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Land Based Game: Tagging for the future

A big, healthy kingfish tagged and released from the rocks!

IT is a common saying of anglers to “imagine going back in time 100 years and fishing this spot”. This relates to gamefish in particular once being far more abundant than they are at present. I am often reminded of this by more senior LBG anglers as they talk of the glory days of the ’70s and ’80s: “big barrel Yellowfin tuna busting up” off the South Coast rocks and “Spanish mackerel so thick you’d run out of lures” off the North Coast.

Unfortunately, it is has come to the situation where anglers should consider more than just “taking what you can catch”. It’s important to do what we can to ensure future generations get to enjoy fishing as much as we do.

Fish stocks are influenced by many natural factors and by various human activities, the most direct of which is fishing. While super-trawlers and bottom trawling are known to be the most destructive forms of fishing (and should not be related to recreational angling!), news that the government has allowed the operation of the 95m trawler the Geelong Star is very disturbing. A trawler like this could have a large impact on the small pelagic fishery (SPF), an area covering many iconic fishing grounds around Australia’s coastal waters.

Modern innovations in sonar technology are providing clearer visuals of what lies beneath the surface of the water, allowing super-trawlers to wipe out vast schools of fish; it’s right to believe that the outlook of our oceans is looking ominous.

Fishing for the future
As recreational anglers it is important to be proactive in understanding the ways we can enjoy Australia’s favourite pastime and still minimise our impact on the ocean. It’s no secret that recreational anglers are well informed when it comes to the marine environment, often having valuable knowledge and experience on various fish and wildlife habitats often overlooked by various so called “green” groups.

What some of these groups fail to realise is that recreational angling can be used as a tool to better understand fish and their habitats. With a more informed and proactive recreational angling basis, more information and data could be gained to make practical decisions and solutions with regards to marine parks and commercial overfishing, After all, no one cares about the ocean more than those who use all of their spare time on/or in it.

Tagging program
The NSW Department of Primary Industries Game Fish Tagging Program is one recreational fishing tool that is greatly beneficial to the understanding and conservation of various species of game fish. This program is the largest saltwater tagging program of its kind in the world, with more than 360,000 fish tagged since 1973. The program has shown that game fish handle the stresses of capture, tagging and release pretty well. They survive and are capable of travelling huge distances after liberation – up and down the coast, across oceans and even around entire continents. Everyone wins: the fish get to go free and, if they’re recaptured, we get to learn a little more about their growth rates, age, distribution, movements and the overall health of their stocks.

This chunky longtail tuna was carefully “washed-up”, tagged and released.

LBG tagging
Game fish tagging is most well known for its use on blue, black and striped marlin, often performed from big game boats with the use of a long tagging pole.

I’ve always liked tagging game fish and wondering where they’d next end up and I often look at the DPI fisheries Facebook page to see their tagging updates. However, it only recently occurred to me to begin tagging pelagic fish when targeting them from the rocks when land based game fishing. So far we have begun tagging the recreational only species the longtail (northern bluefin) tuna and its often elusive mates, the Spanish mackerel and cobia.

While tagging fish from game boats is relatively easy, tagging game fish from the rocks poses multiple obstacles, the first and foremost concern is safety. To be able to tag a fish from the rocks you almost certainly need to be able to get it out of the surging wash. This is usually done by the use of a gaff, however, this will in most cases see the fish die.

The use of a very large net or being able to “wash up” the fish is obviously the only option to being able to tag them, but this can be dangerous at times in unsuitable conditions. Small swell and safer, more protected rock ledges are vital when performing tagging off the rocks. Locations with small rockpools are also favourable as they allow you to hold the fish in the water while you insert the tag, keeping them in better condition for release.

As a general rule we usually wash the fish up, hold it in a rockpool, insert the tag and get a very quick picture on the way to returning it to the ocean. I can honestly say by doing this I have seen every fish swim away in good health, on average.

This longtail tuna was tagged by Patrick spinning the rocks at Port Macquire and was recaptured a month later by Paul Lennon at Port Stephens!

After beginning the tagging program off the rocks in early 2014, I have since preferred only fishing in locations and on days where the conditions will allow it. For me it has become almost as exciting as catching the fish itself. To be able to land the fish, tag it, capture a photo (for this article!) and release it in a matter of seconds is quite the feat. This is definitely a team effort often involving two or three people and is generally a frantic few moments. Due to the vastness of the ocean and the numbers of fish scattered out there, only a small percentage of tagged fish ever get recovered. Each recapture is treasured!

While land based game anglers aren’t known to catch many of their target game fish in the short season, the rising popularity of the sport means that more and more anglers are giving it a go with recent trends favouring to release the fish, so why not tag it? This could mean that more data and information could be collected than from a sprinkling of boats fishing for inshore game fish such as longtail tuna, kingfish, cobia and Spanish mackerel. Which makes it an avenue worth pursuing!

Adapting Equipment
To be able to release the fish in the best possible condition, several minor changes have been made to my fishing equipment. Fishing with heavier line is helpful, and I have gone from fishing light 20lb (PE2) line classes to heavier 30lb-50lb (PE4) line classes. I have found this ensures a shorter fighting period and puts less strain on the fish, helping the survival rate. Tuna in particular are known to exhaust themselves and that can hinder the success of tagging them. I also use a longer leader to help when washing the fish up. A leader length of around 4-5 metres enables you to get a few wraps of leader on the spool of the reel to be more confident on muscling the fish around in the wash.

If using baits, non-offset circle hooks should be used to ensure the hook can be removed from the jaw more easily. These hooks minimise deep hooking, foul hooking and bleeding and promote the survival of tagged fish. While single hooks may be better to use on lures for their ease of being removed, I am still using trebles as I am more confident on initially hooking the fish with them. A pair of pliers is a necessity to remove the hooks as quickly as possible.

Be prepared to get a little wet when landing the fish and also keeping it in the water of a rockpool or beach (if the location allows it). A good pair of water shoes from a reputable brand such as Salomon, Keen or Merrel will also make the experience a lot easier. The use of a slim, fishing specific PFD can also be a good idea and a high level of rock fishing experience coupled with strong general knowledge of the ocean is essential.

The DPI provides the pelagic tags and a small tool to insert the tag, free of charge. Not a bad program to spend part of the revenue of the recreational fishing licence fee if you ask me! I have bound the tagging needle to a short length of broom handle that makes inserting the tag much easier. The pelagic tags are designed to lock into the bony structures of the dorsal fin or second dorsal fin in order to stay in position.

While land based game fish tagging may be a relatively niche aspect of the tagging program as a whole, certain species such as longtail tuna and cobia for example are regular catches. This means that the contribution land based game anglers make to the program may be directly responsible for some of the research and data collected in the future to help ensure we have a healthy seasonal run of land based target species.

Makes the effort more than worthwhile, don’t you agree? 

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