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“It’s an anxious wait for many recreational fishers”

Opinion

Any changes to recreational fishing regulations in South Australia must be based on reliable, up-to-date data and consider the sector’s importance to tourism and the wider economy, argues Shadow Minister Tim Whetstone.

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We all know someone who loves to fish. Whether enjoyed occasionally or on a regular basis, recreational fishing is popular in South Australia at all times of the year.

The State Government estimates there are 277,000 recreational fishers in South Australia (this figure is based on data collated in 2013 and does not include any visitors who like to throw a line in) and, while there is a lack of social and economic data around the contribution of this industry to this state, there is no doubting that recreational fishing is very important.

The current widespread review into recreational fishing in South Australia looks at major changes to bag, size and boat limits, as well as spacial (area) closures.

Public meetings have been attended by hundreds of people, and many have also filled out surveys and provided written submissions to the review. I’ve received a lot of feedback in my role as Shadow Minister for Recreation and Sport, and many fishers and recreational fishing organisations have flagged concerns regarding current proposals.

In the course of the review, the word “sustainability” has often been thrown around. The theme is that we need fish for our future generations to catch, and I couldn’t agree more. We need to ensure that recreational fishing is a mainstay of our economy.

However, measures implemented to sustain future recreational fish stocks must be based on accurate and up-to-date data.

A draft report by the Productivity Commission into marine fisheries and aquaculture, released last week, raised concerns about the current approach to collection of recreational fishing data and the need to improve this area.

The report stated: “Estimating catch and effort to incorporate recreational fishing into stock and marine management is significantly more difficult than for the commercial sector because of the number and diversity of participants”. It goes on: “Existing information – often based on sporadic surveys undertaken by state and territory governments – provides a limited, unreliable and out-of-date picture of recreational fishing effort, catch and value across Australia”.

I am a keen recreational fisherman myself, and the thrill of catching a prized fish takes me right across South Australia. Like recreational fishers across the state, I am aware of the impacts of any major changes in the industry, and we certainly need to tread with caution.

RecFish SA recently undertook its own survey for feedback on the review. It found that “specific concerns raised about the 2013/14 South Australian Recreational Fishing Survey (SARFS) relate to methodology and sample size, as well as, for a number of fisheries, the accuracy of estimates. Another concern is the reliability of certain data being used to inform important management decisions”.

The accuracy and amount of data collected by the Victorian Government under a $440,000 contract with the SA State Government has come under scrutiny during public meetings. The review is predominantly shaped around phone and fisher surveys which date back to 2013/14 and were collected under an honesty system by surveying households at random.

Are we basing decisions on the future of our fish stocks on the collation of data relying on the honesty of a random selection of recreational fishers, and was the sample size of fishers and fishing areas enough?

Further to data collection concerns, also keep in mind the State Government’s sanctuary/marine park zones, which already removed access for fishers in a number of areas.

With the sanctuary zones coming into effect in the latter half of 2014, it was claimed these changes would address the security of future fish stocks. This measure has not been remotely considered in the review. It was highlighted by the State Government’s own paraphernalia and by Ministers that sanctuary zones would “protect places that are important to recreational fishing”.

So why are we looking to introduce harsher measures before first being able to assess whether fish breeding in these areas has improved and whether it has added to the fish stocks in our waterways?

If the State Government is serious about making changes to assist recreational fishers in South Australia, surely it has to be based on up-to-date data that takes into consideration major changes to the environment, such as sanctuary zones.

We cannot afford to see the community consultation period of this review as just a “tick the box” exercise

Another concerning trend that isn’t addressed throughout the review is the reduction in fishing participation in South Australia. In 2000/01, the State Government estimated a participation rate of 317,223 recreational fishers; the 2013/14 survey showed there are almost 40,000 fewer fishers.

Why has recreational fishing participation dropped over the past 15 years? Will changes to bag, size and boat limits and further spacial closures contribute to further decline in participation?

What is the full economic impact of recreational fishing annually, including the contribution to tourism? Should research be undertaken to determine the number of visitors who travel to the state to fish?

Like me, many fishers are wondering why 50 per cent less people participated in the survey in 2013/14 than they did in 2007/08. In 2007/08, 5541 households responded to the screening survey and 1261 fully responded to the survey, while just 2782 responded to the screening survey in 2013/14 and 610 undertook the full survey.

The recreational fishing survey conducted in 2007/08 cost the State Government $412,000 and had an allocation of $73,047 for employee expenses and $40,643 for operating expenses, with the remaining $298,238.80 allocated to the contractor, the Victorian Government. The 2013/14 contract has the full $480,000 allocated to the contractor and this raises further questions. Under the PIRSA Allocation Policy, a recreational fishing survey is not meant to be more than five years old and the previous South Australian one was undertaken in 2007/08.

Furthermore, participants who took part in the logbook survey were based in areas where FishCare volunteers operate. At the time, a number of regional areas with prime recreational fishing areas had a very low number of FishCare volunteers, with Port Pirie having none in 2015-16.

We all know anecdotally just how valuable recreational fishing is to the state’s economy – it’s just not recognised with a dollar-figure value in the review. Talk to any of the small businesses in the coastal towns and the tackle shops across metropolitan and regional South Australia and they will be able to give you an indication of the importance of fishers spending money locally.

The recreational fishing community is still seeking many answers before any decision can be made as an outcome of this review.

I would like to see a greater focus on the socio-economic impacts of these proposed changes and better strategies around policing current compliance, considering a 25 per cent reduction in expiations in 2014/15 and just one paid fisheries compliance offer to almost 7000 recreational fishers. If we look at the bigger picture in the long term, there also needs to be consideration of how urban run-off and treated wastewater are affecting fish breeding grounds.

Community feedback is vital in establishing the future direction of the recreational fishing industry. It remains to be seen how the State Government will take on board community feedback in final recommendations, but I hope it will listen seriously to the public and what they believe is the right way forward for the future of recreational fishing in this state.

We cannot afford to see the community consultation period of this review as just a “tick the box” exercise. With recommendations set to go to the State Government’s Ministerial Cabinet and an announcement to be made soon, it’s an anxious wait for many in the recreational fishing industry.

Tim Whetstone is Shadow Minister for Recreation and Sport.

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