‘Dishonest’ was the most pertinent word used by former commercial lake fisherman, Arthur Allen, when describing the State Government’s handling of the recent licence buyout.
More than 150 years of Lakes Entrance history had its final chapter written last month when the final 10 licence holders reluctantly reeled in their nets one last time, and now it’s been revealed they have been completely undervalaued.
A Valuer General report released by the State Government this week showed the State Government grossly underpaid the fishermen on their fishing equipment compensation as part of this year’s buyout of licences.
Licence holders were paid out$60,000 for their now redundant equipment, despite the figures showing the average value to be$213,000, with three licence holders owning more than $260,000 in equipment.
Mr Allen said if he had operated with $60,000 worth of equipment he would’ve struggled to make an income.
“They’ve just been dishonest the whole way through,” he said.
“You’d be very restricted with$60,000 worth of gear.
“The fishery is multi species, multi method. Today you might be chasing bream and you’ve got to have a fleet of gear for that, but they might be gone tomorrow and you could be chasing tailor or something else.
“It’s also seasonal in that late autumn, winter into spring you worked with gill nets, so you had to have them, and then in the summer through to autumn you had seine netting, which is a very expensive operation because you’ve got to have boats and winches, or prawning nets, which is a pretty expensive little toy.
“If you didn’t change with whatever fish were around, you didn’t have the ability to make an income - Every year is different, every week could be different.”
Mr Allen said the deceitful way in which the State Government handled the buyout is what hurts the most, pointing to a number of issues that arose through the process.
“The Minister (for Boating and Fishing, Jaala Pulford), when she came down to meet with us in March 2019, promised there would be a valuer sent around to establish a fair value for our redundant equipment, which did happen, but after he’d been at my place for about an hour or more, he said ‘I’ll have to go back to the VFA’. I said ‘why would you go anywhere near them if you are an independent valuer?’. He said ‘what I’m seeing doesn’t match anything I’ve been briefed on.
“That was the first alarm bell,” Mr Allen said.
“Once he disappeared we were told he’d put in a report and I asked for my evaluation on three occasions, because after all it was my gear he was valuing. I was totally ignored. It was just a cover up.”
Local MP, Tim Bull, said the Minister had some explaining to do to the commercial fishing families after this was one of the major sticking points when the legislation passed through State Parliament last year –which the Government vehemently defended.
“It has taken over six months for the Minister to release these figures she promised to provide to fishers last year, and it shows she has undersold them,” Mr Bull said.
“The fishers strongly disputed and produced receipts to show their gear was worth much more (than $60,000). However, this was rejected, and the Minister simply said the$60,000 was a figure based on the independent valuation of the Valuer General’s office.
“However, we now have the report and it shows the average valuation for equipment across the 10 licences was $213,000… so how did the Minister base her $60,000 figure on the Valuer General’s valuations? No wonder she was trying to hide it.
“The bulk of the equipment payments is nets and where the government has stuffed this up completely, is their argument was ‘we will give you $60,000 and you can keep the nets to sell them on top of that’.
“But through sheer incompetence, they didn’t realise there weren’t the other markets for these nets and proof of this is that this year almost all have been picked up and dumped. They would have been sold if they could have.
“The Minister and the Victorian Fisheries Authority (VFA) was told this but ignored it and when the Department was asked to name these other commercial markets they could be sold into, they had no answer because they didn’t exist.
“The Government has completely shafted our local commercial fishers. They have done exactly what they said they would not do and that is set a budget for the buy out and come up with a formula that sits within that budget. That is clearly what they have done.
“To prove how much of a sham this whole process was, they met with the fishers on August 9, 2019, when considerable information was sought from the fishers, including the Valuer General’s information. While the fishers were waiting for this, the legislation was introduced into Parliament 17 days later. The timeframes around the legislation indicate it was written and finalised while they were having pretend consultation meetings.
“The government kept falling back on the comment that you have to look at the package as a whole.
“But that is not what they said they would do, they said they would fairly pay across each of the three components of the package. They have not done this, and this report proves it.”
Mr Bull said the treatment of the licence holders has had a wide-ranging effect.
“To make matters worse, they then wonder why the commercial sector is a little frosty about supporting their annual seafood festival in Lakes,” he said.
“I think some of these bureaucrats are on another planet, they seem to think it is ok to shaft you one minute and then all is forgotten, and you are expected to be best buddies again.
“Country people don’t like being taken as fools by the bureaucrats in Fisheries Victoria and the Minister’s office and while they know this won’t be revisited, a good start to repair the damage they have done is an apology. That’s the least these families deserve.”
IMAGE: Former commercial lake fisherman, Arthur Allen, beside a mountain of redundant equipment yet to be cleared by the State Government following the recent licence buyout. “I said to the Minister that if she took my licence she would have to take my gear because I’m not becoming a criminal for her or anyone else,” Mr Allen said. She said ‘what do you mean?’ and I said ‘once you don’t hold an access licence you can’t possess commercial equipment, so you come and get it’. She honoured that part of the agreement and put it into legislation, but there is a bloody great big mountain of gear still sitting here that you wouldn’t believe. There’s no resale because its got no value; we’re a very specialised fishery and ones that were equivalent down the coast have all been shut.”