Our Mulloway Are In Peril!

At the beginning of June, 2017, I was invited by the NSW DPI (Department of Primary Industry) to attend a meeting of recreational fishing stakeholders intended to discuss the ongoing mulloway recovery program in that state. A similar meeting of commercial stakeholders was scheduled to take place shortly afterwards. Participants in both meetings were to be presented with a paper (which you can read here). This was accompanied by presentations from several DPI researchers. Below I’ve attempted to convey the “guts” of this meeting in simplified terms that I hope most anglers can relate to. But please don’t take my word as gospel on this critical issue! Read the paper as well, and search out the literature it quotes. This subject is too important to take for granted or gloss over. If we don’t do something, we face the potential demise of one of our most iconic saltwater species.


Mulloway or jewfish are a peak predator greatly prized by fishers and seafood fanciers alike.


In NSW, mulloway or jewfish have been officially classified by the Department of Primary Industry (DPI) as “overfished” since 2004/05. In November 2013, a recovery program was implemented in an effort to rebuild mulloway stocks. This program involved, amongst other things, an increase in the species’ minimum legal length from 45 to 70 cm for both recreational and commercial fishers (with a significant exception that we’ll look at later), and a reduction in the recreational bag limit from 5 fish per angler per day to 2 fish per angler per day.

Jewfish or mulloway are an iconic species. Unfortunately, NSW stocks are in poor shape.

Jewfish or mulloway are an iconic species. Unfortunately, NSW stocks are in very poor shape.

Unfortunately, ongoing monitoring of stocks since the implementation of this recovery program indicates that mulloway are still in serious trouble throughout NSW, despite some better-than-average spawning years. Recent scientific estimates of the total size of the mulloway biomass in NSW indicate that it’s down to somewhere between 5% and 20% of its original (un-fished) size. Even worse, most of the scientists involved were of the personal opinion that the true figure was likely to lie at the lower end of that range: probably somewhere around the 7 or 8% mark, according to several researchers I spoke to… In other words, potentially around 92-93% of the state’s baseline mulloway stocks (as they would have been at the time of European settlement) are now gone from our waters!

Furthermore, while it’s known from the analysis of otoliths (ear bones) that mulloway can live for at least 34 years in the wild, relatively few fish make it past the 4 to 6 year mark these days. So, jewies are not only stock- or population-overfished, but also seriously size-overfished.

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This was the age frequency of mulloway sampled between 2002 and 2005… the dramatic lack of fish over 4 years of age sounded real alarm bells and was one of the triggers leading to the implementation of the recovery program.

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By 2014/15, the age spread of mulloway in NSW looked slightly better, but there should still be a lot more fish in the population older than 6 years. (NB: The vertical scale on this graph is different to the 2002 – 2005 graph above.)

Since the breaking of the millennial drought (thanks to a series of wetter years between 2008 and 2011), there have been several better-than-average spawning seasons for mulloway, resulting in a noticeable spike in numbers of juvenile and sub-adult fish. This increase in the number of small jewies (often referred to as “soapies”) has been widely reported by both recreational and commercial fishers. However, relatively few of these small fish are surviving to become large fish, and to spawn multiple times.

Here are a few important facts about mulloway biology:

  • Female mulloway mature and spawn for the first time at an average length of 68 – 70 cm
  • Male mulloway mature and spawn for the first time at an average length of 50 – 52 cm
  • Mulloway grow relatively rapidly in their first few years of life, after which their growth slows and becomes highly variable between individuals and geographic locations


Mulloway are obviously a highly desirable and sought-after target for both recreational and commercial fishers. Both sectors take large quantities. Declared commercial catches peaked just shy of 400 tonnes per annum in the mid-1970s and have been in general decline ever since. Commercial catches are now back to about where they were at the end of World War Two… and you can imagine how much more effort there is today, and how much more sophisticated that effort it is! Commercial fishers are struggling to catch jewies today as well — especially fish over the 70 cm minimum length.

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Declared commercial catches of mulloway in NSW peaked at almost 400 tonnes per annum in the 1970s and have trended down ever since, with a slight rise since the end of the drought in the “noughties”.

Not too surprisingly, there’s virtually no worthwhile and accurate historical data on recreational catches of mulloway in NSW, but these catches are clearly very significant, and it’s quite likely that the rec’ catch has equaled or exceeded the official commercial catch in many years, especially since about the early 1990s. Today, the recreational catch is thought to be in the order of 100 tonnes per annum (potentially twice the size of the official commercial catch!).

However, since the increase in the minimum size limit from 45 cm to 70 cm in November 2013, a lot more mulloway are being released by rec’ anglers. In fact, more than 80% of all the jewies caught by anglers are now released! Researchers believe that these released fish have a very high survival rate (80%+ on average, and significantly higher for lure caught fish). Here are the estimated recreational catches (based on creel surveys and other research) for 2000/01 and 2013/14; expressed as numbers of fish caught and further broken down into the percentages kept and released:

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It’s believed that rec’ anglers release in excess of 80% of the mulloway they catch these days. This includes both undersized and legal fish. Mulloway released by anglers have high survival rates.

It should be stressed that the catch statistics for both commercial and recreational sectors don’t include the undeclared, illegal “black market” operations of either sector, which may well be significant, especially when talking about such a high-value target species.

Your first jewie on a lure is always a proud, photo-worthy moment, even if it's not a big fish.

Mulloway released by anglers are known to have very high survival rates: generally well in excess of 80%.


The other two “smoking guns” in the demise of mulloway stocks in NSW are the discarded by-catch of juveniles taken during trawling operations (especially estuarine prawn trawling), and the effects of loss and degradation of nursery habitat caused by bottom trawling, dredging, land reclamation, siltation, pollution, acid soil run-off, damming of coastal rivers, etc, etc.

Degradation of our waterways has obviously played a part in the demise of jewfish stocks.

Degradation of our waterways has obviously played a part in the demise of jewfish stocks.

These two impacts are obviously immense, although there’s reason to believe (or at least hope!) that both have been reduced slightly over time. Improved trawling practices — including the implementation of fish exclusion devices and other modifications to trawl nets — along with better management in the form of periodic closures and spatial restraints on trawling, have no doubt reduced the by-catch. However, it’s hard to quantify this reduction without a lot more research. Similarly, more stringent environmental monitoring and tighter controls on polluters and developers are slowly improving the health of many estuaries… but there’s clearly a long way to go! These are things we need to be pushing to fix as a community. However, their solutions are likely to be long term. Meanwhile, we need to act fast to save our mulloway stocks.


From what I saw and heard at the meeting, the 2013 recovery program had two key weak points: Firstly, there was a clause built into the increased minimum length regulations allowing commercial estuary mesh netters to keep 10 undersized fish per day (10 jewies between the old limit of 45 cm and the new limit of 70 cm). This “get out of jail free” card has definitely backfired in a big way! While it was intended to prevent the “wastage” of a few stray undersized fish caught (and usually killed) in these nets, it has been interpreted and applied by many commercial operators as a de facto quota.


Mulloway form tight schools that are highly susceptible to netting.

Not only do many netters intentionally aim to kill their 10 undersized mulloway per day, a significant proportion of operators within this fishery greatly exceed that number on what appears to be a regular basis. In fact, 25% of the netters checked by DPI had retained more than 10 undersized jewies on the day they were checked… and some of these breaches of the regulations were nothing short of spectacular. The greatest number of undersized mulloway found in a single netter’s possession was 189 fish (!), but this was by no means a stand-out exception, as other offenders had 121, 72, 63 and so on undersized jewies in their catch! Unfortunately, I don’t have any information on whether any of these operators faced charges as a result of their blatant breaches.

They love vibes, too!

Most jewies encountered these days are under the 70 cm minimum legal length.

It’s hard to envisage the community at large issuing a “social licence” for this kind of mandated breaking of the rules in any other realm of modern day commercial activity. Can you imagine a long-haul truck driver being told that he or she was allowed to break the road rules 10 times each day without penalty… and then finding out that one driver had actually done it 189 times?

The other anomaly within the changes to the regulations that formed part of the 2013 recovery program was the reduction of the recreational bag limit from 5 fish per day, with only 2 allowed over 70 cm, to 2 fish per day over 70 cm. In other words, rec’ anglers could kill 2 a day over 70 cm before the changes… and they can still do exactly the same today! So there has been no effective reduction in the potential take of spawning-size mulloway by the very large recreational sector. This sounds to me a bit like a “Clayton’s change”… the sort of change you have when you’re not having a change!

From my perspective (and I must stress that this is only my personal opinion), the immediate solution involves a little bit of give and a little bit of pain from both sectors: an abandonment of the ridiculous 10 undersized mulloway “by catch” allowance for the commercials, and an effective reduction of the take of larger fish by the recreational sector; either by halving the limit to ONE fish over 70 cm, or allowing 2 over 70 cm, only 1 of which may be over a metre (100 cm)… If both sectors don’t bite the bullet and do something immediately, stocks will continue to decline (especially during the next drought period). Ultimately we may be faced with a much less palatable choice… Something, perhaps, like a 5-year moratorium on the taking of any mulloway from NSW waters by either sector…

What do YOU reckon the best answer is?

NB: Please note that the personal opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent those of others involved in the June, 2017 stakeholder meeting.

Well over a metre of daytime mulloway on a Squidgy... It doesn't get much better!

Surely one fish a day like this is plenty for any recreational angler? We need to give a little to get a little… and time is fast running out for our mighty mulloway!