Fish Facts

Fish Facts: Boyne’s barra bonanza

THE overflow of Awoonga Dam in Central Queensland in January 2011 sparked an unprecedented gold rush for sportfishers wanting to target trophy barramundi in a riverine environment. The story about Awoonga Dam and its trophy barra has been told numerous times, but the latest chapter has provided an interesting twist.

Such was the amount of rain that fell in the catchment of the Boyne River, Awoonga Dam not only overflowed, it went as high as 4.16 metres above the spillway, sending massive volumes of water into the river. Large numbers of fish, mainly barra, mullet and eels, were observed in the vicinity of the dam wall as the water rose, and once it began to spill, over they went as they attempted to satisfy their natural urges that require spawning to occur in the estuary (barra), inshore (mullet) or oceanic (eels) waters. The spillway at Awoonga is reasonably fish friendly, with a gradual slope, but its still 40 metres high, and because this was the first time the dam had spilled since large scale fish stocking was undertaken, some casualties were inevitable.

A few thousand large barramundi were reported floating dead in the river downstream, with carcasses reported all the way to the river mouth. However, based on tagging data and observations of the number of fish that went over the spillway, the proportion of dead fish that didn’t make it was only a fraction of the estimated 20,000 fish that went over the top. Given that Awoonga Dam had been stocked with literally millions of fish over the preceding decade for recreational purposes to attract fishing tourism to the region, this suggests the lake still holds huge numbers of large (including world record sized) barramundi. But (at the time of writing) the Boyne River holds a decent population of trophy fish too.

Kurt Hutchby, manager of the Gladstone Area Water Board (GAWB) fish hatchery that supplies the barra, mullet, and mangrove jack fingerlings that are stocked into the dam, has been charged with the responsibility for assessing what happened when the dam overflowed for the first time since stocking commenced. Kurt said there were mixed reactions from locals, but an overwhelmingly positive reaction from keen anglers from around the country, who have converged on the mid and lower reaches of the Boyne to enjoy some mindblowing sessions on trophy fish that begin around 80cm and go well over the 120 cm mark. And in contrast to the lake dwelling fish, which can be hard to catch at times, the river fish have been reportedly more willing to co-operate.

Most recreational anglers are doing well and releasing the majority of fish caught for others to enjoy, with many also sampling salty barra that are reportedly cleaning up well compared to their swampy tasting lake counterparts. Releasing such large fish requires anglers to be aware of some commonsense fish handling basics, such as leaving fish in the water if you can, and if you want that photo of a once in a lifetime catch, keeping air exposure to the minimum, never lifting by the jaw alone and fully supporting the fish. There are reports of two recreational anglers in 1 boat releasing 40 odd fish, but holding every one of them up by the bottom jaw (for reasons that reman unknown). After their session, 28 were found dead or near dead below where they were fishing. Maybe signs that educate anglers on best practice methods for releasing fish are needed at nearby boat ramps?

Commercial netters were also very active in the river (related story HERE), generating conflict with anglers. It is understood that the market was flooded with many tonnes of trophy barramundi at a landed price of around $4.50/kg. That makes a 20kg trophy barra worth only a fraction of its value to an interstate angler looking to snag a trophy fish. GAWB, local tourism groups and QLD fisheries will need to look and learn from this experience to determine how to best manage the bonus barra bonanza in the Boyne.

It’s worth remembering the barra were stocked in the first place to provide recreational and tourism opportunities. If managed well, the latest events could have provided Gladstone with another string to its trophy barra fishing bow and sustainable socio-economic benefits from angling tourism for many years to come. However, it looks as though a gold rush mentality prevailed, and the river fishing bonanza is virtually over – a “chalk and cheese” comparison with how the recreational-only barra fishing in the lake has been managed for the previous decade.

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