BACK in 2014, the Future Fish Foundation and other recreational organizations lobbied for political parties contesting the Victorian state election to agree to remove net fishing from Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay. They got an agreement to do it. Since then, most net fishermen in the bay have accepted the proposed buyouts, which have been funded directly from the Victoria Labor Government’s Consolidated Revenue Funds and not paid for through recreational fishing license fees. And on March 31 of this year, the complete net ban came into effect. A few weeks ago, the ABC’s Lateline program took a sympathetic look at the end of the bay’s only sardine net fishing (pilchards) operation, which is licensed to catch 160 tonnes of sardines a year. It is hard for the family business and its employees, as is any structural readjustment of the industry, whether in the automotive, energy or fishing sectors. And some bait and tackle shops realized they were going to lose access to around 80 tonnes of high-quality fresh bait every year, leading them to suggest an exception could be made.
Our advice? Be careful what you wish for. Pilchard nets may not be as much of a concern as other forms of nets, but a net is a net, and who’s to say future governments looking for a loophole wouldn’t use this as a precedent for consider offers back into the business. Currently, eight of the remaining net fishermen have been offered longline licenses to take a quota of eleven tonnes of snapper each. They have also been offered an additional mixed quota of three tonnes of mixed species, but they are unhappy as the mix does not include the valuable and highly sought after King George whiting.
Coincidentally, this closure coincides with the 20th anniversary of the establishment of NSW’s Recreational Fishing Havens (RFH). There are 30 RFHs spread along the NSW coast, just under half of which are total closures, with no commercial fishing allowed. The $20 million to buy out the commercial operators came from a loan from the Treasury, but unlike Victoria, the money had to be repaid from recreational fishing license funds as they accrued over time. over time. Twenty-seven per cent of NSW estuarine waters are now closed to commercial fishing. 468 fishing boat licenses were surrendered and 251 fishing companies were purchased.
The RFH declaration was fiercely resisted by the commercial sector and the Sydney Fish Market. The end of the supply of fresh fish to NSW consumers was predicted in a coordinated campaign that personally targeted NSW Fisheries Minister Eddie Obeid. Of course, other suppliers took over and supplies continued. Asked by this writer if he found the personal attacks distressing, the minister replied “No, it’s just business, I don’t blame them for defending their interests”. But he stuck to his guns and the fishing in many totally enclosed areas improved as far as the eye could see – Lake Macquarie, St George’s Basin and Botany Bay are just three examples.
Over the past 20 years, successive NSW Fisheries Ministers have taken commercial approaches to partially reopen some of the no-go areas, but this appears to have been side-tracked. And there is another example of total closure which has led to a massive increase in the number of fish, especially pelagics. Sydney Harbor was closed to commercial fishermen in 2006 in response to the detection of high levels of dioxin among fishermen and their families, so an “accidental closure” of all commercial methods has made recreational fishermen very, very happy. Lots of bait fish for kings, salmon and bonito now. Stick to your decision without a net, Victorian government!