Illegal recreational fishing in the Port Stephens Marine Park is having a devastating impact on fish species within the sanctuary, a new study has found.
A covert monitoring project recorded 108 vessels fishing illegally within the Seal Rocks ‘no-take’ zone between April 2017 and March 2018.
The study’s authors estimate more than 2300 snapper were illegally taken from the area during the 12 month period.
“There is a strong likelihood that illegal recreational fishing is causing a reduction on a fishery targeted species within a no-take marine park area and measures need to be implemented to reduce the ongoing illegal fishing pressure,” the report says.
The no-take zone was established in 2007 with the aim of promoting biodiversity within the marine park.
An average of nine vessels were reported in the area each month of survey. The greatest number of vessels detected in a single month was 14 and the longest a vessel was observed fishing was six hours.
Baited Remote Underwater Video Systems were used to quantify the abundance and size of the snapper between 2011 and 2017.
The authors estimated the population of the species in the area had declined by 55 per cent over the six year period. The size of the fish was also significantly smaller in 2017 compared to 2011.
The study results, published in the latest edition of the journal PLOS ONE, contrast with comments that Primary Industries Minister Niall Blair made about the impact of recreational fishing only six months ago.
In announcing the reversal of the government’s proposal to introduce further restrictions on recreational fishing, Mr Blair said he was “confident that fishing is not the key threat to the sustainability of our marine environment.”
The 6580 hectare no-take area is the largest protected area within the Port Stephens-Great Lakes Marine Park. It is also the most important protected area as it contains high levels of biodiversity and a number of threatened species such as black rock cod.
While fishing pressure should have declined to zero as a result of the no-take zone surveys conducted in 2012 and 2013 recorded increasing quantities of fishing tackle on the seafloor.
The surveillance project used a camera installed in the Seal Rocks lighthouse to record illegal fishing between 5.30am and 9pm.
Forty six per cent of the illegal vessels approached from the south and 48 per cent from the north. It was unclear where the remaining vessels came from.
“Whilst 108 vessels were detected during the 12 month surveillance period, this is considered an under-estimate of the illegal fishing activity within the no-take area as there are limitations with the camera system,” the report notes.
Fisheries compliance officers intercepted three vessels in the 12 month period.
Snapper made up the majority of the 79 fish that were seized. Other species included tailor, flathead, pearl perch, bonito, goatfish and samson fish.
The authors said the study highlighted the need to reduce illegal fishing in areas that are established to promote biodiversity.
“Adherence to the rules that define allowable activities within marine park areas is a key component in ensuring the conservation objectives of these areas are met,” they said.
They also concluded that illegal fishing was widespread throughout the marine park.
“...Based on compliance infringement data from 2007-2013, a high level of illegal fishing activity occurs within the Port Stephens Marine Park…,” the report said.
“Our study indicates that despite the marine park being in place since 2007, not all recreational fishers are adhering to marine park regulations within the Seal Rocks no-take area and are willing to risk being caught.”
Jason Nunn from Fisherman’s Warehouse Marks Point challenged the researchers’ estimate of how many fish had been illegally caught during the survey.
He also said the project highlighted the need for more accurate maps to be made available to commercial anglers.
“We have a ridiculous situation in this state where recreational fishers are using inaccurate maps through no fault of their own. Marine Parks need to be providing up-to-date Navionics charts with proper overlays,” he said.
“As for the serial offenders, they should have their boats confiscated.”