Net Free Areas – A gifted case for licencing Bill Bowtell June 16

Most recently the Central Queensland based, Rockhampton Regional Council (RRC), undertook the second stage of its “Community Boating and Fishing Survey” as part of its community consultation commitment to the “Draft Marine Infrastructure and Fishing Tourism Strategy”, which Council is currently formulating.

This proactive course of action is in direct response to the “Net Free Area” zoning legislation that was passed by the Queensland Government last year and implemented into Queensland Fisheries regulation as of 1st November 2015.

This piece of legislation identifies three Net Free Areas (NFA’s). One – Trinity Inlet at Cairns; two – St. Helens Bay to Cape Hillsborough immediately north of Mackay; and three – being the largest, the Capricorn Coast including, Keppel Bay and the Fitzroy River and its associated delta to the city of Rockhampton.

This latter section of the Capricorn Coast NFA, in the main, is under the jurisdiction of the RRC.

The Council was quick to realize the tourist and economic potential that could follow the implementation of such progressive measures as Net Free Areas. It was also quick to realize what an NFA meant to both the business and broader regional community who would feel (and benefit from) the full impact. At the same time however, Council had to consider the net loss of income to the region, which was directly attributed to the commercial net fishery.

It was a balancing act. And a strategy to move forward was seen as the only solution to firstly – identify these potential benefits, and secondly, to provide the necessary infrastructure needed to meet the expectations of both tourist and local anglers and those wishing to make an investment,in real economic terms, in the Fitzroy River and the Net Free Area.

It is hoped that these community surveys and further consultations with various reference groups from the Capricorn Region, will provide deliberate outcomes that can bebuilt into a far reaching and acceptable plan, as these NFA’s mature and are taken forward.

There are many issues to consider. Some of which, lie outside the area of Council’s responsibility and jurisdiction. The Rockhampton Regional Council has provided the initial direction and momentum to move forward. Its plan to provide the necessary infrastructure such as, ramp upgrades, pontoons, lighting, security, dedicated fishing platforms and more boat and trailer access points under a structured and fully funded works program, shows that it is serious about providing for the local fishers and those wishing to come to the Capricorn Region to fish and spend their tourist dollar.

But is not just about the Council. It also involves the broader community. The community must take ownership of what has been given to them by the government. None more so than the fishermen and women themselves.

As a long time fisher and one who has sat on many Fisheries Management and Advisory Committees as a recreational fishing representative and advisor, I see these Net Free Areas as a “gift” from Government and one that we must accept with humility and a willingness to “look after what we have been given”.

In the case of my own patch here on the Capricorn Coast, it has been long known that the Fitzroy River has been a great producer of the iconic sportfish, the barramundi, as well as the equally sought after king and blue threadfin. All of which grow to massive sizes in the turbid and murky waters of the meandering Fitzroy River.

CSIRO scientist, D J Dunstan, first encountered barramundi (and threadfin) in the Fitzroy during his research into the specie in 1956. Fish, were at that time, being taken in commercial numbers and his research showed that the environment and habitat of the Fitzroy River was very conducive to the entire life-cycle of the barra.

One can only suggest that as the fishery improves through greater recruitment and distribution of fish numbers, these three species alone, along with black jewfish and other table and sporting species, will entice fishers from, not only other parts of Queensland, but around Australia and overseas. There is already evidence from recent surveys that these visitations are occurring, as news gets out about the fish that are already appearing in the daily captures by recreational fishing parties.

Government records show that for the Capricorn Coast Net Free Area (which includes the Fitzroy River), three hundred and twenty tones of barramundi were taken during the years of 2013, 2014 and 2015, in commercial set gill nets. This large tonnage of fish was due in the main to major recruitments from the years 2009 to 2012 inclusive. A recorded event almost unparalleled since studies and records began.

Paradoxically, these major recruitments followed eight years of severe drought conditions, where recruitment was almost negligible, and fish numbers so low that the commercial industry was almost brought to its knees. Evidence from fish tagging data showed that the commercial industry was largely supported by the capture of stocked fish, maturing in the upper reaches and being flushed down stream in very minor flow events in the Fitzroy. These catch rates of stocked fish gave a skewed view of the real state of the fishery. Should the rainfall events return to somewhere near “normal” over the next few years, and given the fact that gill netting has been removed then, theentire area, especially the Fitzroy River has every opportunity to recover. And keep on recovering!

One could only imagine what an extra 320 tones of mature barramundi remaining in the system would do for the fishery.

And this is the vexing question!

It is also the main topic of discussion amongst thinking fishers and city administrators as we move forward.

At this point in time the only changes to fisheries regulation is the declaration and description of the Net Free Area zones, and the conditions placed on the commercial sector. The rest (of regulation) remains the same.

To labour this point, size limits, bag limits, closed waters, closed seasons (for barramundi) apparatus and methods of fishing, all remain the same as before for recreational fishers.

There are those, myself included, who think this is a retrograde step. Change needs change! And we need to support these changes, (such as NFA’s) with regulatory rule changes to reflect the new conditions.

If recreational fishers have been given a “gift” by government, re the NFA’s, then the Queensland Fisheries Service – the managers and administrators of the fishery – have been given the opportunity to turn these NFA’s into model fisheries. Fisheries based on sustainability, new industries and economic viability, for not only the regions, but for Queensland as well.

We find that within the NFA’s, apart from crabbing, very little conflict in the catch sharing arrangements occur between recreational interests and those of a commercial nature e.g. – otter board and beam trawling. Therefore, it would seem reasonable to expect/suggest that, QFS would undertake its own research and studies through rigorous sampling and detailed catch/effort data of those fishing in the NFA’s to get an overall picture of how the fishery is functioning/performing.

It would then be reasonable to further expect that, once this data and information has been analysed, then a review of existing rules and regulations would occur so that changes could be made if deemed necessary. Remembering, that there is no conflict of catch sharing, and that these changes affect only one sector of the fishing industry – the recreational sector.

Progressive thinking fishers from the Capricorn Coast region are already pursuing a Voluntary Code of Practice (V-COP) to be introduced into the Capricorn Coast Net Free Area. Whilst this is purely a voluntary measure, it is seen as a step in the right direction towards a sustainable and model fishery. As well as a guard against “effort creep” and “effort shift”, as more and more people come to fish in the region. Net Free Areas need a whole new plan of approach.

The Cap Coast NFA V-COP suggests, amongst other things, reduced bag limit on barramundi from 5 fish to 2 fish in possession and increasing the minimum size limit from 58cms to 60cms whilst reducing the maximum size limit from 120cms to 100cms.

Further, with clearly identified and known spawning sites of the barramundi and threadfins in the Cap Coast NFA, the V-COP encourages:

1. “No Fishing” in these areas on a year round basis;

2. When targeting fish for catch and release only, then barbless hooksbe used for ease of release;

3. Fish that are to be kept for the table are dispatched of quickly and humanely; and,

4. Report to the relevant authorities any suspicious, or known illegal activities.

To date this V-COP has been discussed actively with the Rockhampton Regional Council who views the code very favorably. Whilst it (the Council) is a support base only, this element of support delivers a way forward to hopefully formulate proactive discussions with the QFS.

Times are rapidly changing in the world of recreational fishing – social media, promotions, competitions and even our own work arrangements, and social lifestyles indicate this. Technology and boat designs have put recreational fishing on a level not seen before. And this, combined with active numbers in the fishery, puts recreational fishing up there on a par with commercial fishing effort. And this includes –take!

But what do we put back into the fishery, dollar-wise? We are demanding a lot e.g. NFA’s. This government has heard this request and we have been rewarded. But are we paying our way? No!

It is about time we did!

I have been a strong advocate for recreational fishing licences for many years now, and will continue to be that way.

As fishers we demand a lot – from infrastructure (ramps, fish cleaning, sealed car parks etc.) to a share in the fishery. But we give very little.

We demand to know what is happening to our fish stocks and the state of the overall fishery from estuary to reef. This research takes $’s, but we contribute very little to what is pure research. If we want recognition, if we want our points-of-view to be heard, if we want decisions made on sound and rigorous data and we want to be taken seriously then we must pay our way. And a licence with guaranteed program outcomes is the way forward.

Over the years I have heard every argument against licencing. Some have been valid, some have been selfish to the point of being absurd.

Recreational fishing is an industry and industries pay their dues. Financial structures and systems of audit are now available in government that can successfully track licence dollars. It is no longer just a “big black hole of consolidated revenue” – or, does not have to be! We have an opportunity to strengthen our industry and to gain creditability.

The changes that are upon us will only increase. We need to pay our way!