Environment News: Saltwater stocking update

NSW Fisheries (aka DPI) stocks around 6 million freshwater fish per year into the state’s dams and rivers, a mixture of natives and salmonids. They have contributed to top class fishing opportunities around the regions and made significant contributions to local economies. We fishing writers, while always ready to have a go at government decisions favouring marine protected areas and commercial fishing, sometimes neglect to acknowledge this contribution when writing about cod comebacks in the rivers and world-class trout fishing.

On the saltwater scene, much less stocking occurs. Since 2004, trials have seen around 127,000 mulloway and 5 million eastern king prawns stocked into selected areas, but nothing on the scale of what happens in the USA. In Texas alone, Fish & Wildlife stocks 20-30 million red drum (a mulloway relative) per year. US anglers, predictably, love this, as do the Sydney south fishos rumoured to be currently scoring mature mulloway originally stocked as fingerlings into Botany Bay in trials.

One reason that saltwater stocking hasn’t taken off more dramatically is that NSW environmental and fisheries legislation requires thorough analyses of the impacts, costs and benefits of any “tinkering” with the natural balance of estuarine systems. But in late 2011, after several years of development, DPI /Fisheries released its Marine Fish Stocking Environmental Impact Statement / draft Fisheries Management Strategy for comment.

It’s a massive three volume document which contains a wealth of information on species considered, site selection, environmental risks, monitoring regimes and economic impact.

Seven species made the final short list as being suitable for stocking purposes, based on factors such as ease of reproduction in hatcheries, attractiveness to fishers and lack of threat to existing populations and genetic integrity. Many others were considered but didn’t make the cut, for various reasons. The “finalists” are yellowfin bream, mulloway, dusky flathead, sand whiting, eastern king prawns, giant mud crabs and blue swimmer crabs. When exposed to the “value for money” test, that is do they return more economic benefit than the cost of stocking, only the whiting didn’t really stack up.

The state’s 158 estuaries were all evaluated as to their suitability for stocking and the 80 that weren’t rejected as being too small, in conservation areas or prone to drying out periodically were ranked for each species. What we now have is a matrixed draft strategy which could boost angler catches, shift commercial effort from more fragile wild-bred species, boost the hatchery industry and produce regional economic flow-on benefits.

So what happens now? The stakeholder inputs will be considered and presumably a recommendation will then go to the Minister/Government. The economic modelling was based on an initial $300,000 per annum budget, which at roughly a $1 per fingerling would mean 300,000 fish per year. Not a lot, but maybe the start of something big. If you’ve seen recent footage of US anglers catching big numbers of thumping red drum out of kayaks close to city centres….that’s what saltwater restocking could potentially achieve.

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