Bream fishing sustainability debate rages

THE debate over the sustainability of current levels of commercial netting in two of Narooma district’s iconic bream lakes is reaching fever pitch among NSW recreational anglers.

Online coverage by Fishing World magazine and by fishing identity Steve Starling last week prompted the Department of Primary Industries to issue a lengthy statement defending the current commercial estuary fishing arrangements on Coila and Brou lakes.

Then recreational fishers from Narooma on Sunday stumbled upon up to 40 bream slashed in half, presumably to allow them to sink, on Corunna Lake.

While some immediately assumed a commercial fisher was responsible, one local ex-professional suspects it’s poachers, as the commercial fisherman who fishes Corunna is currently away and slashing and dumping undersize fish is not something licenced fishermen do.

There’s also the possibility the fish could have been caught elsewhere and dumped, especially if they were the yellowfin variety that are not so plentiful in non-tidal lakes such as Corunna.

The fish were found in about 1.5 metres of water, 200 metres south of the main boat ramp on the east side of Corunna, in a small bay where there is an access track used by professional fishermen and others.

The fish had a slight smell so perhaps they'd been in the water a couple of days and they were just under legal size.

As a backdrop to all of this is the review of recreational size and bag limits currently out for public comment, and on top of that is controversy over commercial fishing arrangements and even accusations of inadequate resourcing of NSW’s fisheries managers.

But it is commercial haul netting and the stocks of bream much treasured by recreational fishermen sparking all the debate online.

Fishing World last week reported online it had been informed that the netters have taken between 5000 and 8000 bream from the lakes, with crews taking up to 80 boxes a night.

Local professional fishermen however have said that number of boxes taken in a night was simply not possible.

Ironically, the bream fishing on Coila had been one of the best kept recreational fishing secrets with locals including fishing identity Steve Starling catching and releasing huge hauls of bream up to 50cm in length.

Ron Bakos from Bungendore is a regular visitor and keen angler, as is evident by this 48cm black bream he caught on Coila Lake earlier this year.

He contacted the Narooma News last week upset by news of netting in the lake.

“After the recent news circulating of the rape of this pristine fishery by the haul netters, it may be quite some time before I can pull a fish of this quality from that system as no doubt this fish and countless others succumbed to the nets.”

The comments have come thick and fast on his StarloFishing page on Facebook.

“We have really just started,” Mr Starling said.

“We are planning a public meeting in Tuross soon…. Most of us want the pros bought out and compensated.

“We are not trying to take away livelihoods but it’s unsustainable.”

The Department of Primary Industries responded to the controversy with a lengthy 1800 word statement, the entirety of which is posted at the end of this article.

In essence the department said while it recognised the value of recreational fishing, it stood by its current management arrangements and “It would be a shame for the community, residents and visitors to have to rely on imported fish for their fish and chips.”

The statement confirmed based on historical data, the total reported commercial catch from Coila Lake over the last three fiscal years (2009/10, 2010/11 and 2011/12) has been 16.3 tons, 22.2 tons and 19.2 tone, respectively - with bream accounting for roughly a third of this.

While Fishing World reported that crews of up six possibly non-local boats had been fishing the lakes, ex professional fisherman Tony Rose, whose own family still actively nets, said they were more likely to be local.

Hauling was only practiced by two local fishermen when conditions were suitable and most activity was set mesh nets.

But even so and like the department, he said hauling had been practiced sustainably for more than 30 years and when done properly did not destroy the bottom.

The technique of setting the net with a boat and hauling it slowly back to the shore using small winches and Mr Rose said net lengths had recently been reduced and larger mesh sizes let smaller fish escape.

Scientific studies on the technique were conducted on Wallaga and Corunna lakes over the last several years had there was no evidence of damage to the bottom or adverse impacts.

“It’s fully sustainable and used across NSW,” Mr Rose said.

The commercial fishers monitored fish stocks and knew when they had grown to sufficient size, with larger fish worth $7 a kilo compared to smaller fish worth $5, he said.

The crux of the problem according to Mr Rose was that while there were still around 40 active commercial fishermen, the amount of water open to them had been reduced by 75 per cent, 50 per cent to recreational fishing havens and another 25 per cent to marine parks.

Before these closures, he said the commercial fishing effort was more spread out and productive, but now the only decent thing would be to buy-out licences.

“You offer these blokes a decent buy-out offer and I bet many of them would take it, but it has to be decent and fair,” he said.

“The recreational fishers should be asking what is happening to their licence money and where is the management.”

State Fisheries Minister Katrina Hodgkinson meanwhile last week announced trip limits on commercial offshore fishermen would be wound back, drawing the ire of those concerned about sustainability, recreational and commercial.

The South East Trawl Fishing Industry Association’s chief executive Simon Boag who represented Commonwealth licensed fishers explained, “It amazes us that NSW would allow their commercial fishers to take unlimited catches of many species including flathead. To this point Australian fisheries have been the best managed in the world but doing this jeopardises their sustainability in NSW particularly.”

A few days later citing “stakeholder concerns”, the minister backed down saying the current restrictions will remain.

And what of the review of recreational size and bag limits currently out for review?

A possible reduction in kingfish size limits from five to two is causing some consternation for some Narooma charter boat operators saying it will impact on tourism.

Others argue a more sustainable approach from recreational fishers is needed and the recommendation for bream bag limits to be reduced by half to 10 seems to have wider support.

Back to the Corunna bream massacre, it was only last month that Fisheries officers busted an illegal netter in the Tuross system, confiscating a punt and nets.

Fisheries has been notified of this latest case and Mr Starling has his own theories on the matter.

“While I accept that these mutilated bream may have been taken by illegal, unlicensed netters, I would ask one obvious question: if they'd already broken that many laws, why would they even bother discarding these undersized fish?

“Why wouldn't they just process them with the rest of their illicit haul?

“This reeks to me of a catch intended for sale through a co-op.”

Fisheries NSW has responded to questions from the Narooma News about the Corunna incident.

A spokesperson said Fisheries NSW on Monday received reports of a possible fish kill at Corunna Lake.

“Fisheries officers investigated the location of the report but could not observe any dead fish in the area.

“We are also aware of reports of around 20 bream being found cut in half and discarded in the area.

Fisheries officers have spoken with a number of local fishers about the incident, however a reason for the incident is still unknown.

“We remind fishers of their responsibilities when it comes to fishing, only catch fish for your immediate needs and dispose of all litter and fish waste responsibly.

“People are urged to contact their local fisheries office or the Fishers Watch Phone Line 1800 043 536 to report fish kills, illegal fishing or any other concerns.”

Here's the official response on the Coila bream meshing issue from a spokesperson for the Department of Primary Industries:

•The NSW Government is committed to promoting viable commercial fishing industries and quality recreational fishing opportunities while ensuring that the fisheries resources of NSW are appropriately shared.

•The fisheries resources of NSW, including those taken in the fis...hery are closely monitored.

•Hauling is a sustainable commercial fishing method that has been undertaken in south coast estuaries since at least the 1930’s. Long term commercial landings data (see attached) show that total catches in Coila Lake and surrounding estuaries typically vary over time.

•Licensed commercial fishers, who hold the appropriate endorsements in this region, are lawfully entitled to fish in these lakes and catch fish for the wider community to consume. It would be a shame for the community, residents and visitors to have to rely on imported fish for their fish and chips.

•The Government is aware of the importance of recreational fishing to coastal towns and understand the activity is a significant part of coastal tourism.

•The Department of Primary Industries is gathering more information to further examine this issue, in light of the concerns raised.

Further information:

The NSW Government is committed to conserving fish stocks while promoting ecological sustainable development. Consistent with this, the NSW Government is committed to promoting viable commercial fishing industries and quality recreational fishing opportunities while ensuring that the fisheries resources of NSW are appropriately shared between the users of those resources.

The Estuary General fishery (the fishery) is a diverse multi-species multi-method fishery that operates in some of NSW's estuarine systems. It is the most diverse commercial fishery in NSW and is a significant contributor to regional and state economies providing high quality seafood and bait to the community (including persons who do not fish recreationally). The most frequently used fishing methodsused in this fishery are mesh and haul netting. Other methods used include trapping, hand-lining and hand-gathering.

The fishery is a share management fishery and is divided geographically into seven regions from the Far North Coast to the Far South Coast of NSW. The fishery has under gone comprehensive environmental impact assessment, meeting the requirements of NSW and Commonwealth law, and these management arrangements have helped to ensure that, overall, harvests are sustainable.

The primary management controls used to assist in the long term sustainability of the fishery include a limit on the number of fishers authorised to operate in the fishery, temporal and spatial closures, gear restrictions (i.e. mesh sizes and net lengths), by-catch survival devices (i.e. discard chutes to release non-retained fish) and minimum size limits.

The fisheries resources of NSW, including those taken in the fishery are closely monitored. This includes an annual assessment of all available scientific studies, biological information, and catch and effort data for the primary species. The scientific assessments conclude that the vast majority of the key species commercially harvested in the fishery, including bream, are sustainably harvested.

Hauling is a sustainable commercial fishing method that has been undertaken in south coast estuaries since at least the 1930’s. Long term commercial landings data (see attached) show that total catches in Coila Lake and surrounding estuaries typically vary over time, likely to be associated with species recruitment success, growth and abundance, environmental conditions, and, more recently, significant changes to the number of operators (e.g. buyouts) and management arrangements.

In comparison to the historical figures, the total reported commercial catch from Coila Lake over the last three fiscal years (2009/10, 2010/11 and 2011/12) has been 16.3 t, 22.2 t and 19.2 t, respectively - with bream accounting for roughly a third of this (see attached).

ICOLLS (intermittent closed and open lakes and lagoons) are used on a seasonal basis by commercial fishers and during the late autumn and early winter months it is common to see haul crews working on Coila and Brou Lakes, amongst others on the south coast, targeting species such as mullet, silver biddies, bream and tarwhine.

Estuarine fish are adapted to the varying conditions experienced in ICOLLs, such as changing water levels and salinity. They can survive for many years in closed ICOLLs without the need for the entrance to be open to maintain fish stocks. Not all areas within estuary systems are suitable sites for hauling or meshing.

The Batemans Marine Park, implemented in 2007, is made up of multi-use zones. With the exception of the Coila Creek Sanctuary Zone, the rest of Coila Lake is a general use zone where normal recreational and commercial fishing rules apply. The same situation occurs in Brou Lake where there are two sanctuary zones (Brou creek and a small embayment on the north eastern shoreline) with the main body of the lake being a general use zone.

Licensed commercial fishers, who hold the appropriate endorsements in this region, are lawfully entitled to fish in these lakes and catch fish for the wider community to consume.

There are no immediate plans to create additional recreational fishing havens or change fishing arrangements in the existing havens. However, any proposals where there is consensus between local recreational and commercial fishers regarding adjustments or the creation of additional fishing havens, will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

The Government is aware of the importance of recreational fishing to coastal towns and understand the activity is a significant part of coastal tourism. Various economic studies in NSW have shown the economic benefits of recreational fishing, including from anglers from the ACT and Victoria visiting towns on the South Coast.

BREAM KILL: At least 20 bream that appeared to be just undersize and crudely slashed in half were found in Corunna Lake on Sunday morning, but who exactly is responsible is a mystery.

BREAM KILL: At least 20 bream that appeared to be just undersize and crudely slashed in half were found in Corunna Lake on Sunday morning, but who exactly is responsible is a mystery.

BREAM MASSACRE: At least 20 bream that appeared to be just undersize and crudely slashed in half were found in Corunna Lake on Sunday morning, but who exactly is responsible is a mystery.

BREAM MASSACRE: At least 20 bream that appeared to be just undersize and crudely slashed in half were found in Corunna Lake on Sunday morning, but who exactly is responsible is a mystery.

UPSET ANGLER: Ron Bakos from Bungendore is a regular visitor and keen angler, as is evident by this 48cm black bream he caught on Coila Lake earlier this year.

UPSET ANGLER: Ron Bakos from Bungendore is a regular visitor and keen angler, as is evident by this 48cm black bream he caught on Coila Lake earlier this year.

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