New minister signals positive change for NSW anglers

ALLOWING anglers access to water storage areas, opening up areas in marine parks to sportfishing and improving native fish stocks are some of the issues newly appointed Fisheries Minister Niall Blair wants to examine.

The Goulburn-based Nationals MLC replaced Katrina Hodgkinson as Primary Industries Minister following the recent NSW election. As well as agriculture and fisheries, Blair is responsible for the lands and water portfolio.

In an interview with Fisho earlier this week, Blair, who describes himself as a “huge advocate” for recreational fishing, described the pleasure he and his young son take when fishing for bass in Tallowa Dam from their Canadian canoe.

“Tallowa is our favourite place. We really enjoy surface fishing with Jitterbugs when the cicadas are active. Catching bass in Tallowa with my young bloke is what I like to do to get away from it all.”

In a move that demonstrates the growing importance of the recreational sector, Blair described angling as “a big contributor to the NSW economy”.

“What’s been underestimated is the social impact that rec fishing has,” he told Fisho.

One of Blair’s first actions as Fisheries Minister was to open expressions of interest for a new advisory body representing the angling sector (see story HERE). The Minister will rely on the Recreational Fishing NSW Advisory Council to give him high-level advice on a range of issues affecting the rec-fishing sector.

Reforming the issue-plagued commercial fishing industry is key to the NSW recreational sector achieving its full potential, Blair said. Various governments and fisheries ministers have for years unsuccessfully attempted to make the commercial sector viable. But that could well change under Blair’s leadership.

The current uncertainty in the commercial industry is a “problem” for the rec sector, the Minister said, citing recent conflict in Tuggerah Lakes and the Hawkesbury River as being indicative of the need for reform.

“Our plans for the commercial sector would address those issues,” he said. Reform would be “sympathetic” to the needs of commercial operators and would not be based on a “one size fits all” strategy.

“The challenge is coming up with a sustainable fisheries sector that looks after both rec and commercial interests,” Minister Blair said.

“If we don’t get this commercial reform right there are some risk factors which would not only affect the commercial sector but also have a significant impact on rec fishing as well.

“That’s why I’m going to get that reform progressed and done appropriately.”

In an interesting move, Blair has become the first Fisheries Minister in Fisho’s knowledge to implicitly recognise the need for the recreational and commercial sectors to be managed separately.

He said he “absolutely” recognises that the rec and commercial sectors differ markedly in methods, outcomes and expectations. Each sector needs to be managed in order to maximise its own unique benefits

“My young bloke and I going out in our canoe to catch & release a few fish is ultimately different to someone running a commercial netting operation going out (to catch fish for sale to the public),” the Minister said.

In an example of the importance he places on the rec sector needing to define what it requires in regard to management and policy decisions, Blair said he would rely on advice from the new Council before making any decisions on extra recreational fishing havens that may be possible as part of the commercial reform program.

“When we make decisions I want a good group of people that represent all of the regional areas to be able to advise me on issues that affect the rec sector,” he said.

“Too many decisions have been taken in the past concerning fishing that have not been based on good information, good science and good consultation. Anything I want to do in this area will have to be based on best practice, information and consultation with people who may be affected.

“That’s where the new advisory council will step in and (any new RFHs) would be the sort of issues we’d be putting to them.”

While the possibility of extra net-free areas is doubtless of great appeal to NSW’s coastal anglers, Blair is based in an inland electorate and is acutely aware of the problems facing native fish populations.

He describes himself as a “big supporter” of breeding and restocking of native species in rivers and impoundments. Having fished the Murrumbidgee and other western flowing rivers he is well aware of the threat posed by invasive pest species such as carp and redfin. He says a priority is to put a “dent” in carp numbers in the Murray-Darling system.

Blair’s ministerial responsibilities for lands and water, as well as fisheries, could well have a beneficial impact on NSW’s native fisheries. The requirements of native fish, and the anglers who target them, have tended to be overlooked when making decisions about rivers flows and water allocation, Blair said.

“Due to the socio-economic importance of rec fishing to regional areas, I want to make sure that fishing is one of the factors that’s looked at when we are thinking about these issues.

“In some of the areas around the state where people may be doing it tough there’s no better way to get away and clear your head than to go fishing. Ideally this would result in people catching ‘proper’ fish, not just ending up throwing carp on the bank,” Minister Blair said.

As well as improving river health and boosting native fish populations, Blair is keen to explore other ways to increase freshwater fishing opportunities. The potential for rec fishing access to water storage areas is an issue he’s passionate about – it’s not hard to see that the bass fishing he has enjoyed in Tallowa has had an influence on his thinking in this regard.

Blair cites Bundanoon Creek Dam in the Southern Highlands as an example of the sort of proactive fisheries enhancement he’d like to see happen across the state. This relatively small water supply dam is stocked with bass and is part of the Tallowa Dam system. It’s recently been opened to shore and canoe based fishing activities and will doubtless be a boon for local anglers.

In a move that’s sure to stir up anti-fishing extremists, Blair is open in his support for continued re-examination of the state’s marine park system, saying that the relaxation of some lockout zones on NSW beaches and rocky headlands was a “good start”.

“I’m absolutely in favour of looking at opening up rec fishing in other areas within NSW’s marine park network,” he said.

“The decisions we make in this area have to be based on the best available science, good consultation and they need to be achievable.”

A further example of Blair’s refreshingly proactive attitude to the fisheries portfolio involves his support for the state’s burgeoning aquaculture industry.

Instead of relying on the depletion of wild stocks to supply fresh seafood, Blair is keen to see aquaculture industry developed in order to supply more seafood to NSW consumers.

“We currently import about 80 per cent of seafood but if we can claw back some of that import catch through the use of aquaculture that may have flow on benefits to a range of areas, including the rec sector,” he said.

In the past, plenty of fisheries ministers from both sides of politics have started out promising positive change for the recreational sector. It will be interesting to see how Niall Blair deals with the seemingly eternally fractious commercial sector and see if he follows through with his bold visions for developing the recreational and aquaculture sectors.

At this stage all that can be said is that he is certainly saying all the right things …

Jim Harnwell is the editor and publisher of Fishing World. He has long had a keen interest in fishing politics and policy development.

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