IN a media release in September headlined “Fishing Lockouts Off the Table”, NSW Primary Industries Minister Niall Blair identified himself as a “keen fisherman” who understood “both the economic and social values the industry brings to our state”.
He assured NSW residents there would be no loss of fishing rights or access under proposed new marine park sites because of a 2011 Coalition election commitment to deliver a marine park strategy based on “risk assessments and consultation rather than empty ideology and slogans”.
After “extensive feedback” from local communities and anglers – rather than science and data – Mr Blair said he was “confident that fishing is not the key threat to the sustainability of our marine environment”. Research by his own department seems to put a large question mark over that conclusion.
A surveillance camera in the Seal Rocks no-take area of the Port Stephens-Great Lakes Marine Park between April 2017 and March 2018 showed 108 recreational vessels involved in illegal fishing. A comparison of fish numbers between 2011 and 2017 showed the abundance of snapper in the area significantly declined by 55 per cent.
Snapper numbers in other fished and no-take areas did not experience such a decline, the research found.
Based on the findings researchers estimate more than 2000 snapper are removed from the Seal Rocks no-take area – which is supposed to provide the highest level of protection to fish stock – each year.
Marine protected areas are designed to protect biodiversity, but the Seal Rocks no-take area is particularly difficult to police as illegal fishing vessels have plenty of time to observe compliance vessels and escape. Some were seen doing that during the surveillance period.
Marine parks are a highly politicised issue. The parks are regularly decried as a “greenie” favourite and environmental arguments are drowned out by groups talking about people’s “right” to fish the ocean.
No doubt the majority of this state’s recreational fishers abide by the rules and understand the need for them. But the debate about marine parks must include data about the extent and impact of illegal fishing, and not rely on gut feelings and sentiment that risk the very pastime so many people love.