Where can the tailor be?
  |  First Published: September 2013

It’d be difficult not to notice the improved inshore weather conditions that have prevailed through August in South East Queensland.

The preceding rain and strong southeasterly trade winds that went into July again this year have abruptly stopped at last. Such conditions can now be a fading memory, as the winter westerlies with an all day sun, crystal clear surf and warm afternoon sea breezes become the norm for a while. The occasional southeaster and strong northerly are bound to make brief appearances through September, but these we can live with given what we had before.

Teewah Beach has looked spectacular during August in these conditions and the recent formation of all variety of gutters and holes along its length adds to the overall and angling aesthetic. The return of sand in recent months and particularly during August following substantial erosion earlier in the year continues to be very rapid with high banks formed on many of the prime formations. Beach travel has become easier other than some soft sections around the formed high banks on fuller tides. Access to Teewah and Rainbow Beach from the south and the north are comfortable to negotiate in most 4WDs on low to mid tide while the seas are calm.

Anglers have been visiting the area over the past month using rods on vehicles and anglers in the surf as a gauge. And while it’s great to see more anglers on the beach, the catches have been a bit miserable. Bream, whiting and dart are being caught, but the size and number is very poor, especially considering the circumstances of the fishery that should currently be at its best for many years. In these same circumstances that should see excellent catches, tailor are also being caught, but again in low numbers and the fish are small. Seabirds are almost never seen feeding and dolphin and shark sightings are extremely rare.

In today’s society of less available recreation time, just standing in the surf and holding a fishing rod is for many people a good break from the rigours of life.

The disappointed anglers I talk to, while being philosophical about their repeated disappointments, are entitled to better angling opportunities from these beaches and to be able to catch a feed, at least every now and again. The fish resources in our waters are to be fairly allocated to commercial and recreational fishers, but if the resource depletes then neither sector will celebrate their catches. It appears that on the Sunshine Coast at least, this is the point that we have now arrived at.

We are now in a position where it is accepted that there is a problem with tailor catches on the Sunshine Coast and many would argue that the problem is not confined to tailor. Both the recreational and commercial sectors are clearly struggling in what should be a boom period for fish populations in the region with frequent flooding since late 2007 being of extreme value to ecosystem health following the previous drought. The influence of bad weather, while reducing opportunities to fish during this period which consequently allows fish numbers to build, should be delivering enhanced opportunities now in periods of good angling weather with excellent beach structure to fish. This hasn’t eventuated however and the problem becomes an ongoing one with debate over the cause of this apparently localised depletion now in full swing.

It is theorised, and can only be assumed, that the species is avoiding the region due to circumstances that are yet to be identified. Among the possible reasons that have been suggested as causing the avoidance would be higher than normal water temperatures, increased beach traffic, excessive flooding and poor weather generally, or heavy inshore fishing pressure.

2004 research into the Queensland and New South Wales tailor fishery cited inshore fishing pressure as the most likely reason for a migration deemed then to be taking a more offshore path than in the past. Now, in 2013 and with the benefit of 5 robust wet seasons to refer to, that research in a year of drought and the known connection between rainfall and fishery health seems to support the fishing pressure theory. At the same time it is hard to perceive that any alteration of water temperature that only affects the Sunshine Coast year after year could be responsible and data associated with vehicle movements show a decrease.

My often-repeated observation of fish fleeing beach seine nets is the clue in the riddle that makes the fishing pressure theory the most palatable and obvious. This combined with the mountains of research into fish avoidance behaviour of predators including commercial nets, without question permits a great deal of confidence as to the reason why tailor are avoiding this heavily netted stretch of coastline. Further assisting the case is the documented increased presence of fish in areas closed to commercial netting, but still recreationally fished and that these fish are on average larger. The realities of surviving as a species means that none of our fish would be around at all today if they kept turning up on the doorstep of their predators, let alone one that takes tonnes in the space of minutes. Avoiding predators, which in this case is commercial nets, is the most natural thing that a fish would do.

There are two separate issues associated with avoidance behaviour by fish to commercial netting. One being that when the fish are avoiding the areas that have sustained their populations for millions of years, they are occupying areas that aren’t conducive to feeding and breeding with population reductions likely. The other issue is one of resource allocation with the recreational sector affected by short or long term displacement of fish they are wishing to target, but are unavailable due to flight and avoidance reactions to nets. Either way, there would be an obligation on the part of managers to rectify both of these scenarios should avoidance of netted regions prove to be occurring.

But to acknowledge that commercial nets are scaring fish away from the coastline would create a minefield for Fishery managers to negotiate. Wherever the nets are working around the country would come under enormous scrutiny from the recreational sector with increasing calls for net bans in their individual regions. Costs to Government of buying out commercial licences to create net free regions are already said to be prohibitive of any of us in Queensland achieving such a goal in the foreseeable future. One can then imagine the angst among fishers towards a government that doesn’t create net free regions if it were to become common knowledge that fish flee nets. Therefore, it may be easier to ignore that such a situation exists for as long as possible and hope our fisheries don’t collapse in the meantime.

There are sure to be quite a few twists and turns to play out in the coming months in the mystery of the missing Sunshine Coast tailor. A mystery that many would agree should also include species other than tailor and locations other than just the Sunshine Coast. For now however, tailor on the Sunshine Coast are the focus and any results of investigative work here may lead to wider reaching implications of this work to other species and localities. Only time will tell as to whether managers are prepared to investigate the cause of the Sunshine Coast situation with an open mind and take measures that adequately remedy this problem.

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