The Great Tailor Debacle
  |  First Published: August 2013

Readers of this column would be well aware that I have been warning for some years that a collapse in the tailor population is inevitable. Those of us who have been fishing for tailor from Teewah Beach for decades had noticed declining consistency of catches and reducing sizes since around 2000. The noticeable absence of this iconic species became especially apparent and serious in 2010 when similar reports began to emerge from all along the extremities of the eastern seaboard tailor migration. It seemed as if a collapse, if it hadn’t already occurred, was just around the corner.

The recent availability of 2012 commercial catch data to those willing to pay for the data, has now confirmed what many of us had already suspected. The tailor population has collapsed.

While the word collapse can be interpreted differently by different people, it effectively means that there is an insufficient biomass of tailor to renew their population each year and the species is no longer viable as a commercial species. It doesn’t mean that the species has become extinct as there are still tailor swimming around our waterways albeit in small numbers and individual size by historical standards.

The 2012 commercial catch data for tailor in the Fraser Island and Cooloola regions combined, totalled less than 3 tonne for the year. This followed the worst year on record by some distance in 2011 of less than 6 tonne for the same region. To put this in perspective, a single school of tailor netted in this region in the not very distant past would always weigh in excess of a tonne or two. So for a total of 3 tonne from the entire region to be taken in 2012 means that schools of any size are no longer present.

For the region recognised as being the principle spawning location for tailor and the recreational fishing Mecca for tailor fishers, these figures are more than a little alarming and are not a result of any factor other than the simple lack of availability of harvestable fish.

However, when approached for comment regarding the 2011 and 2012 data, the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF), with advice from Fisheries Queensland, responded with a statement that can only be described as ‘baffling’.

It was stated in their press release that the commercial data and low recreational catches are “not unexpected given the range of management measures that have been introduced since 2002, including a total allowable commercial catch, bag limits, seasonal closures and increasing the minimum size.”

In the first instance, this response if baffling due to the fact that these measures were introduced to increase, not decrease tailor populations and subsequently commercial and recreational catches. But the fact that none of these measures can possibly have any direct negative influence on commercial or recreational catches in 2011 and 2012 stinks of an organisation that is so desperate to cover their backsides that they are prepared to release a public statement that can so easily be torn to shreds. An effective smokescreen it is not even.

To my mind this brings into question the assertions of sustainability relating to a range of species that Fisheries Queensland assure us to be the best managed in the world. Recreational fishers along the entirety of our coastline are up in arms about the apparent decline in their favourite species or regions and are all being told that everything is fine when they know perfectly well that they are not. That Fisheries Queensland cannot recognise, or admit that tailor are clearly in all sorts of trouble, means only that they will tell us anything to keep their jobs irrespective of the evidence.

During the last 10 years I have repeatedly made submissions to Fisheries Queensland and a sequence of Minister’s for Fisheries in both Labor and LNP Governments, questioning the health of the Teewah Beach fishery and particularly that of tailor. The response has always been the standard “The fishery is sustainable” response. Not being able to swallow this response, I have in more recent times been asking Fisheries Queensland and DAFF to provide evidence that the Teewah Beach and tailor fishery is sustainable. None has been forthcoming, which has placed the onus on me to prove that the fishery is not sustainable, which is quite simply an extraordinarily difficult task without the necessary resources to do so. But now that I have been able to, I am actually no closer to having appropriate management measures put in place because perhaps denial is cheaper.

This is despite warnings in 2004 by tailor researchers in a study commissioned by Fisheries Queensland, that a single year of low recruitment would require drastic management measures to recover their population. It was stated that tailor populations would be slow to recover with the total removal of fishing pressure should this single year of low recruitment occur and that they may not recover at all.

Also included in the research was the fact that 2 year old tailor are smaller in 2004 than they were in the 1970s, although nobody at that time knew why this was so. Research from overseas prior to that period and a great deal since has been addressing this issue of shrinking fish, which only occurs in species that are deemed to be overfished.

By 2009 the jury had returned with the verdict that the reduced size of harvested species is an evolutionary change in response to overfishing and that these changes, which can occur within 5 generations, are very slow to reverse after fishing pressure is removed altogether. The recognised slow recovery of collapsed fish species around the world can be explained in part by the evolutionary changes that have occurred.

Yet, with this knowledge readily available to any of us willing to spend a couple of hours on Google Scholar, Fisheries Queensland has allowed the continuation of commercial and recreational harvesting of tailor with only a managerial response of an increase in the size limit from 30cm to 35cm implemented in 2010.

Now, the clear collapse in commercial and recreational catches and with the knowledge of reduced size of tailor is met only with denial at a time when urgent changes are imperative. The consequences of this inaction are extreme and far reaching with not only tailor being affected, but seabird, dolphin and shark populations implicated also.

At the time of writing this article, I expect to shortly be communicating with Fisheries Queensland on this matter. I expect that I will receive more ‘lip service’ as has been the trend for years. Readers can be assured that I will not let up on this issue and that any placatory attempts will only be met with the contempt that they deserve under the circumstances that quite plainly exist. I will also inform readers of developments in the September edition of Queensland Fishing Monthly.

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