Save the fishing, help ourselves
  |  First Published: March 2014

Pleading looks from ‘Zico’ my kelpie cross, as well as curiosity, had dog and supposed master on the beach for a walk as the honeyeaters were waking on the morning of January 25 this year. Zico has an endless supply of pleading looks, but I was curious as to whether there would be any signs of fish or seabirds feeding, shells that might be collected or fish being caught by the surf anglers that were sure to be fishing.

As an angler with 40 years experience in the surf gutters around Teewah, to me the water looked good and 15 years ago there would definitely have been fish in it. It was a glorious morning with the slightest of offshore breezes, patchy but high cloud cover to take the edge off a hot sun when it rises, calm surf and a tide receding after a 3am high. The forecast for a strong southeasterly change to arrive during the afternoon would, I was thinking, have prompted aggressive feeding by fish 15 years ago before conditions deteriorated and effectively prohibit surf fishing also for the remainder of the long weekend.

Signs of any fish or seabirds were much the same as every other beach walk in recent years in that there were none and feeding fish, aggressive or otherwise, unlikely. Shells weren’t plentiful, or expected to be at that time of year other than the odd cowrie, but surprisingly and significantly, not one person was fishing within eyesight of Teewah. On a morning when most of Teewah’s 103 houses were occupied and all North Shore caravan and camping parks were full, by 6.45am with the sun well up, there was still nobody fishing and not a single person to be seen other than in the first few barge loads of 4WDs racing to the camping grounds at the northern end of Teewah Beach.

In years gone by at Teewah the waking sounds of honeyeaters and kookaburras would be accompanied by the sound of 4WDs starting as anglers began making their way to the beach for the early morning session. Sleeping in was for the ‘soft’ or the non-anglers, of which there were few, but who would generally wander down later to inspect catches? Everyone else would be in the surf.

While there are no mysteries as to why locals to this area wouldn’t be fishing, I was surprised that at least a few naive tourists from elsewhere with just the weekend to find a feed, wouldn’t take the small available weather window that only that morning would provide to wet a line. The morning walkers who were also conspicuous by their absence missed their opportunity as well with the southeaster the next morning gusting to over 30 knots and the beach a very unpleasant place to be.

The lack of anglers on the beach, and especially on such a morning as that, is I am certain, indicative purely of the quality of the surf fishing along Teewah and Rainbow beaches and Sunshine Coast beaches generally. It’s now common knowledge that to catch anything here of a legal size is a fairly rare event and alternative ‘hobbies’ have been sought.

Over the past 10 years, I have seen and noted human behavioural changes that have occurred during this period. On a daily basis I witness the activities of locals and visitors alike and what I see should be of concern to us all. As debate rages across the country as to how we should curb alcohol-fuelled violence, remedy the collapse of societal values, control the increasing drug culture in our youth, tackle the obesity epidemic and establish the best way forward for our economy and natural environment, an example of why the way forward is fraught with problems, I believe, can be drawn from what has occurred here.

The lack of anglers on that morning of the 25th is not an unusual event, but only in recent years. It merely emphasised the extraordinary reduction in angling participation rates that have been observed here and around the state. There is now rarely anyone fishing along this beach. A beach that 15 years ago would have anglers shoulder to shoulder at times during the annual spring tailor run and competing all year round for the best gutters to fish for the variety of surf species that could reliably be caught at that time.

Particularly saddening for me, having battled now for these past 10 years to remedy the obvious decline in fish, seabird, dolphin and shark numbers in the region, is that there is no likelihood of things changing. Fisheries Queensland and the Queensland Government insist that everything is fine and the fishery is sustainable. A claim myself and many, many others know to be farcically false with all of the evidence pointing to a fishery at the point of collapse, or having already collapsed.

Most disturbing is the sheer resistance from Fisheries Queensland to listen to the endless line of people that are desperately trying to inform their organisation of how serious the situation has become. This was dramatically highlighted for me at a meeting I had with Fisheries Queensland during August of 2013. This meeting came about following an article by Bill Hoffman published in the Sunshine Coast Daily on the 13th of July, headlined Tailor Bottom Out, which was accompanied by a chart of steadily declining commercial tailor catches from Fraser Island and Cooloola for the years 1988 to 2012. The chart clearly demonstrated that catches had declined alarmingly during that period and particularly after 2001, but doesn’t show the increasing effort on the part of the fishers that dramatically emphasise just how alarming the decline actually is. It was coincidental that the same week that this article appeared in the paper, the Fisheries Minister released the Queensland Fin Fish Stock Status Report for 2012 which made special mention of tailor being ‘sustainably’ fished.

It soon emerged that FQ have identified that that there is indeed a problem with tailor, but on the Sunshine Coast only and which would appear not to have been worth mentioning in the stock status report. This admission flies in the face of a species being sustainably fished when tailor are known to be of a single and migratory stock and this region, along with Fraser Island, known to be critical spawning grounds for the species. Following communication, a meeting was arranged between FQ and myself to discuss, I was told, the possible cause of the problem.

I have devoted many years to researching the impact of commercial netting and have been witness and victim of the negative effect to recreational fishing. My conclusions are mirrored by those of researchers in this field and anglers from around the world and these conclusions published far and wide. After the amount of publicity and personal communication with FQ about my work, nobody should have been under any illusion as to the platform on which I have stood and I quite rightly believed that these issues would be on the table at this meeting and be considered as being the possible cause. How drastically wrong this thought process proved to be.

The mere suggestion that the scenarios that I have witnessed and researched could be occurring was met by universal scoffing from around the table of 4 scientists and 3 managers despite the wealth of scientific literature that quite clearly supports my assertions. I was taken aback when a manager, in response to my assertion that fish would flee nets containing tonnes of highly alarmed fish, stated that he could understand fish avoiding a particular lure that has been successful in a location, but no way could he grasp that fish would flee nets. I was stunned by that comment alone, but I soon learnt that the scientist making a presentation to me of how healthy tailor stocks are for recreational anglers, is from a commercial netting family and I began to question the sincerity of those present.

When the possible cause of the identified tailor problem on the Sunshine Coast was discussed, beach traffic and alterations in water temperature were suggested as possible causes, but nets apparently don’t cause fish stocks to decline.

The philosophy was clear: Do not admit that fish stocks are declining; do not admit that nets can in any way be responsible for the acknowledged tailor problem on the Sunshine Coast; and do not admit that fish may flee nets and diminish recreational opportunities, as I know for a fact they do.

By mid meeting I had recognised that I was wasting my time, but it was agreed that FQ would check on aspects of commercial catch data that I felt were worth checking to see if the data shows that nets may be having the influence on fish behaviour that I had asserted and which had shown up in my own data checks. Several weeks later I received a summary of this data analysis via email and was not surprised in the slightest, given recent experiences, that the assessment showed nothing. Interestingly, but also not surprising, some of the information forthcoming was not possible to have been attained as it is not possible for it to exist. Conclusions were made, based on information that can’t possibly exist and it was deemed by FQ that further exploration of the situation would be pointless.

I was incredulous to be informed in the same email of possible research that I may be able to arrange with nominated scientists in the field along with specific suggestions as to assessments of a technical nature that could be helpful to my hypotheses. To me it was very clear that only someone who knows intimately the existing science in this field of alarm signalling and flight reactions in fish could make such the suggestions listed. This person was in attendance at the meeting and, being from a commercial netting family, would almost certainly be well aware that fish are spooked by nets.

It is apparent that the intent of the meeting was to simply humour me and hope I’d go away and desist from further negative publicity of their performance. And to some extent their plan has been successful because I recognise that it is pointless trying to assist Fisheries Queensland to find solutions to the admitted problems that have occurred on their watch. I would be extremely doubtful that another minute of time by FQ staff has been dedicated to establishing what is causing the ongoing problem with tailor on the Sunshine Coast and as can be seen in the attached chart, the recently released 2013 data has proven that the problem itself has not gone away.

While it has recently been made clear by Fisheries Queensland that they don’t appreciate the criticism being levelled at them from far and wide, I have to ask, what else can we do? We do not receive cooperation when we try to assist and are ridiculed over aspects that they know full well are occurring, or at least can occur. If they do not, they should Google ‘net avoidance in fishes’. Our inshore fish stocks are abysmally low and efforts to actually recover them are nil or ineffective. Should we just sit back and let it all unfold in front of us until there are none left and gloat that ‘we told you so’? I’m afraid that the criticism really has to continue because that’s all we have, and all Fisheries Queensland deserve until they can demonstrate that they are listening to those of us at the coalface who can see what is occurring and work with us.

The debate continues to rage as to how we curb our increasing alcohol and drug culture and the violence and crime that is invariably associated. As we continue to debate how to remedy obesity in our children and adults and the costs to society this causes. As the pressures on our natural environment escalate through human population explosion and we grapple with ways to minimise our impacts. We should all be aware that the people entrusted to ensure the sustainability of fish populations and subsequently of our recreational endeavours, are failing in their duties and would appear to be going to great lengths to hide these failures.

It is ironic that this same organisations is encouraging of children participating in fishing so as to assist in minimising societal problems while at the same time turn a blind eye to the fact that their negligence in maintaining fish populations is contributing to them not fishing. After all, who wants to go fishing if it is near impossible to get a bite, let alone catch a legal fish to take home and eat instead of KFC or Maccas!

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