Leading up to the NSW Election a number of full-page ads in metropolitan and regional papers started a public debate about the balance between commercial fishing and recreational fishing, tourism and regional development in NSW. The ads called for political leaders to ban commercial fishing in the Hawkesbury and Tuggerah lakes.

The ads were followed by a press release by the Australian Fishing Trade Association (AFTA), the peak national body representing the suppliers of goods and services to NSW’s 750,000 recreational fishers, that also called for a rebalance between commercial fishing and recreational fishing in the State.

So what’s going on here?

The answer, like many of these issues, has a long history.

In 2002 the government of the day created 30 Recreational Fishing Havens, areas largely free of commercial fishing, along the NSW coast to provide better angling opportunities for recreational fishers. Money raised from the NSW Recreational Fishing license enabled a $20 million buyout of commercial fishers in these areas to create the havens.

http://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/fisheries/recreational/info/rfh

However, the problem was that the process to buy out commercial fishers, using $20 million of recreational fisher license money, did not extinguish commercial capacity or effort from the system.

As a result, many commercial operators continued to operate in waterways outside the recreational fishing havens. Overcrowding of commercial fishers in NSW has occurred, with growing competitive tensions not only between commercials but also between commercials and recreational fishers in these areas.

An independent review of commercial fishing in NSW released in March 2012 raised a number of alarm bells in relation to the issue.

The Executive Summary of the review, headed by Richard Stevens OAM, who is now Chair of the Ministerial Fisheries Advisory Council, stated the following:

“ An inflexible and inappropriate management system burdened by an excess allocation of access rights (too many (commercial) fishers for too few fish) continues to prevent industry self-adjustment.”

“The crowding of industry into smaller areas following the establishment of extensive Marine Parks and RFHs has made the situation worse, with a number of fishers who were bought out utilising latent effort to re-enter remaining waters open to commercial fishing.”

The report went on to state:

“A further consequence of inaction is that resource conflict in some areas will continue and possibly increase, resulting in calls from some sectors, most notably the recreational fishing sector, for commercial fishing to be further curtailed or even removed. This is already happening in areas like the Pittwater and Shoalhaven.”

The report also found that overcrowding of commercial fishers was affecting the economic viability of the sector, with disturbing consequences.

“Many (commercial) fishers are now caught in a form of poverty trap, where those that hold shares struggle to derive a living from them or tailor their operations to become more viable, and are unwilling to sell out due to their low value.”

Since the report the Government has announced a further review of the commercial fishing sector, and allocated a further $16 million (that’s a total $36 million with the recreational fishing haven buyout money) to “right size” the industry. To date, some three years later, there has not been any action to achieve this. As the independent report foresaw, this could be due to the fact that many commercial fishers have little incentive to participate in any adjustment process due to low capital and market values for their operations.

There are questions being asked about the effect of this issue on fisheries policy and in particular government decisions made that directly affect recreational fishing in NSW.

Early last year, the Government released a proposal to increase netting in estuaries in NSW. This proposal was strongly rejected by the recreational fishing sector. However, we assume the Government’s idea was to provide more fish for the already over crowded commercial sector to access. But this was to be at the cost of recreational fishers.

http://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/512816/EG-Netting-Public-Consultation-Paper.pdf

Later in the year the Government announced that bag limits for a number of key estuary species would be halved. This announcement was criticised by recreational fishers for the lack of scientific basis and because it was not matched by an equivalent reduction in the take by commercial fishers. It is not hard to see why a number of sceptical recreational fishers linked the halving of the take for recreational fishing with the Government’s desire to prop up the commercial sector by providing them access to more fish.

One of the frequently stated issues used in defence of maintaining our existing commercial fishing sector in NSW is the need to have fresh caught seafood. In 2013 Australia imported $1.65 billion worth of seafood. However we also export large quantities. For example, in 2013 we exported $1.2 billion worth of seafood.

In 2013-14 in NSW: 13 349 tonnes of seafood was traded at the Sydney fish markets. 7 428 tonnes of this was produced locally; 3 772 tonnes in other states; and 2 149 tonnes from overseas.

NSW also exported 775 tonnes of fish and 342 tonnes of crustaceans and molluscs.

One of the interesting aspects to note is that although the Government has not actually moved to reduce the number of commercial fishers in the state in recent years, with around 600 licenses in the general estuary fishery, the actual production of fish from the NSW fishery has decreased. Over the three-year period between 2010-11 and 2012-13 production of fish fell 27 percent, from 12 319 tonnes to 9 014 tonnes.

http://data.daff.gov.au/data/warehouse/9aam/afstad9aamd003/2013/AustFishAquacStats_2013_v1.2.0.pdf

Why has this drop in production occurred? Could it be because of decreasing fish stocks as a result of overfishing?

The independent report into commercial fishing in NSW states:

“While the exploitation status of around 50% of the key species taken by NSW commercial fishers are considered ‘uncertain’ or ‘undefined’ with six species considered biologically ‘overfished’, most appear to be sustainable according to scientific reports. However, there are some anecdotal reports of increasing depletions of some species in local areas due to fishing pressure.”

In summary, it can be concluded that the Government faces an ever-increasing crisis in the commercial fishing sector in NSW.

It is clear that inaction on the issue over the past decade has now made the task of “resizing” the sector politically difficult.

However, if it is not done, we will see continued conflict between commercial fishing interests and other sectors of the community that rely on recreational fishing.

There is an estimated three quarters of a million recreational fishers in NSW. Their economic contribution to the state is estimated at $3.4 billion a year and the sector employs 14 000 people.

In comparison, the economic contribution of the commercial sector is estimated at half a billion and only employs 4 000.

http://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/499302/UOW-statewide-economic-survey-final-report.pdf

http://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/fisheries/commercial

As the manager of the fisheries for the people of NSW, the Government has the responsibility to maximise the use of the fisheries resource. There is clear evidence that this is not happening and that a rebalance between commercial fishers and recreational fishers is required, with an outcome that is closer to the economic contribution of each to the economy.

The question is: will our political leaders have the political nerve to make the changes that need to be made to the commercial sector in NSW to make this happen?

With the previous Fisheries Minister Katrina Hodgkinson recently demoted from the new NSW Coalition Ministry, it will be interesting to see hoe new Minister Niall Blair tackles this issue.