The groper dilemma

THE state fish of NSW is the eastern blue groper. It’s not really a groper at all, rather a large wrasse that grows to around 1m and 18kg. It’s a very attractive fish that in some locations, such as Sydney’s Clovelly Bay, has become tame enough to be hand fed by snorkelers. Clovelly Bay and the adjacent Gordon’s Bay sit within the Bronte-Coogee Aquatic Reserve, designated as zone B. Within this zone, groper is a no-take species. Outside, in zone A which extends to Coogee beach in the south and Bronte Beach in the north, the usual restrictions on groper apply. They can’t be speared, but line anglers can keep two per day. The minimum size is 30cm and only one of the two can be over 60cm.

Currently a group of local residents is campaigning to extend the zone B restrictions to include all of zone A. This raises a significant issue for DPI Fisheries, but first some historical background.

The spear fishing boom of the 1950s and ’60s, combined with the use of commercial bottom-set nets, almost wiped the species out. The then Department of Fisheries responded by banning the problematic nets and making the blue groper a no-take species, by any means. When I started rock fishing around Sydney in the 1960’s, landing and releasing a blue groper was a cause for celebration, due to their rarity. Happily, the intervention was in time to allow groper stocks to quickly rebuild, and after a few years the total ban was relaxed to allow the introduction of a two fish per angler daily bag limit, by line only. Some anglers chose to continue to release all groper landed, but groper are very good to eat, so others chose and continue to choose to keep their allowable limit.

During the premiership of Bob Carr, who lives quite near, the groper got some increased protection. A couple of ratbag spearos killed groper at Clovelly and created media and public indignation. The” Who killed Bluey?”  headlines proved to be a bit over the top when Bluey reappeared at Clovelly and photos showed that the speared groper were actually large females rather than the big resident blue male. Groper live in harems, with one big blue and ten or twelve females, which are usually brown spotted with some blue markings. There’s also a red form. And to complete the confusion, when the big blue male dies (by whatever means), the largest female turns into a male.

But post the spearings, we got the no-take zones and the only one over 60cm bag limit rule. And now the move to extend the zone.

On one hand, the extension makes sense. There’s always a chance that groper are caught and kept just outside the protected area, as they can’t read signs, and this is a clearly distressing prospect to the people who love swimming with and feeding the resident population. But DPI’s position has traditionally been that you link declaration of no-take species to sustainability issues, and in the groper’s case, there isn’t currently a worry. Tricky. And while I and many of my fishing mates release all the groper we catch, usually when targeting pigs and bream, that’s a personal decision rather than a mandated one.

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