OPINION: A case for rec fishing in green zones

THE current debate on recreational fishers being locked out of marine protected areas has intensified in recent days with Minister Burke’s announcement of the proposed Commonwealth Marine Park Reserve System. Recent estimates suggest at least one in seven Australians continue to enjoy the physical, psychological, leisure and nutritional benefits that recreational fishing provides. This is shaping up to be a big-ticket election issue for both the government and opposition and is almost certain to come up as a topic of discussion at social gathering across the nation.

No-take green zones stem from a notion proposed by French fishery scientist Marcel Herubel. Some 100 years ago he set out a theory of marine reserves as places protected from fishing as a tool to help manage fisheries. This theory has now been adopted as a policy instrument to protect fish stocks around the world. At a national level, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park planning resulted in areas being closed to recreational fishing in 1988.

Given this fact, no-take green zones have been part of the recreational fishing “furniture” for me as an avid fisherman growing up close to the Capricorn Coast. For as long as I can remember places around the Keppels, like Egg Rock and east of Halfway Island, have been off limits to fishing.

Recent research like that recently published by Hugo Harrison on coral trout is confirming Huebel’s predictions. The coral trout is a highly sought after fish targeted extensively in the Great Barrier Reef. Harrison’s studies were centred on the Keppel Islands and found that coral trout in green zones are growing bigger and providing a larger proportion of fingerlings than areas open to catch and keep recreational fishing.

The Keppel Bay Sportfishing Club has been helping out Harrison and his colleagues with their research. As a member of this club I recently enjoyed several trips helping these researchers catch, tag and release coral trout and other fish at Egg Rock and Middle Island. As a recreational fisherman it is difficult to argue with the research when personally involved. I must admit that the coral trout were more plentiful and bigger in the green zones and intuitively I accept that the no take areas have potential to produce fingerlings in greater numbers than areas open to catch and keep fishing.

If we accept these findings at first glance it would seem that locking recreational fishermen out of certain areas is the unpopular policy decision that must be made. This decision is rationalised through condescending platitudes made by those obviously not attached emotionally to the life and art of fishing like “it is for their own good as recreational fishers if they want to continue taking home bags of fish”.
However, the reality is that we are no longer the stereotypical recreational fishermen that the esteemed French fishery scientist came across in his day. We have demonstrated that we are willing to change and adapt. In the 1990s recreational anglers across Australia started to embrace the practice of catch and release fishing. Rex Hunt and others espoused the values of catching them, kissing them and putting them back and we followed suite. Today, countless fishing tournaments like the ABT series and the Rockhampton Barra Bounty are completely catch and release, testament to the broad-scale adoption of such practices.

Mortality from catch and release fishing is insignificant in shallow waters and for pelagic species where the risks of barotrauma are negligible. Ben Diggles and his research colleague completed a catch and release study on similar shallow water reef species on the Great Barrier Reef and found that 98 per cent of fish survived. This survival rate rose to 99.6 per cent with lure caught fish. Which begs the question, Could green zones remain no-take and deliver all the benefits confirmed by Hugo Harrison and others while supporting a vibrant catch and release fishery? I believe this is the case.

If this is the case, then perhaps what concerns policy makers is whether recreational fishers can be trusted to honour no-take catch and release provisions in green zones. According to a study completed by the Australian Institute of Criminology in 2007, the large majority of recreational fishers are believed to be compliant. I think that the minority who are non-compliant would fish in green zones regardless of whether these are either managed as no-take or catch and release areas. In this case the impact on fisheries and the level and intensity of resources required for compliance activities to apprehend and prosecute such individuals will be similar regardless of whether green zones are locked up or catch and release fishing is permitted.

I love a feed of fish and make a point to eat what is caught two or three times a week. But even with this high consumption rate the majority of fish caught are released. I will often catch, tag and release fish all day for the pure joy of being connected to nature. A meaningful percentage of the recreational fishing sector shares a similar fishing philosophy and would be more than content spending a percentage of their fishing experiences catching and releasing fish in green zones.

I suspect that even the most extreme green groups have to accept the scientific merit of catch and release fishing in green zones. This only leaves animal liberationists who would be uncomfortable with this policy decision. Fortunately for recreational fishers these marine protected areas are about protecting fisheries and associated ecosystems and not about animal liberation, or so we all hope.

So, given catch and release fishing will deliver the same outcome as a lock it up approach in green zones, what is the barrier to its adoption? I suspect that the greatest barrier now resides with the ability for the government to modify existing frameworks to accommodate for this reality. Unfortunately the policy ship is hard one to turn once it has set off in a certain direction.
If green zones are going to be a reality, I believe the preferred approach from the perspective of many recreational fishers would be to give the tick to fishing in both the recreational fishing and fishing tourism boxes for IUCN Category II marine park zone and add a catch and release only provision to the end-note. Simple!
My fear is that this option will prove all too difficult. I hope this is not the case but for this reason I propose another option. It is the poor cousin alternative but if my fears are warranted, it may be better than facing a complete lock out. This option involves establishment and maintenance of a large-scale catch, tag and release monitoring program for recreational fishers and fishing charter operators in green zones. In my mind this is the absolute minimum that should be accepted, perhaps it is even conceding too much.

This type of monitoring program can easily be accommodated for under the research and monitoring provisions of the current Marine Protected Areas framework. If government and policy makers take this path, then this monitoring program must be appropriately funded as part of the compensation package for recreational fishers. These resources would support development conditions for the monitoring program, training and accreditation, equipment, databases and reporting processes all required to ensure this program is a success. The monitoring program would be open to all recreational fishers that meet agreed accreditation provisions and commit to undertaking tagging and monitoring requirements of the agreed program.

In the coming months decisions will be made that impact on long-term management of our fisheries. The government has the opportunity to heed the advice of the best available science that supports catch and release fishing in green zones or lock millions of anglers out of these areas forever. Lets hope sense prevails.

About the author
: Nathan Johnston is the Publicity Officer for Keppel Bay Sportfishing Club and sits on the executive of the Australian National Sportfishing Association’s Queensland Branch. He is a participant of the Future Leaders in Recreational Fishing Program and a keynote speaker at the upcoming National Recreational Fishing Conference being held on the Gold Coast in August. Nathan is facilitating development of a national recreational fishing best management practice initiative in his role as Partnerships Manager with the Fitzroy Basin Association. Nathan is the Executive Officer of the Fitzroy Partnership for River Health, which has been established to provide a comprehensive waterway health report for the Fitzroy Basin and Keppel Bay. This is an opinion piece and the views outlined are influenced by Nathan’s experiences in such roles but do not necessarily reflect the official position of such organisations.

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