the new work environment. AFMA continued to undertake its functions and decision making as well as absorbing additional workload directly related to the pandemic crisis.

FEATURE STORY: Placement of an observer during COVID-19

COVID-19 has brought unprecedented times globally, including for AFMA and the Commonwealth fishing industry. The pandemic has had an affect for over a third of 2019-20 with AFMA closing offices and all staff working remotely. The Observer Program has been significantly disrupted by travel restrictions and work, health and safety concerns for both observers and vessel crew. Fishing is considered an essential industry under COVID-19.

AFMA’s Observer Program provides essential information to support the management of Commonwealth fisheries. This includes the collection of scientific data supporting stock assessments, monitoring threatened, endangered or protected species interactions required by the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 and meeting Australia’s international obligations. Our 17 casually-employed observers are pivotal in supporting AFMA to deliver our objective of sustainable fisheries management. They also provide key oversight that supports stakeholder confidence in Australian fisheries, helping to keep our fishers fishing.

COVID-19 and the associated global management response created a unique situation for the placement of observers. However, AFMA has been successful in mitigating the risk of COVID-19 for our observers and for industry, while still achieving high priority deployments to meet key regulatory conditions, including many international obligations. This required significant collaboration across AFMA and other government agencies and with industry.

In April, industry sought to undertake their fishing operations in the Heard Island and McDonald Islands Fishery which requires the placement of an AFMA observer. One recent example of collaboration was the placement of an observer on an Australian fishing vessel in Mauritius for the voyage to the Southern Ocean.

The logistics of placing the observer included:

  • receiving an exemption to enter Western Australia and an exemption to leave Australia
  • having a COVID-19 test
  • meeting the Charter flight with the crew from New Zealand
  • receiving an exemption and approval from the Mauritian Government.

All AFMA branches in conjunction with other government agencies, as well as in close association with industry, successfully met all requirements enabling the vessel to leave port and undertake their fishing operation.

AFMA Observer at the front of the boat working in the Antarctic
Observer working in the Antarctic Photo courtesy AFMA