CEO Message – Industry gets some wins amongst tsunami of issues

There have been a number of significant developments impacting the commercial fishing sector over recent times and I’ll be putting out some podcasts to cover them soon.

The issues range from the emerging oceanic windfarms which are being proposed off the south-west coast, to the decommissioning of thousands of oil and gas wells off the north-west coast. This is further complicated by a mass of new coastal industrial salt ventures in the north, along with the installation of desalination and energy hubs down south, all of which will have a degree of impact over the sustainability of commercial fishing.

In the meantime, WAFIC is batting hard over the west coast demersal fishery which is in need of reform and relief after years of recreational over-fishing.  The issue is being complicated by the lobbying of various special-interest groups who are inexplicably advocating for recovery action to be further delayed. It’s hard to believe that bait and tackle shops aren’t standing up for the long-term sustainability of the fishery!

As the issue evolves, it’s becoming abundantly clear that the recreational fishers themselves have never understood the reality of the concerning regression of west coast demersal stocks and as a result the requisite level of understanding and appreciation simply isn’t apparent.

It’s also been particularly disappointing that recreational fishers have been encouraged to treat fishing as a competition (which in turn has manifested into high-grading and serious barotrauma mortality impacts on stocks) when instead they needed leadership to gain a true appreciation of the seriousness of the situation and the consequent need for repair action.  Rather than advocating for careful restraint in demersal management, their mentors have instead promoted size contests and the use of release weights (which simply ensure the discarded fish can die on the bottom instead of the surface).

While the commercial sector has continually been under its individual safe threshold and the recreational sector has continually been over, the collective harvest of both sectors has still been just under the global target – yet the recovery process had stalled.  In other words, the science now shows that the combined threshold set a decade ago was always too high and with the benefit of hindsight should have been adjusted to a lower level quite a few years ago to secure the required stock recovery.

So, the reason for today’s 50 per cent cut in allocation (recreational + commercial) is to ensure that the breeding stocks and age classes can progressively recover to a healthy sustainable level within ten years to help secure our future.  But across the whole community there needs to be a collaborative approach to ensure a true and accurate understanding of the sustainability settings and in turn the need for all parties to carry an appropriate share of the load.

The danger is that some ill-informed stakeholders are promoting a perverse option to take the commercial share and re-allocate it to the recreationals.  This would simply close off the ability of 90 per cent of the WA community to source local species through fresh fish outlets, restaurants and fish & chip shops – while the remaining 10 per cent who can afford a big boat would have a complete monopoly over fresh seafood – which let’s face it, would be an outrageous breach of social justice.

So at the end of the day, it is critical that we work collaboratively towards a sensible long-term solution.  Yes, we have many frustrations over the past performance of others and it’s most certainly going to be enormously challenging and painful for our sector to deliver the required cuts.  However it’s also going to create understandable frustrations for participants in the recreational sector who must reduce their catches from significantly above the old threshold to less than half of their previous catch level.  I can genuinely appreciate that many recreational fishers feel aggrieved as for years they had been led to believe that everything was hunky dory when it most certainly was not.

My view is that the overwhelming majority of recreational fishers are responsible and will respond to sensible conservative management requirements.  The sustainability problems haven’t come about from individual fishers exceeding their bag limits, instead the growth in participants (particularly through COVID) has remained unmanaged and the aggregate catch levels have exceeded the allocated sustainable harvest.  Furthermore, the promotion of a competitive culture has also seen unaddressed upsizing activity leading to significant barotrauma mortalities.

What I’ve laid out here is the truth, the uncomfortable truth, but there is no alternative for either sector if we want to see the fishery back in recovery mode, we’re all in this together.  So WAFIC will do its bit and play a leadership role to educate community stakeholder groups to endeavour to deliver an improved understanding of the issues at play.  We’ve already laid out the facts in the most recent edition of the Western Angler – the primary chronicle for the recreational fishing – and we will continue to make the case to the public at large.

In closing, I’d like to finish on a high note with a shout out to the fishers on the south coast who have finally been granted approval to undertake G-Trap fishing of herring this season at three selected beaches.  It’s been an incredibly difficult and drawn-out process to finally get the go-ahead, but everybody persisted and we now have a great opportunity for fishing and value-added processing.

The G-Trap method is low impact and allows the fish to be carefully selected and any released herring can swim away unharmed.  Importantly the high-quality fish can be used for value-adding at the new local processing facilities and hopefully new products can soon come onto the market.

In the meantime, it will be an excellent opportunity for tourists to visit the beaches to see the commercial fishers at work and hopefully build some trust and support.  It’s envisaged that fresh buckets of herring will be sold directly off the beach, as well as at the weekend Boatshed waterfront markets in Albany.