AUSTRALIA'S fisheries authority has hit back at an ombudsman's finding it broke the law by failing to exclude a super trawler operator from an advisers' meeting in which fish quota decisions were made that benefited the trawler.
The Australian Fisheries Management Authority issued a weekend statement saying a doubling of the ''total allowable catch'' for jack mackerel - partly on the advice of a committee of which super trawler operator Gerry Geen is a member - was ''legally made''.
Mr Geen, director of the firm Seafish Tasmania, also rejected suggestions of impropriety, saying it was ''absolutely standard'' for industry representatives to be present in such committee meetings.
Their comments follow the release by independent MP Andrew Wilkie of a Commonwealth Ombudsman's finding that AFMA's advisory committee breached the Fisheries Administration Act by allowing Mr Geen to participate in the February meeting even though he had declared a conflict of interest.
Mr Wilkie had asked the ombudsman to investigate the meeting, at which the South East Management Advisory Committee - of which Mr Geen is the industry representative - recommended the allowable catch of jack mackerel rise from 5000 to 10,600 tonnes.
The Abel Tasman super trawler, which the federal government has created legislation to ban for up to two years, requires large hauls of such fish to be financially viable.
AFMA said in its statement that the advisory committee itself did not set the total allowable catch - the total quantity of a species that can be fished by all operators.
Rather, the final decision was made by the authority itself.
Mr Geen declared his conflict of interest at the start of the meeting, which was conducted by phone conference.
He told The Age yesterday that his presence was normal, as the committee was a ''stakeholder group'' of which he is the industry representative.
''If this is a problem, it's a problem in every AFMA management advisory committee when it comes to quota setting, because there's nothing unusual at all about that,'' he said.
He also added that the committee had followed proper procedures.
''If that whole process were repeated again, with me being completely absent from the process, the same outcome would result,'' he said. The meeting's minutes, published on AFMA's website, state that the committee chairman did not ask for Mr Geen's position on the allowable catch, ''given his direct conflict of interest''.
But by allowing him to remain on the phone, the committee had breached the law, the ombudsman concluded, according to the finding released by Mr Wilkie on Saturday.