Below is a copy of the transcript of my talk at the 2019 National Recreational Fishing Conference in Hobart, accompanied by some of the screen shots from my PowerPoint presentation:

To introduce myself and give you some background: I’ve been a keen recreational angler for over half a century, and for the past 40 years, I’ve made my career and my living from writing about fishing, hosting videos, presenting shows on television and developing and endorsing fishing-related products. It’d be fair to say that rec’ fishing isn’t just a big part of my life… it  IS my life!

Over that time, I’ve watched recreational fishing change significantly: both here in Australia and right around the world. The technological breakthroughs and mind-boggling advances in tackle and related fields like boating and marine electronics are one obvious area of change, but the very nature of recreational fishing has also shifted. So has its place in society, and that society’s attitudes towards it.

When I was a kid, fishing as a sport, a hobby or a pastime — whatever you want to call it — was still very much dominated by men, and the over-riding motivation for going fishing was to catch a bag of fish, bring them home and eat them… simple as that. For lots of casual and not-so casual anglers, this “hunter/gatherer” aspect remains important, and it wasn’t such a long time ago that many of us (myself included) thought nothing of “killing our limit”.

Back in the 1950s and early 60s, the average Aussie angler was a working-class bloke in shorts and a blue shearer’s singlet, or a pair of overalls, with a couple of handlines or a Rangoon cane rod and an Alvey reel. He typically carried a hessian bag to hold his longnecks of beer on the way to the fishing spot, and used the same bag to haul home the fish he’d caught to feed his family and friends at the end of the trip.

At the time, the “social licence” or public approval of recreational fishing was very high. If the vast majority of non-fishers in the community thought about anglers at all, it was generally in a positive, benevolent light… unless they ended up sitting down-wind of that smelly sugar bag of fish on the bus or train!

Interestingly, as I entered my teens, this paradigm was already beginning to shift. The era at the end of the 1960s and into the early 1970s saw the birth and rapid growth of what we now know as “sportfishing”. This was a different way of looking at angling: one that valued the experience and the challenge at least as highly as the end result, and which — in the process — elevated the status of the fish we pursued and increased our respect for those fish, and for the environments that sustain them. An angler’s success and satisfaction were no longer measured purely by the weight of the fish in his bag at the end of the day.The Australian National Sportfishing Association (ANSA) spearheaded a lot of these changes, but they were also reflected and shaped by the parallel development of a much more sophisticated and nuanced fishing media: both in print and, later, on the airwaves.

There were many names associated with the birth and early development of sportfishing in Australia: people like Vic McCristal and Jack Erskine (shown above), as well as others like Ed Pratt, George Bryden, John Bethune, Dick Lewers and more.But one bloke who played an especially pivotal role in this transformation of rec’ fishing, in my opinion, was my first boss in the industry: Ron Calcutt.

Calcutt created the old “Australian Angler” magazine, which later became “Fishing World” and is still around today.  Ron came from a surfing and rock music background, and he brought a very modern, “hip” look and feel to the tired old world of fishing magazines as they’d been in the 1950s and ’60s. It wouldn’t be stretching things to say that Calcutt — or “Cool-cat” as some of us knew him — changed the way we looked at ourselves as anglers. He also gave recreational fishing a new and exciting vocabulary, and completely revolutionised the way it was represented visually: first in print and later on the small screen, with his benchmark “A Fisherman’s World” series on ABC TV.

It was an exciting era in recreational fishing, and the changes it spawned have shaped how a lot of us see the sport today. Fishing became much “cooler” than it was when I was young, and it also appealed more to women and kids than it did back then. The rec’ fishing demographic definitely broadened across this half a century.Later, in the 1990s, Rex Hunt became a household name thanks to his high-rating, prime-time TV show. He very much brought fishing to the “masses” and his shows were watched by a lot of non-fishers and very occasional “danglers”, as I call them. His trademark “fish kissing” behaviour also popularised and promoted catch and release. I don’t think it’d be stretching things to say that rec’ fishing’s profile, exposure and general acceptance was probably at it’s highest point through this Rex Hunt era.But the past half a century of recreational fishing in Australia hasn’t been all beer and skittles. The status of our sport in the eyes of society at large has also undergone a shift, and not always for the better.It wouldn’t be stretching things to say that while our own positive image of ourselves as anglers climbed through the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s — largely as a result of the sportfishing “revolution” — our social licence or public approval rating actually plateaued and even began to decline towards the end of the 20th century and into the new millennium.

There are no doubt all manner of reasons for this downward trend in the perceived sustainability of rec’ fishing, but I think some of them are related to society’s increasing concern about the environment through this same period. There’s no doubt that environmental awareness rose dramatically after the 1960s. This has been a really good thing, but it hasn’t always cast fishing — either commercial or recreational — in a favourable light.

My presentation is entitled  “Could Citizen Science Save Rec’ Fishing” and that title begs an obvious question: save it from what?I’m indebted to Ross Winstanley for this graph (above), which I first saw in a recent issue of Fishing Monthly magazine, with an article of Ross’s that was intended to provide a wake-up call to rec’ fishers about their declining social licence.

It plots community perceptions about the “sustainability” of different fishing sectors — commercial, traditional, aquaculture and recreational — from 2002 until 2018, and it reveals some rather interesting trends.

It’s hardly surprising to me — especially in light of ongoing publicity about declining global fish stocks — that commercial fishing is perceived by the general public as being the least sustainable of the four sectors measured here… But it’s also interesting to note that — despite a few ups and downs — commercial fishing’s perceived sustainability is roughly the same today as it was in 2002. This indicates to me that the commercial sector have actually done a pretty good job of selling themselves and their activities to the populace. We in the rec’ sector should take careful note.

It’s also not a big surprise to me that aquaculture started out so high, but has suffered quite a decline across this 16-year period. It still comes out on top in the perceived sustainability stakes, but only just. Clearly, some of the adverse publicity surrounding the environmental consequences of intensive monocultures and sea cage fisheries have had an impact on aquaculture’s social licence.

Perceptions of the sustainability of traditional fishing have been quite up and down, and I’m not sure of the reasons for the peaks and troughs. They may relate more to statistical anomalies and survey methodology than anything else, but you can see that the underlying trend is downward.

“The perceived sustainability of recreational fishing seems to have peaked in 2013 and been in a steady, shallow dive ever since.”

Finally, through this period, the perceived sustainability of recreational fishing seems to have peaked in 2013 and been in a steady, shallow dive ever since. It’s hardly crashing, but if you extrapolate that line out to about 2030 and beyond at the same rate of decline, it doesn’t look too good for our sector.

I need to stress that this is a measure of an extremely subjective and non-scientific quantity — community “perceptions” of the rather rubbery notion of “sustainability”. But there’s an old saying that “perception is reality”, and I think it’s highly likely that this perception of sustainability probably equates quite closely to the overall “social licence” or public approval and support for each of these four sectors, so I actually think it’s an important graph.

Declining social licence for recreational fishing is caused by many forces and also manifests itself in various ways.One of the more obvious ones is a growth in overtly anti-fishing sentiment. A lot of this is driven by what might be regarded as some fairly extreme views regarding animal welfare, the consumption of meat and so on.

But it would be foolish for us — as rec’ fishers — to dismiss all anti-fishing sentiment as coming solely from the “fringe” or “extreme”. The fact is that some of the views being expressed by the more radical elements of the anti-fishing movement are slowly beginning to seep into other parts of society as well.Another area of concern is the apparent decline in participation levels by younger anglers in more recent times. The statistics are a little mixed on this one, but there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that recreational fishing’s demographic is ageing, and that less youngsters are taking up the sport. I’m sure there are all sorts of reasons for this that we could explore, but declining social licence is no doubt one of them. Fishing isn’t quite as “cool” as it used to be a decade or two ago. If the angling population actually is ageing, as I strongly suspect, that also means it will be losing overall numbers due to natural attrition. The truth is, less and less of us are looking like those enthusiastic kids on the left… and more and more of us are looking like the bloke on the right!There are also increasing challenges to specific aspects of rec’ fishing, including activities like catch-and-release fishing, which was widely perceived as a positive in fairly recent times, but is increasingly being called into question as debate intensifies about whether or not fish feel “pain”.

I’m sure most of us have heard stories about catch-and-release fishing effectively being “banned” nowadays in Germany and Switzerland, as well as some other parts of the world. In reality, that’s a bit of an over-simplification. While the animal welfare acts in some jurisdictions do now state things such as: “no-one may cause an animal pain, suffering or harm without good reason”, the actual application and enforcement of these laws doesn’t seem to have directly impacted recreational fishing… or not yet, anyway. But you can be sure such a day is coming. And not necessarily on the other side of the world. As recently as September this year, animal “sentience” was recognised under law in Australia’s ACT. It remains to be seen what implications that might have for rec’ fishing.Game fishing, the granting of records for noteworthy captures and so-called “trophy hunting” are other areas coming under increasing scrutiny today. Quite recently the ABC ran this story reporting that Australian game fishers were becoming scared about posting images of their captures because of the negative feedback they were receiving as a result.Finally, tournament or competition fishing is another area being increasingly examined in a more critical light, especially when it combines things like the pursuit of potentially record-sized fish (which are still sometimes killed and weighed), but even when these events are conducted on a purely catch-and-release basis, for the reasons we’ve already looked at.

So, all-in-all, rec’ fishing is being examined in a much more critical way today than ever before, and I think this is why its social licence is in decline. Should we care about that? Well yes, I reckon we should. Because declining social licence tends to lead to tighter restrictions on what we do, reduced access to waterways and a diminished say in the decision-making processes that directly affect us.I’ve long believed that participation by recreational anglers in citizen science projects such as the ones we’re hearing about at this conference is one of the very best ways for us to not only justify some of the things we wish to continue doing, but  also win back wider public support and social licence.The long-running NSW Game Fish Tagging Program that Julian Pepperell told us about at this conference is a shining example of citizen science at its best and I think it’s a story we should be shouting from the rooftops.But so are a lot of the other programs, projects and initiatives we’ll be hearing about through the rest of the conference.

I’d strongly encourage all of you to use your networks to spread the stories about these valuable projects, and to win us back a little more social licence in the process.I honestly believe that citizen science may be one of the last and best hopes for future-proofing the pastime I’ve devoted my life to. I hope you agree.

The message we need to be getting out there is that we are a part of the solution… not a part of the problem.

Thank you!

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