By Toby Piddocke
The Research Providers Network (RPN) for fisheries and aquaculture met in late March and late April to discuss the implications for fisheries research, assessment and management advice in each jurisdiction under the COVID-19 restrictions. The RPN is a cross-agency, government- level committee that develops coordinated responses to fisheries research priorities.
As employers, research agencies such as CSIRO, governments, universities and the FRDC have implemented processes to protect staff from COVID-19 infection.
Staff are working from home in most jurisdictions and agencies, and technical personnel who need to conduct onsite activities are able to do so in relative isolation. Meetings are being conducted via web link, and field-based data collection, where it can occur, is generally restricted to localised day trips. This will ensure staff can comply with the travel restrictions and social distancing measures that have been put in place.
Projects with intensive fieldwork components and fishery independent surveys and projects that require face-to-face collaboration and consultation are most affected by restrictions. Many have been suspended or postponed.
The impact on the delivery of stock assessments for 2020 and 2021 is likely to vary. Some are progressing as planned, such as a cross-jurisdictional stock assessment for Scalloped Hammerhead (shark), which remains on schedule. Queensland and New South Wales state fisheries agencies expect relatively few impacts to their stock assessment schedules in 2020, and the compilation of the Status of Australian Fish Stocks 2020 is also still proceeding.
However, reduced data availability could affect the sensitivity and robustness of stock assessments, which has implications for management decisions such as setting total allowable catch (TAC) volumes. Temporary reductions to research agencies’ stock assessment capacity may also be offset by reduced fishing effort in some fisheries as a result of the pandemic.
Researchers are assessing the implications on future assessments from a range of pandemic-related management measures such as rolling over quota from 2020 to 2021. They will also need to understand the impact of missing or limited data for future assessments.
Sharing staff and resources at the local level offers opportunities to safely continue data collection, so that activities such as fieldwork could continue despite the coronavirus-related travel and physical distancing restrictions.
RPN members also discussed the potential for shared services as a way to ensure continued delivery of research services to the greatest extent possible during the pandemic. Different restrictions, procedures and guidelines across jurisdictions and agencies mean such approaches are currently limited. However, enhanced inter-agency cooperation could lead to longer-term arrangements to improve the efficiency of future research projects, according to the RPN. Implementing resource-sharing arrangements will require cross-agency coordination, and the work necessary to achieve this is underway.
In addition to discussions as part of the RPN, the FRDC has been contacting its contracted researchers to assess the potential impacts on its research portfolio. This has helped develop its own COVID-19 response plan, including options to extend project timelines.
Responses to date indicate widespread delays in completing projects and uncertainty about the duration of delays. Reasons for these delays include disrupted fieldwork and laboratory analyses, or the inability to conduct workshops. The delays could also have flow-on effects for fishing and aquaculture operators and fisheries managers who were waiting on research results to help with decision-making. However, researchers contacted were confident that contracted projects could be completed once restrictions on movement were lifted.
The FRDC is committed to supporting its partners, including researchers, through the pandemic to ensure that Australian fishing and aquaculture is positioned for a strong recovery when the pandemic eases.
More information about this can be found on the FRDC website: http://frdc.com.au/media-publications/fish/FISH-COVID19/FAQs-on-FRDC-Research-Projects