COMMENT: NSW Bag & Size Review: options to consider

THE bag and size review recently instigated by NSW Fisheries is causing a deal of disquiet in recreational fishing circles. Adding fuel to the fire is the announcement last week of fee increases in the licences we pay for the ‘right’ to fish. The unfortunate timing of this fee increase has served to exacerbate angler angst about the bag and size issue, leading to protests and calls to reject the proposals out of hand.

All up, this review process has been something of a PR disaster for a government already on the nose due to a series of contentious decisions relating to recreational fishing.

That said, my personal view is some of the changes proposed under the bag and size limit review make a good deal of sense. For instance, there aren’t too many anglers who can reasonably oppose reducing bag limits on popular species such as bream and luderick. After all, who really needs to take 20 bream? Surely 10 is enough for anyone?

However, when you get to prestigous species like kingfish, which are proposed to drop from five to just two fish per day, the argument gets more complex and incendiary. Kingie stocks have rebounded substantially from the bad old days of floating fish traps. While the fish have bounced back, there are significant concerns the species is ‘growth over fished’ – that is, too many immature fish are being taken out of the system. Reducing recreational bag limits, as proposed by Fisheries, is one way to manage this problem.

This approach, however, is a bit of a blunt instrument, especially for a fishery which has so far been lauded as being something of a ‘success story’.

A better option by which to ensure the long-term sustainability of the kingie fishery could be to look at increasing the legal size for these fast-growing fish. While I’m no fisheries expert, the science I’ve seen lately is pretty clear that kingies don’t reproduce until at least 75cm. The current size limit is 65cm, which means fish can be taken before they have a chance to breed, hence the ‘growth over fished’ issue.

I like eating fresh kingfish as much as anyone. I can understand that a fisho travelling from, say, Canberra to Eden to fish for kingies would want to take a decent feed home in order to ‘justify’ the trip.

So, instead of limiting us to two fish of at least 65cm, why doesn’t Fisheries raise the size limit to 75cm and allow us to take three or maybe four fish, with a possession limit of five per angler?

This size increase option would almost certainly result in more kingies reproducing before being taken (by either us or the commercials), thus resulting in a better fishery in regards to fish numbers and size. This option also allows anglers the chance to catch a decent feed and to stock the freezer, if they so desire.

As studies show kingfish handle catch and release very well, letting undersized fish go should not be too much of an issue, for either us or for commercial operators.

I’ve noted recent calls by angling groups for “proper science” to be used when making decisions about these potential bag and size limit changes. The NSW Government has been vocal about wanting to use ‘science’ as the core of its fisheries management protocols. Well, as far as kingfish are concerned, the science shows that 65cm fish are, by and large, sexually immature. So that means a size limit increase should be given serious consideration. It is, after all, pretty hard to argue against the scientific facts as currently stated…

Another species that could benefit from a size increase is snapper. Reds have always been a popular angling target and, unfortunately, there is increasing concern that east coast stocks are being hit hard. While catch and release is becoming more and more common for this species, many anglers (myself included) enjoy eating snapper. Personally, I don’t let many snapper go but, like any responsible fisho, I want to do my bit to ensure the fishery is sustainable.

The science I’ve seen indicates snapper breed at fairly small sizes – about 28cm – so why not increase the size limit to, say, 40cm or 45cm to allow more breeding to occur before the fish are harvested? A daily bag limit of five decent sized reds seems sensible – again, how many do you need, especially if you’re lucky enough to catch a couple of pannies and maybe a solid 5-6kg fish? That’s a couple of great family meals, plus a few fillets for the freezer. Post-release survival of smaller snapper seems reasonable too, especially in shallower water or if using a release weight.

There are a host of other issues relating to the proposed bag and size limit review that I could talk about. For instance, I’m not sold on some of the proposed changes to crabbing. Instead of bans or limits on when we can catch a few muddies or blue swimmers, I’d prefer to see changes to traps or nets in order to alleviate the various concerns Fisheries has highlighted.

Also, I can’t see why the ‘slot limits’ introduced in Queensland for fish such as flathead haven’t been considered in NSW. The data I’ve seen seems to indicate the slot limit concept works extremely well and is helping support a very sustainable fishery for this popular bread and butter species.

Most importantly, I’m not at all keen on having any changes go through before management of the commercial sector is addressed. Making changes, some of which are fairly radical, to how we (recreational anglers) access fish resources doesn’t, in my mind, make sense unless done in concert with the commercial netters, trappers and line fishers. I know many other anglers are concerned about this apparent flaw in the government’s plans involving bag and size limits. This particular issue is a big fly in the ointment and needs to be addressed.

That said, this bag and size limit review presents us with a rare opportunity to have a proactive discussion on how we want our fisheries managed. Surely we all want the healthiest, most diverse and most sustainable fishery we can get – for us, for our kids and for future generations. It seems to me we need approach this issue with an open mind.

Given that sentiment, it’s disappointing to see so many fishos take what I see to be a fairly blinkered and negative view on the bag and size proposals. There is no doubt that some, perhaps many, of the ideas presented aren’t workable and, as such, need amendment or complete rejection. Equally, it’s clear that other aspects of the review are worth careful consideration, discussion and implementation.

I’d like to think the recreational fishing community in NSW is mature and organised enough to take the lead on these issues. While it’s obvious we should engage in rigorous and open debate about the size and bag limit proposals, I feel strongly that we shouldn’t necessarily let the politics of negativity dictate how we respond to this particular concern.

It’s always easy to just say “no” whenever change is offered. Perhaps, in situations like this, it might be worth looking at things objectively. Instead of automatically responding with anger and opposition, we should instead offer alternative options and fresh ways of thinking.

There are just a couple of days left for us to have our say on these bag and size limit proposals. The next review won’t be for several years, at least. The NSW Fisheries proposals aren’t perfect. That said, they’re not totally without merit.

I urge you to give this important issue careful consideration. It goes without saying, you should feel free to criticise any elements of the proposal about which you have concerns. You should also, in all fairness, make an effort to contribute new and positive ideas.

Jim Harnwell is the editor and publisher of Fishing World.

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