Problem Acknowledged… Solution Dodgy
  |  First Published: December 2002

IN THE mid 1990’s I raised the issue of the likely effort increase in commercial reef line fishing with the rise of the live export trade. Many of us predicted what has now come to pass, but the fisheries managers of the time said, “Don’t worry. The total catch will drop because of the live fish trade.”

It’s comforting to know that that level of expertise is looking after our fisheries, isn’t it?

But it’s no use crying over spilt milk. The positive thing is the state government has finally acknowledged the problem and appears serious about doing something to at least stop any increase. However, after having read the proposed management changes and listened to fisheries officers trying to justify their approach, I don’t believe they’ve got it right.

A couple of fundamental facts need to be established right up front. The recreational catch of reef fish has remained stable since the mid 1990s, whereas the commercial catch has pretty much doubled during that time.


It’s no secret that most recreational fishers have seen a steady decline in their catches of reef fish over the last decade, especially in areas closer to the coast. However, charter operators also report declining catches right out wide at places like the Swain Reefs. They’ll need to accept at least some blame for this though.

Contrary to predictions and published fears that the recreational fishing sector will exponentially increase as the state’s population grows, the DPI’s Rfish surveys clearly show that recreational fishing is showing a slight but consistent decline. The decline in participation rates is particularly marked in younger age groups, which suggests that in the future the total recreational effort will continue to decrease.

From an ethical and social perspective though, there is no question that the recreational sector must be prepared to accept bag and size limits as the standard catch control. These output controls also provide the opportunity to readjust effort if, by some miracle, people suddenly discover the joys of angling again and take up the noble art en masse.

Queensland Boating and Fisheries Patrol officers consistently report that the overwhelming majority of recreational fishers are doing the right thing anyway, by obeying the rules and fishing responsibly. There’s only that small recalcitrant band whose members insist on pursuing obscene catches to satisfy over-inflated egos, or to make a tax-free income on the side. This crew will break the law no matter what, so new reduced catch limits will only serve to keep the honest people honest.

It’s also interesting that the total estimated recreational catch of reef fish in Queensland is only about 20% of the total commercial catch at best. So even a 50% reduction in the recreational catch will only contribute around a mere 10% reduction from the combined harvest taken by both sectors. But we’ve always been a soft target, haven’t we?


I like to believe that the majority of commercial fishers are responsible, law-abiding people. Too often public spats between the two sectors occur over issues that are caused by inadequate or unfair fisheries management, not because one or other of the sectors is doing anything illegal.

Not surprisingly, the total commercial landings of reef fish are steadily increasing as export markets open up and prices are too good to ignore.

Queensland’s commercial fishery has always been structured around a multi-endorsement model. That means individual licensed operators can hold endorsements to fish in a variety of different fisheries if they choose. For example, I might hold a line endorsement that allows me to fish for reefies, plus a crab endorsement that I use when the weather’s crook and I can’t go to sea, plus a net endorsement that entitles me to chase inshore and estuarine species if the whim takes me. The idea is that fishers can spread the effort around the various fisheries depending on seasonal and weather constraints, so as to maintain a reasonable income across the whole year.

This model does have disadvantages though, like the ratcheting back of effort in one particular fishery. By restricting fishers from fishing in the reef line fishery, many of them will be forced to focus their efforts on the other fisheries they hold endorsements for. What we’ve achieved is a possible reduction of effort in the reef fishery, but increased effort in the inshore fishery which many of us consider is already being overfished. We are already seeing this happen as a consequence of the trawl buyback, and what happened after the dugong-protected areas closures is now part of history.

Sadly, this reef plan has absolutely no strategy for addressing the inevitable transfer of effort into other fisheries. The complete lack of understanding of this effect on the part of our fisheries managers, must be confronted before we simply transfer the problem inshore.


We can thank the profile of the coral trout for getting the sorry state of our reef fishery on the radar. Some people in influential political places have been convinced that our coral trout stocks are in trouble because of overfishing. Some science indicates that the average size of fish is decreasing and that the catch per day is also on the decline.

What confounds me though, is how cutting back the total allowable commercial catch of reef fish from about 4400 tonnes last year to around 3060 tonnes will magically ensure the future of coral trout.

The current commercial catch of trout is running at about 2000 tonnes per year I’m told, so what’s to stop everyone with a line licence deciding to really focus their efforts on trout in the future and collectively increasing the trout component of the total catch to close to the arbitrary 3000 tonnes mark?

The answer? Nothing!

If trout are the problem, management measures need to focus specifically on them if their future is to be assured. That simple concept obviously isn’t in the 30-year-old ‘How to Manage a Fishery’ text books that our managers are working from.


Do you realise that under the proposed plan, you won’t be able to keep mattie cod (wire netting cod) because the new minimum legal length will be 35cm? When was the last time you caught a Mattie that was bigger than 35cm?

In an effort to restrict the commercial catch of a range of long-lived and slow-growing species being targeted by the live fish trade, the solution was to impose a minimum size of 35cm. That strategy might fix the problem in the commercial fishery, but it has unnecessarily caught the recreational sector in the same net, even though we’re not causing any problem with these species as far as I can see. I know a lot of people, including me, who keep a 30cm Mattie cod for a delicious feed from time to time.

The correct response should be to declare the particular species under threat as a ‘non-commercial species’ and impose a sensible size and bag limit on the recreational sector if that’s deemed necessary. The objective of removing certain species from the live export market will be achieved and the recreational sector will still be able to keep a couple for a feed. This is a classic example of the typical total lack of genuine empathy for the recreational sector on the part of some fisheries managers, and it’s high time we stood up and said enough is enough!

These are just a few of the glaring inequities in the proposed new reef fishing arrangements. I haven’t even mentioned issues like not requiring satellite monitoring of commercial vessels, a bag limit of only eight red-throat emperor, the ridiculously small minimum legal size of only 25cm for moke (painted sweetlip) and having to keep fish whole (only required by recreational sector, not surprisingly).


It’s high time we did something about managing our reef fish better. The current initiative is to be applauded, however, I don’t believe the proposed strategies will achieve the outcomes we need. Hopefully, some more effective, practical and fairer management strategies will be considered and adopted before the ink dries. Otherwise I’ll be sitting here in another ten years time writing about how we told them they had it wrong back in 2002 and they took no notice again!

Make sure you get a copy of the RIS and respond. The next generation will thank you for it.

1) Small trout like this are a target of the live fish trade.

2) The author with a charismatic bar-cheeked trout.

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