WHEN I started fishing regularly at Hervey Bay in the early 1960s the population was close to 6000. Today it’s 46,000, give or take a hundred or two, and the fish stocks aren’t what they used to be. Recreational and commercial fishing pressure, pollution and destruction of habitat are some of the causes on the hit list. This is not intended to be a ‘finger-pointing’ exercise, however, but a look at the trends involving major species over four decades – and what sort of catches we can expect now and in the future.
Before the population boom the entire permanent and tourist population of Hervey Bay lived within a stone’s throw of beautiful sandy beaches washed by waters loaded with sand whiting for most of the year. Numbers are well down today but it’s still possible to catch a good feed of whiting along the city beaches. These days anglers need to give a lot more thought to using optimum conditions and making use of peak seasons. During the 80s when whiting numbers dropped alarmingly, fisheries managers declared city beaches between Point Vernon and the Urangan boat harbour off limits to all forms of netting.
During the 50s, 60s and 70s the western beaches of Fraser Island north of Moon Point were popular with local light-gear fishing clubs as well as those from as far as Kingaroy and Brisbane. This beach became recognised as the most prolific sand whiting ground in Queensland, if not Australia. Clubs held overnight competitions during the peak season during August, September and October. It would be fully expected that winning catches would be well over 100 fish. In a Queensland Light Gear championship held during the 70s, the winning catch was well in excess of 200 whiting. For a variety of reasons, the big clubs visit no longer, even though there are still plenty of whiting available. Today very few anglers go to the trouble of going ashore for a little whiting fishing, and an even smaller number would be found there at night. The beach remains popular with anglers travelling from the ocean beach to escape strong south-easterly winds.
Diver whiting have also made a huge contribution to Hervey Bay’s tourist industry, particularly since small powerboats became popular. Hervey Bay’s ever-increasing population includes a large percentage of retired folk and many of these take to the water on sunny winter days in search of diver whiting. With the huge numbers of these fish taken during winter it’s amazing that numbers have kept up as well as they have. Good seasons come and go. Just when you think seasons are on the decline, a bumper season follows. It’s difficult to imagine that catches could stay at current levels in future years with no size or bag limits.
The reefs of Hervey Bay have always attracted a great deal of attention from amateur anglers. These reefs range from those that fringe the shoreline from Gatakers Bay to Point Vernon to those well offshore between Bundaberg and the northern tip of Fraser Island. Before small and speedy powerboats became popular the reefs were reached by oar-powered dinghies or by slow launches. Distant reef areas like the Southern Gutter and Rooney Point were the domain of specialist charter fishing boats that operated out of Urangan. The trip could take more than six hours and in the event of sudden bad weather it wasn’t always easy to find somewhere to hide. Not surprisingly, most fishing became concentrated over reefs fringing the mainland and inshore islands and in the channels and deep holes between the mainland and Fraser Island.
For some years prior to the mid-60s, fishing on the inshore reefs was seen to be declining. As a result, under the leadership of Maryborough engineer Roy Rufus, an artificial reef was made. From 1968 to 1993 many steel barges were sunk east of Woody Island, and numerous car bodies, tyres and other assorted articles also found their way to the bed of the bay. The Roy Rufus Artificial Reef (the ‘Arti’), with its surrounding waters, soon becoming a top fishing ground. Blackall, coral bream, squire, back-spot tuskfish, cod, coral trout and many other species quickly took up residence. The reef also holds a huge population of squire (mostly undersize since the 35cm limit came into force). It also became favoured by visiting winter snapper and today remains one of the few places where these large reds can be taken in the inner bay. Encrusting marine life has slowed down the rate at which one might expect the reef to decay. However, the reef is deteriorating slowly and it’s clear that more solid material needs to be sent down.
In the years after the creation of the Arti the other reefs, both shallow and deep, started to fish more fruitfully than they had for years – and it’s been suggested that this can be directly attributed to the Roy Rufus Artificial Reef. Perhaps the Arti provides a breeding environment or a nursery area? To my knowledge nothing has been proven, but the improvement on other reefs can’t be disputed.
The huge upsurge in the number and power of small boats has had interesting effects in Hervey Bay. Larger, more powerful and purpose-built craft are taking their eager owners in safety to the ‘greener fields’ well offshore. Add to this technological advances in sounders and GPS, and you have the ability to locate some of the larger and more glamorous reefies like red emperor and coral trout, not to mention the variety of large pelagic sportfish that hunt baitfish seeking the security of the reef.
As a result of all this, there’s now a smaller proportion of anglers working out of small boats on reefs close to city boat ramps. Perhaps the shallows aren’t fishing quite as well as they did 10 years ago but there are still plenty of good fish to satisfy anglers prepared to specialize in one species and to plan their trips around the optimum tides and weather conditions. There are many excellent reefs and ledges that scarcely see a boat these days, and it’s not because of a lack of fish. Overall, there are no more boats fishing Hervey Bay’s inshore reefs today than there have been in any of the last 30 years, and that’s a period in which the local population has increased over 500%. I don’t believe that fishing pressure on the reefs of the inner bay, that is within 20 minutes from the harbour, is great enough to cause concern at this time. However, hopefully fisheries managers will look at bag limits and minimum sizes in the future, rather than simply closing areas off to recreational fishers.
We’ve heard a lot about our three main species of mackerel in recent months with more stringent management measures being placed on Spanish and spotted mackerel. Certainly we don’t see as many Spaniards taken in the inner bay as we did decades ago but anglers working live baits at recognized spots like Boge’s Hole are still scoring. Mind you, I don’t think any of the locals would be too keen on taking a good one home for the pan. Sure, a fish might be caught well south of the ciguatera-prone waters of Platypus Bay, but mackerel can swim darn fast.
To my knowledge, in these last decades at least, spotted mackerel have not ventured far into the inner bay south of Moon Point to any great extent. Anglers who might have thought they had caught spotties well south in Hervey Bay had probably caught Queensland school mackerel, a fish with much larger spots than true spotties. Spotties come into the bay in huge numbers around November and stay until February or early March, preferring the open waters and those inside Fraser Island as far south as Moon Point. Anglers chasing this great little speedster usually head for waters offshore from Arch Cliffs or Wathumba Creek. The great concern for the perpetuation of spotted mackerel has seen ring netting banned, commercial quotas imposed, an increased legal length and a recreational bag limit of five imposed. I don’t think there’s much doubt that these measures will achieve their stated purpose but many local recreational anglers are saying it’s a long way to go for five fish.
In the time that I’ve been in Hervey Bay, no recreational fishery has suffered more than that for Queensland school mackerel. I am sure there will be many readers who will remember the hot run of school mackerel during the school holidays (which were then in August). The fish were taken in good numbers throughout the bay including the Mangrove Island channels, Christie’s Gutter and River Heads. Anglers targeting diver whiting often had fish bitten off by school mackerel. These days they still experience being bitten off but it’s rarely by schoolies – more likely by giant green toads. These unwelcome creatures with teeth like two pairs of side cutters have always been about, but they seem to have become more numerous in recent years. School mackerel and giant sea toads are natural competitors in diver whiting country, so with the reduction in competition from mackerel it’s to be expected that toad numbers would increase.
These days some school mackerel make it into the inner bay but their numbers are well down and the quality is sadly lacking. Almost all the good catches are now made north of the city, particularly off Gatakers Bay, Toogum and Burrum Heads. I have mixed reports on the current season from both recreational and commercial fishermen and the last few seasons have not been great either. It seems to me that of the two species of small mackerel, it's the schoolie that deserves the stricter management measures. Size and bag limits have not been increased and commercial netting is still permitted. Bringing the management of school mackerel into line with that of spotty mackerel is probably the only measure that would stop the good catches of schoolies sliding into history. Incidentally, a number of anglers have trouble distinguishing between these species, so uniform sizes and bag limits would make sense.
With the big variety of other species available in Hervey Bay, bream attract the least attention from anglers. This has not always been the case, however. Before accessibility to more sought-after reefies and pelagics became easy with the popularity of faster powerboats, there were plenty of anglers prepared to spend the odd chilly hour chasing winter spawning bream.
These days, or should I say nights, it’s possible to be sitting on one of Hervey Bay’s hottest bream spots with optimum conditions of tide and weather and have the place to one’s self. I did it two nights before the July full moon this year. There is no shortage of great winter spawning bream country in Hervey Bay and at the mouths of local creeks and rivers. A small boat is a necessity for some spots, but for many other locations it’s not.
There is little doubt that bream numbers are dropping gradually. Good bream seasons come and go following good wet seasons and droughts, but overall there are almost as many bream available today as there were decades ago.
Hervey Bay's population explosion has certainly had its effect on recreational fishing but not to the extent that we might have expected. I suspect that the percentage of the resident and local population who fished regularly back in the 60s and 70s would have been much higher than the percentage today. Combined with this is the boating factor which sees a wider distribution of the fishing effort throughout the bay, relieving the pressure on the grounds close to the centres of population. Some species, particularly school mackerel, have seen a marked decline, which may have come about by factors independent of local population growth. For others like bream and blackall the future looks bright enough, provided the fisheries managers make the right decisions regarding resource sharing and limits on catches and sizes.
Ecologically, Hervey Bay, Sandy Straits and their feeder streams are in reasonable shape, particularly when compared with the environs of our big cities. The future of fishing here will also be determined by how well we all look after our land and our waterways.
1) A recent catch of blackall from Woody Island. These fish are abundant in Hervey Bay.
2) The large fishing clubs no longer visit the western beaches of Fraser Island but this small club enjoys good whiting fishing here each September.Reads: 5042