The first assessment of the fishery in Mallacoota Inlet since commercial fishing ended was held in February this year. For decades, local and visiting anglers and tourism interests pushed for commercial fishing to be removed from the inlet.
These approaches were rejected as fisheries assessments indicated that the combined commercial and recreational fishing pressure was sustainable and creel surveys showed that angler catch rates were comparable to popular recreational fisheries elsewhere around Australia.
Of the eight commercial operators licensed to fish in the inlet in 2000, the voluntary buyout of commercial bay and inlet commercial fishing licences removed four who had accounted for 42% of the total commercial catch during the previous five years.
An assessment of the fishery in 2001 found that the total annual catch was relatively stable and that combined commercial and recreational fishing pressure continued to be sustainable.
Despite this, pressure to remove commercial fishing continued. New marine parks were being proclaimed around the coast and New South Wales was declaring 20 inlets as recreational fishing havens.
In October 2002, the Minister announced the Victorian Government’s plan to declare Mallacoota Inlet and Lake Tyers as recreational fisheries reserves.
Commercial fishing for bream and other scalefish finally ceased in March 2003.
Exiting commercial fishermen were compensated from the Recreational Fishing Licence fund.
The closure took effect from April 2003 and work on the development of a fisheries reserve management plan is now in progress.
Directions and guidelines for the management plan set out the purpose of the reservation.
They require the plan to describe arrangements needed to ensure the sustainability of the recreational fishery, the identification of features and opportunities valued by recreational fishers and the protection of those beneficial features and opportunities.
The stock assessment workshop was convened by Sandy Morison of PIRVic’s (Primary Industries Research Victoria) Queenscliff-based marine fisheries research complex.
Participants included representatives of VRFish, local angling groups, research anglers, the local tackle trade, Department of Primary Industry fisheries officers and policy and management people.
The two big changes from previous fishery assessment workshops were the absence of commercial fishermen and the lack of recent detailed commercial fisheries data as the main source of information on the state of the fish stocks.
Until 2003, the commercial fishery had taken at least 50 tonnes of fish (excluding Australian salmon) annually over the previous 20 years.
There was some overlap in the main species taken by the commercial and recreational fisheries, particularly bream.
While yellowfin bream form part of the catch in the Lower Lake, the main bream species taken in the inlet system is black bream.
Commercial catch rates for bream had remained relatively constant at around 10 tonnes in most years since 1980.
On the other hand, flathead catches and catch rates had declined substantially, leaving recreational fishers to target flathead – mainly duskies – virtually uncontested.
In the absence of continuing detailed commercial fisheries data, future assessments of the main target species stocks and the fishery now depend heavily on the recreational fishing sector.
Anglers have got what they wanted in terms of exclusive access – now they will provide both the bulk of the essential data and the funding for monitoring programs through the Recreational Fishing Licence trust fund.
Local anglers are already rising to the challenge in some important ways.
First, two anglers from different parts of the inlet system are providing PIRVic with important data on their catches as part of the Statewide research angler program.
John Wood lives at Gipsy Point and fishes in the upper section of the system while Frank Richards lives in Mallacoota and fishes the lower system and the Betka River.
Fishing consistently year-round, using constant gear, methods and targeting practises, they record details of their bream catches and sizes in research diaries and collect otoliths to enable PIRVic to age the bream catches.
Along with a local abalone diver, John Minehan, Frank Richards also operates PIRVic’s creel survey interviewing anglers on a regular basis.
The creel survey began in 2004 and will run until June this year.
While information on other species has been collected, the main survey focus is on dusky flathead, helping to evaluate the effect of the reduced catch limit introduced in December 2003.
As well as data on dusky flathead and bream catch rates and size composition, this survey is collecting data on anglers’ targeting preferences, baits and the species composition of retained and released fish.
When completed, the results will be able to be compared with those of previous creel surveys in 1981-1984 and 1998-1999.
Together with research angler, creel survey and past commercial fisheries information, personal observations of local fishers, business people and DPI officers added to the workshop.
Overall, reports indicated increased levels of recreational fishing activity and a substantial improvement in catches with bream being caught again in parts of the Lower Lake where they have not been caught for years.
Mallacoota fishing tackle retailer, Wayne Grainger, reported the increased interest in soft plastic lures.
While many visiting anglers were buying them to target bream, most eventually gave up and either returned to bait fishing or switched to lure fishing for dusky flathead.
Local Mallacoota participants in the workshop reported that catches of river garfish, luderick and mulloway have increased in recent years. Other species caught include estuary perch, silver trevally, snapper, sand whiting, leatherjackets and prawns.
Creel survey responses indicated wide support among anglers for catch limits, fishery monitoring and enforcement, although only 50% could correctly recall the catch and size limits that apply to their main target species.
Support for regulations was echoed by Fisheries Officers who reported high levels of compliance with fishing regulations. These were important findings given the widespread expectations that angler catch rates will increase and experience elsewhere that benefits from the removal of commercial fishing are generally absorbed by increased fishing pressure to the point where the benefits are negated.
Rough comparisons between the results of the 1980s creel survey and the 2000 national recreational fishing survey suggested that the recreational catch and effort had doubled over the intervening period.
The precision level of results from the 2000 survey was low because the survey was designed to describe recreational fishing at a higher level than small inlets.
Taken at face value the results indicate that the total annual fishing effort of 250,000 angler hours resulted in a total catch of 110,000 fish from Mallacoota Inlet, mainly by boat-based fishing.
In all likelihood, this recreational catch was considerably less than the 75 tonne commercial catch reported for the commercial fishery in the inlet in 2000/01.
The upsurge in popularity and use of soft plastic lures is having an impact on the fishery and fish stocks, particularly the year-round targeting of dusky flathead.
The combined impact of soft plastic lures and the promotion of their use for targeting duskies in East Coast estuaries since 2003 have resulted in an upsurge in targeting this species in the Mallacoota Inlet and river system.
In particular, promotion of the upper region of the estuary system appears to have caused the depletion of the larger dusky flathead.
While a minority of experienced anglers may be having an impact, recent creel survey results indicate that the new dusky flathead catch limit is having little impact on the majority as most anglers caught none and of those who caught and retained flathead only 8% achieved at least one of the new limits (5/day of which no more than 1 can be longer than 60cm).
The bream catch limit is having little impact as very few anglers are catching and retaining more than 3/day although the retained catch rate for bream increased in 2005.
Ageing data from black bream catches indicate that annual recruitment is less variable than in most other inlets and there are several strong year classes present.
A particularly strong year class is expected to be recruited into the fishery in the next year, at age 3 years.
Meanwhile, between 55 and 72% of all fish released seasonally by anglers are bream, including increasing numbers of large bream.
While the closure of commercial scalefish fishing in the inlet was popular as an end in itself, and has removed the main source of fishing mortality on bream, it is too soon to say what benefit there has been in terms of the increased catch rates that many expected.
Three years down the track, the variability that is typical in estuary fish stocks masks any short term signs of change resulting from the management action.
In fact, there is some question about the likelihood of being able to detect such changes with sufficient certainty as to their cause.
In the mean time, the workshop noted the need to monitor the impact of increased targeting of dusky flathead and identified a couple of fisheries research priorities:
• testing the effect of barbless hooks on bream catch rates to improve survival of released bream, and
• extension of the use of acoustic tags and fixed listening stations, as currently used for bream in the Gippsland Lakes, to investigate dusky flathead movement patterns and habitat preferences.
One thing is clear: once the current creel survey finishes in June, the entire ongoing monitoring effort for the fishery – and the chances of detecting improved catch rates - will be resting on the shoulders of two volunteer anglers.Reads: 2034