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New management strategies in several Australian states have rec’ fishers seeing red.

“Sky is falling” prophecies of imminent doom-and-gloom, accompanied by over-the-top shut-downs of recreational fishing activity… Unfortunately, these both appear to be a growing part of the playbooks of our state governments and their fisheries management bureaucracies these days.

In case you missed it, some remarkable and very alarming news has emerged from Western Australia in recent times. There are moves afoot on the part of Fisheries WA to extend the current two month closure on targeting and taking demersal (reef) fish in that State’s West Coast bioregion (see map below) to either eight or nine months!

The West Coast Bioregion (blue) is extensive, and home to the bulk of the State’s population.

Yes, you read that correctly: the proposal on the table is to extend the existing two month ban on the taking of snapper, WA dhufish, baldchin groper and the like to either eight or nine months along this entire stretch of coast (the most heavily populated part of the state). Perhaps even more incredibly, I understand that it’s further proposed that this shut-down should only apply to the recreational sector and not to commercial fishers!

Not surprisingly, West Aussie recreational fishers and their peak body, Recfishwest, along with the State’s tackle and marine industries, tourism businesses, charter operators and many others, are totally aghast at this move, which seems to have taken most of them by surprise. As respected WA fishing journalist, Scott Coghlan, wrote recently in his Sunday Times column:Fishing for dhuies and pink snapper is arguably the greatest component of the $2.4 billion spent on recreational fishing in WA each year and the impact on tackle, boating and regional tourism industries could be devastating.”

Snapper are one species covered by the WA proposals.

To provide a little background, most would agree that catches-per-unit-of-effort for these incredibly popular demersal species declined significantly from about the 1970s onward, and into the first decade of the new millennium. Despite its relatively small and sparsely-spread human population, pressure on these stocks (both recreational and commercial) was intense, and became much more efficient with the uptake of better boats, modern depth sounders, GPS plotters, braided lines and the like.

The continental shelf in this part of the world tends to consist of extensive stretches of relatively barren seabed, punctuated by isolated outcrops of reef, often in the form of flat, limestone shelves. Demersal fish aggregate around these oases in the metaphorical marine desert, making those fish easier to target (and over-exploit) once such hot spots are located.

… as are WA dhufish.

Fisheries managers addressed these issues over time using tighter catch and size limits and later, in 2010, through the introduction of a two-month annual closure of the fishery, extending from mid-October to mid-December each year. This closure wasn’t universally popular at the time, but it worked. Demersal fish stocks began to recover (albeit more slowly than some would like).

As Scott Coghlan wrote in his column: “Fisheries figures show dhufish and pinkie stocks are improving steadily, but just not at the rate required to meet the arbitrary 2030 date set in 2010 when previous management restrictions were introduced.” In fact, many fishers who should know assert that the fishing for demersal species today along this coast is better than it has been in several decades. This makes the current draconian proposals from Fisheries WA even more baffling, especially to those of us on the outside looking in.

… and baldchin groper.

Worse still, these deeply unpopular proposals have been accompanied by some very questionable statements from WA’s Premier, Mark McGowan, and his Fisheries Minister, Don Punch. As reported in Scott Coghlan’s newspaper column, Minister Punch recently stated during a radio interview with 6PR that the fishery was “buggered”, and that unless the new closures were implemented “there won’t be any fish [left]” in five to 10 years’ time. This is a ridiculous claim that’s completely unsubstantiated by any legitimate science… It’s just plain wrong! Truth is, there are very, very few instances anywhere on the planet of marine fish species being pushed to extinction purely by over-harvesting, and none as a result of recreational angling pressure. It’s a Furphy.

I believe that unsubstantiated and baseless claims of threatened extinction — followed by knee-jerk proposals to effectively shut down entire sectors — actually end up doing a lot more harm than good when it comes to winning public support for the conservation of fish stocks.

It’s not hard to see why WA dhufish are so keenly sought-after!

There are obvious parallels with the more extreme elements of the climate change action movement, who tend to alienate people with their over-blown rhetoric and dogma. Yes, we need to rebuild and protect fish stocks and yes, we urgently need to address climate change… But unless the general populous can be convinced of the necessity for action (convinced, not coerced or bullied) and also made to feel that they can be a positive part of the solution to these pressing issues, it just isn’t going to happen. Simple as that.

I’d like to think of myself as a genuine conservationist, and I suspect most of you reading this newsletter would happily put yourselves in that same green-tinged boat. I’m more than willing to put my hand up and accept further regulation of my activities in order to protect and rebuild diminished fish stocks, or repair degraded habitats. In fact, I actively welcome and promote such measures. That’s just one of the many reasons I’m so happy to be an ambassador for OzFish Unlimited, whose “Seeds For Snapper” program in WA’s Cockburn Sound is right now busily replanting seagrass beds to enhance fish populations, including pink snapper.

Seagrass seeds for replanting.

I have a strong hunch that had these latest Fisheries WA proposals contained calls for more modest measures — such as further tightening of catch limits and perhaps a slight (one month?) extension of the current closure — they’d have been widely (if perhaps grudgingly) accepted. Even more so if they’d applied a similar level of belt-tightening to the commercial sector. However, by singling out rec’ fishers (again!) and proposing to hit them so ridiculously hard, WA Fisheries and the State’s Government have totally alienated millions of people — within and beyond their borders. The backlash has already been fierce and it will only get fiercer. I see a genuine sh*tstorm brewing over this one.

Sadly, these “sky is falling” prophecies of imminent doom-and-gloom, accompanied by over-the-top shut-downs of (mostly) recreational fishing activities, appear to be a growing part of the playbooks of our state governments these days. We’ve already seen it happen with snapper in SA, as well as being initially proposed for Spanish mackerel in QLD, and now demersal fish in WA.

The snapper ban in SA was seen as an over-reaction by many.

I’m not saying that any of these valuable and important fisheries don’t urgently need better management and a significant reduction in the total harvest. But in each case, the government response has been asymmetric and extreme — two things guaranteed to p*ss people off!

After initial talk of closing its east coast Spanish mackerel fishery, QLD seems to have arrived at a better plan.

Surely if there’s one over-arching lesson from the ongoing Covid pandemic it’s this: Non-authoritarian governments can only achieve consensus and win public support for their actions if they’re able to convince the populace of the wider social benefit of those actions, and then take that populace along on the journey, as willing participants. Decrees, mandates, shut-downs and lock-outs have little place in a genuine, modern democracy… and even less chance of long-term survival. But in the short term, such unpopular edicts do enormous damage by forcing otherwise reasonable and fair-minded people to adopt opposing positions that are often far more extreme and polarised than they would normally have chosen. Bad policy has bad repercussions.

It’s a few years since Starlo chased dhuies. Under modern reg’s, this one would barely be legal — which is fair enough!

I have a hunch we might yet beat this outbreak of sheer lunacy in WA’s halls of power, but it’ll only happen if we all get off our arses and actually do something. Sign the petition (WA residents only, unfortunately) or write to the minister (everyone can do that!) at Minister.Punch@dpc.wa.gov.au  Better still, if you can, do both. Even if you don’t live or fish in WA, this one directly impacts you. Because if the sky-is-falling brigade get away with it again in WA, they’ll be coming to a waterway near you, too… Possibly much sooner than you expect.

Tight Lines.