Fisheries Victoria is responsible for administering the Fisheries Act and the Fisheries Regulations so that our marine resources are managed sustainably for the benefit of all Victorians. In addition to the recreationally focussed roles of educating anglers, enforcing bag and size limits and stocking our inland waterways, there are aquaculture and commercial fisheries responsibilities, such as checking rock lobster fishermen and abalone divers.
Years ago, when Lake Toolondo near Horsham, was on its last legs, I found myself in a cabin with a few blokes including a Ballarat Fisheries Officers, Brad, who was also a keen fisherman. Needless to say we had a lot to talk about.
I shared my encounter with our Editor who worked in the Department for many years, and after a few phone calls, organised a day on the water with the Fisheries team from Geelong.
It was tough getting down to the Queenscliff Harbour by 8am after my cousin’s wedding the night before, although I felt better once I’d heard the guys had been on the job since 3am that morning!
The boat, based out of Queenscliff, was an 8.5m (twin hull) Kevlacat with twin 225 Honda 4-stroke outboards that give it a top speed of 42 knots. It’s one of those boats in which you can’t help but smile as the two motors reach their peak revs and really throw you back in your seat. It has three 300 litre fuel tanks so range really isn’t an issue.
There’s also a deployable inflatable Zodiac aboard that’s powered by a 15hp outboard. This little craft is used when there’s a large group of boats fishing one area. Rather than try and manoeuvre the large Kevlacat amongst all the smaller boats, the officers deploy the dinghy and zip about checking licences and creels.
The Kevlacat cabin bristled with electronics including a depth sounder, GPS, radar, gadgets for monitoring the engines and a fistful of communication devices. It’s only one of a myriad of vessels at their disposal. The nature of the work and weather dictates what gets used where.
The plan was to head up to Melbourne and check anglers’ bags. The snapper had been biting quite well up there so we were likely to encounter plenty of boats.
Despite best laid plans there was a nasty westerly so, with a reduced likelihood of small craft fishing the eastern side of Port Phillip, we decided instead to hug the Werribee coast back inside Corio Bay.
It’s just like getting breathalysed – you know you’ve done nothing wrong, but the sight of uniformed officers is still enough to get the heart pumping.
I saw it in people’s faces when their eskies and licences were checked. Is my license up to date? Is it in my wallet? Was that last whiting size? How many have we got again? I know that’s how I’ve felt when I’ve been inspected on the water.
All three officers on board have been or are keen fishermen so they have an excellent understanding of their field of work. If you do get pulled up, just relax and don’t be afraid to ask about the fishing. You could get a great summary of recent captures with the low down on the best baits and tides.
I asked David Burgess, the Senior Fisheries Officer at Geelong, what was the worst fishing offence he’d seen? There were two that came to mind. The first, in Corio Quay, about 8 years ago, a search of the wharf found over 70 undersize snapper.
In another incident last year an offender was found to have over 20 undersize snapper hidden under the floor of his boat. He was subsequently fined over $2,000 and the court ordered the boat to be forfeited to the Crown.
Why you’d keep so many undersized fish is certainly beyond me. There’s not too much to eat off them at that size and, given the risk of losing your boat, why would you bother?
David also remarked that the last three years have been the very best for snapper in the 17 years he’s been a Fisheries Officer. I’m sure that those of us who have been lucky enough to get amongst a few good snapper late last year and early this year would agree. David attributes this to excellent natural recruitment in several previous years, something that’s supported by research undertaken by Primary Industries Research Victoria (PIRVic), with whom David and the team work occasionally.
I’ve often wondered that, with hefty penalties for serious fisheries offences, whether lawbreakers get a bit nasty towards Fisheries Officers. I asked David if he’d found himself in situations where he thought he and his team required backup.
“As with all compliance roles, there are times when things get a bit strained. The Department trains its staff well and provides defensive equipment. I find that the best tools I have are my brain and my mouth. Just talking to anglers and working through their situations resolves the majority of issues. On rare occasions, talking doesn’t work and there have been instances when other means of controlling the situation have been employed and where assistance was required,” David said.
I think I’ll stick to my CSIRO job – thanks anyway!
I thought about all this and wondered if and when the Police came into the picture once offenders were apprehended. David told me the Department (Fisheries Victoria) has Memorandums Of Understanding with the Victorian Police and that they do assist with fisheries compliance work.
Thinking of becoming a Fisheries Officer? I know I always wanted to be one as a kid. I asked David what was required to join the team.
“Base level Fisheries Officer positions require a Certificate in Seafood Industry (Compliance), a qualification in natural resource management, or equivalent competencies and relevant experience. It would be useful for an aspiring Fisheries Officer to hold a coxswains certificate, have good knowledge of Victorian recreational and commercial fishing practises, and an understanding of the relevant legislation. Positions become available infrequently so it’s best to keep an eye on the major newspapers. 2002 saw the last major influx of field staff when some 20 new Fisheries Officers were recruited,” David said.
Although the bulk of the Geelong team’s work is marine oriented, there is some freshwater work undertaken. Two of their better known waters are lakes Modewarre and Murdeduke, both of which have experienced their fair share of trouble lately, care of the drought.
David told me that the Department has annual consultation meetings with VRFish representatives to assist in determining stocking opportunities. Some of the factors considered include habitat, water conditions, access and angler requests. Unfortunately, current environmental conditions (low water and poor water quality) have made both lakes unsuitable for salmonid stockings in recent times. Stockings in other nearby waters though have been boosted given increased pressure. ie. Wurdiboluc. Let’s just hope for a few seasons of rain to bring these great lakes back!
Fisheries Officers are also involved in a range of other duties, many of which focus on managing the commercial sector. David, for example, is a member of the Rock Lobster and Giant Crab project team that provides advice on management issues and research requirements to the Executive Director of Fisheries Victoria, Dr Peter Appleford.
Abalone and rock lobster are both ‘priority’ species under the Fisheries Act and compliance work in these fisheries is an important part of the Geelong team’s day-to-day activities. Time spent on a mixture of working groups and assisting with research help to set the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) and the allocation of quota to Fishery Access Licence holders.
The Victorian commercial abalone TAC is 1,328 tonnes, which is split between three fishing zones and 71 licence holders. The TAC for the commercial rock lobster fishery is split between the eastern (60 tonnes) and western zones (450 tonnes).
Both fisheries operate under quota management systems in which fishers report their fishing activities and the movement of the catch via an automated telephone service ensuring that Fisheries Officers can attend and inspect catches to confirm declared weights and quantities. The officers also ensure that minimum sizes, gear restrictions and closed seasons are complied with.
Abalone theft often gets big headlines in the media so I asked David about the issue.
“Recently expanded powers and harsher penalties for trafficking abalone mean that convicted thieves can receive up to 10 years imprisonment. A number jail sentences have already been imposed by the courts for individuals exceeding abalone bag limits,” David said.
Victoria’s state fishing limit extends to 3 nautical miles offshore. Outside this distance are Commonwealth waters so I asked David what happens if they’re operating out there?
“Fisheries Officers are authorised under the Commonwealth Fisheries Management Act 1991 and can thus work outside state limits. Under a Constitutional settlement, some fisheries are managed by the State beyond 3nm and some by the Commonwealth inside the 3nm limit.”
After witnessing first hand a solid day’s work onboard, I asked how many hours Fisheries Officers spend each week in the field?
“The time spent in the field varies depending on the time of the year, staff availability and weather but the aim is to be out and about as much as possible,” David said.
I’ve often seen Fisheries Officers giving talks at fishing and boating shows and asked about staff availability for these presentations at fishing clubs.
“Fisheries Officers are available to give talks to fishing clubs and to a limited extent to schools, although the younger generation are often best catered for via Fishcare,” David said.
After checking a few more anglers off Werribee, we popped down inside Corio Bay where we moored on the Limeburners Bay launching ramp for lunch.
I chatted to Brad Smith about his recent fishing adventures while he enjoyed a leatherjacket sandwich (yep, Brad loves them!) and while other officers checked land-based anglers for licences.
We then headed straight back around the Bellarine Peninsula to my departure point at Queenscliff, punching into a 20 knot southerly with ease.
All up, the day provided me with a fantastic insight into some of the work that’s undertaken by Fisheries Victoria. Thanks for the opportunity to spend the day lads!Reads: 2100