Marathon game fisher worried about economic impact of Geelong Star

Moves to open more water to the controversial factory trawler Geelong Star don’t appear to have discouraged her from working grounds of Narooma and Bermagui.

The mid-water trawler appeared to working off Bermagui on Friday morning in direct contravention to promises to keep away for a week before game fishing tournaments, including the Canberra Yellowfin Tuna Tournament held out of Bermagui over the weekend. 

But a spokesman for the Small Pelagic Fishing Industry Association contacted by the Narooma News on Friday said the vessel was fishing at least 20 nautical miles from Bermagui. 

Bermagui-based commercial fisherman Jason Moyce spotted the Geelong Star working the bait grounds at 12-Mile Reef on the morning of Friday, May 13. 

Mr Moyce posted a photo of the trawler on social media commenting: “Doing its fourth lap of the 12... Doing 1-mile shots and then winching up! Smashing it!”.

The vessel is working the productive grounds off Bermagui on the day before the Canberra Yellowfin Tuna Tournament begins, contrary to the Small Pelagic Fishing Industry Association’s promise to keep away from game fishing tournaments.

And the continued focus of the trawler on the bait grounds off Bermagui and Narooma is raising concerns among game fishermen worried about localised depletion of fish stocks and also the economic impact of the vessel on local small towns reliant on game fishing.

The Small Pelagic Fishing Industry Association spokesman however has dismissed these claims saying bait fish were not being depleted, even though the vessel had concentrated all of its efforts off the South Coast in recent weeks and months. 

One dedicated big game fisherman disagrees and brushed shoulders with the controversial trawler on an almost daily basis during his recent eight-week annual fishing marathon out of Bermagui.

Tyrone O’Connor is fearful of the long-term impact the trawler will have on fish stocks if it keeps up its concentrated effort in Narooma and Bermagui waters and therefore the impact on the economy of fishing towns that rely on visiting recreational anglers and their perception of a healthy fishery.

He is not against professional fishing but said there needed to be greater oversight on the Geelong Star and where exactly the 95m vessel was allowed to fish within the zones and sectors approved by the Australian Fisheries Management Authority.

He is alleging the vessel has been put on hold from netting waters north of Sydney and hence was spending all its time off Narooma, Bermagui and Eden in what was known as Sector 6, magnifying the effect of local bait stock depletion.

Mr O’Connor, a financial planner from Melbourne, spends his annual holiday fishing out of Bermagui and has done so for the last 30 years.

This year he fished 40 out of the 56 days he was in Bermagui and often by himself in his new 30-foot game boat ‘She Left’. 

His observations were that the Geelong Star in the time he was on the water this year seemed to be focussing on waters off Tuross Head, Narooma and Bermagui, travelling wherever the bait school were, often along the edge of the Continental Shelf and 12-Mile Reef and as far south as Eden.

At the end of his stint, he said the Geelong Star had ventured further north to Batemans Bay and Jervis Bay because that is where the bait was and the currents were slack.

He acknowledged that this year was a very good year for marlin but that was at the beginning of the season and things dropped off quite quickly, which seemed to be timed to the lack of bait.

“Sure you can’t claim that all the bait disappeared because of the Geelong Star because there are all kinds of factors like the current, but I’m worried about the long-term impact this and any other mid-water trawler will have,” he said.

Game fishermen and the Geelong Star were bound to be thrown together as they were both chasing the same thing along the same water on the edge of the Continental Shelf. The Geelong Star was after bait species such as Cowan Young and slimy mackerel and there were the same fish being chased by the marlin.

“It was a regular event to see the Geelong Star turn up when ever bait reappeared on the edge, It was hard for anglers to catch consistent slimy mackerel on the edge throughout March and April,” he said. “The Geelong Star is already having an effect in this area, it has continually netted day in and day out along the edge mainly from Tuross Canyons to Eden and has reduced bait numbers thus reducing the chances of marlin etc staying in the area due to insufficient preferred food.

“The long term effect of this type of fishing practice will have tremendous impacts on marine life, our way of life and economic pressure for towns and businesses that rely on recreational fishing.

“This netting technique that is concentrating all its efforts on the edge needs to be stopped much sooner than later. The fact that the area available to netting has recently been widened, in my view, will not lessen the pressure on bait stocks found on the edge, i have no doubt that the net will still be worked up and down the edge for a very high percentage of its time. We need to act very strongly now to protect. We need to unite as one.”

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The Narooma News has contacted and asked both the sitting Federal Member Dr Peter Hendy and Labor candidate Dr Mike Kelly for their view on the Geelong Star’s continued focus of fishing activity on the Far South Coast and its impact on the economies of local towns and sustainability of the its fishing practices.

Dr Mike Kelly said: "When I was the member I worked hard to ensure that our local fishing industry and marine environment were adequately protected. This included close involvement in the roll-out of the marine bio regional planning process. I also ensured the proper protection of our abalone industry by winning reforms to anti-poaching laws to make the work of our marine police worthwhile and effective. I delivered on my commitments to local recreation and commercial fishers and would continue to remain vigilant in defending our resources and environment. If elected I will rigorously investigate the trawler issue and act as needed."

Dr Peter Hendy also replied that he was aware that many people have a strongly held view that this ship’s activities pose a threat to recreational fishing and the whale watching industry.

“My aim is to find a way forward that allows co-existence of recreational fishing, commercial fishing, a sustainable environment and the whale watching industry. A workable compromise needs to be made,” Dr Hendy said.

“In recent months I have had detailed discussions with the Assistant Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, Senator the Hon Anne Ruston, and concerned constituents.

“That has led to Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) engaging directly with stakeholder groups in Eden-Monaro. There is currently very detailed and active consultation going on to get to a balanced decision on how to proceed. They are looking at a whole array of issues such as area of operations, time of operations, and solving conflicts with recreational fishing and tourism activities.

“AFMA is tasked to manage and monitor commercial Commonwealth fisheries and ensure Australian fish stocks and our fishing industry are viable now and in the future. Australia’s fisheries are world class, sustainably managed and decisions are made using the best available science – this will continue under this Government’s watch. I will encourage AFMA to continue discussions with stakeholders.”

A spokesman for the Small Pelagic Fishing Industry Association however has dismissed the concerns of game fishermen about localised depletion and the impact on local economies.

“There is no evidence of localised depletion of bait fish stocks or impact on game fishing,” the spokesman said. “In fact, game fishers and tackle shops report the most recent tournaments have been hugely successful with plenty of game fish on offer.  The ‘fish and move on’ rules that apply to the Geelong Star, and conservative quota management, are working. This fishery has been commercially fished for 25 years.”

The SPFIA spokesman went onto to say: “The operators of the Geelong Star have made voluntary undertakings in relation to fishing on the NSW South Coast, including not fishing within 20 nautical miles of Bermagui from Mid-December till Anzac Day, not fishing within 20nm of the following ports the week before and during the GFAA and/or ANSA sanctioned tournaments at Kiama, Ulladulla, Bateman's Bay, Merimbula, Eden, as well as the Canberra Yellowfin Tuna Tournament held at Bermagui in May. The vessel will not fish within 20nm of Eden during the week before and during the three-day Eden Whale Festival held in October each year. These are significant concessions from the vessel operators that directly address the concerns raised by recreational fishers.”

The Merimbula Big Game and Lakes Angling Club (MBGALAC) meanwhile has supported the regulation change, which came into effect on May 1, that gives the Geelong Star more water with the understanding that this could mean less time in local waters. Read more 

Related stories:

AFMA expands fishing grounds for Geelong Star

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Geelong Star confirmed fishing off Bermagui Narooma

Dr Peter Hendy encourages discussion in factory trawler Geelong Star debate