THE Gillard government was last night poised to approve an eleventh-hour plan to prevent controversial super trawler Abel Tasman from taking huge fish hauls from Australian waters.
Cabinet was due to consider giving Environment Minister Tony Burke or Fisheries Minister Joe Ludwig powers to impose stricter conditions on boats that use "new fishing methods" to vastly increase their catch, after the super trawler indicated it would still fish around the east coast under the toughest conditions Mr Burke was able to impose under existing environmental law.
The move would pre-empt a Labor backbencher's private members bill aimed at stopping the factory ship, which looked likely to be supported by caucus today amid growing public concern.
"One way or the other the government wants to stop this," a senior source said.
Mr Burke had encouraged caucus to agitate against the super trawler, but Senator Ludwig has defended the Australian Fisheries Management Authority from attacks over its handling of approvals for the ship, on the basis that it had been doing its job properly within the limitations of the law.
The minority of caucus members who support the super trawler's activities say AFMA's scientific processes to set fishing quotas are sound and it sets a dangerous precedent for them to be overturned on the basis of lobbying by Greenpeace and GetUp!
The issue was further complicated over the weekend when former leader Kevin Rudd backed the private members bill proposed by West Australian backbencher Melissa Parke to stop the super trawler, originally named the Margiris but now renamed the Abel Tasman.
If new laws are not passed quickly the Abel Tasman is likely to be able to start fishing under its licence to take 18,000 tonnes of mainly mackerel and red bait fish. AFMA says that once it receives a "survey certificate" from Maritime Safety Queensland the trawler is now technically based in that state it is likely to grant final fishing approvals within 48 hours.
A week ago, Mr Burke imposed new rules aimed at limiting the bycatch of seals, dolphins and sea lions by the factory ship, conditions he suggested might make the trawler's operation unviable. But operator Seafish Tasmania said it would comply and proceed with its fishing plans.
"I've gone to the limit of what I can do under current law. Decisions on further steps will be considered soon," Mr Burke told Fairfax yesterday.
Environment and recreational fishing groups argue the trawler will overfish stocks with its 600-metre long net.
Ms Parke's bill proposes to amend the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and the Fisheries Management Act, although last night it remained an option that amendments would be needed to only one of them.
Seafish Tasmania argues that it is the size of the quota not the size of the boat that matters, and the quota will still be fished, whether by one large boat or several smaller ones. It says it has worked with Commonwealth officials for seven years and has met every rule, regulation and request and that rules should not be changed because of "emotive campaigning and trial by media".