Opinion: Anglers should have been consulted about netting “reforms”

THE furore generated by moves to radically increase coastal netting activities could have been avoided if NSW commercial fisheries managers had shown a bit of common sense.

This unfortunate scenario again demonstrates that NSW Fisheries remains focused on looking after the interests of the commercial sector. The state’s 1 million recreational anglers, on the other hand, continue to be dealt with via the rough end of the pineapple.

This has to change. Fisheries management in NSW has to become much fairer and more equitable.

The commercial fisheries reform process all this hoo-haa stems from is complex and multi-faceted.

In very simple terms, here’s an overview of what’s going on:

The NSW commercial fishing industry has been unviable for decades. There are basically too many operators taking too many fish for too little money. A major restructure is being planned which will see the number of operators significantly reduced. To stay in the industry the pros will need to buy “shares” in a fishery.

The hope is this process will thin the sector out, leaving a smaller number of business savvy operators to supply seafood for consumers and the export market as opposed to lots of inefficient and unprofitable small time players all competing against each other. Those operators left will be further restricted by catch limits.

In very generalist terms, the idea is to weed out the “Ma and Pa” operators and encourage a more corporate structure to emerge. In many ways, it’s similar to a situation where a number of corner stores in a small town might be replaced by one much bigger supermarket.

Obviously many in the commercial sector aren’t happy with this scenario – even though all who lose their businesses will be compensated and/or be able to sell their shares.

The “consultation papers” outlining increased netting activity was an attempt by commercial fisheries managers to mollify a heap of pissed off pros. This release of the papers has backfired big time as the department is now being deluged with complaints from both the pros and the recreational sector.

The changes being put forward are basically a “wish list” by the commercial sector. They want to gain further access to fisheries in return for accepting the changes the DPI wants to impose on them.

It has to be said that many of the proposed changes – most of which are patently silly – just won’t get through. There will be way too much public opposition.

Aside from very real concerns about the sustainability of fish stocks and probable declines in rec fishing opportunities, the key point here is that our sector should have been accorded the courtesy of being informed of what the pros were wanting.

But we weren’t. And that omission can only be seen as mis-management on the part of the Fisheries bureaucrats involved.

Lest it be said that Fisho is being overtly one-sided on this issue, it has to be acknowledged that the commercials are being asked to accept major structural readjustments. These changes, if implemented, will cause serious pain and hardship to some operators. That said, those who remain stand to benefit significantly. And those who are pushed out will be fairly compensated.

Apart from the regrettable lack of communication, the big issue concerning anglers is that this whole process has focused on managing NSW’s fishery solely from the commercial sector perspective. The recreational sector had no input into any of the proposals being put forward.

I can tell you right now there’s no way that would have happened if it was our side putting forward a “wish list” of changes. The pros and their departmental managers would have been in there telling us what we could and couldn’t do.

The fact that this hasn’t happened is symptomatic of the way NSW Fisheries operates. The commercial sector is just about always given preference. The rec sector, on the other hand, is too often regarded as bit players.

There’s no doubt that the commercial fishing sector is an important part of the state’s economy. As such, it obviously it should be supported and developed. But compared to the money rec fishing brings in, it’s small fry. We contribute literally billions more dollars than the commercials. We generate thousands more jobs. So why doesn’t Fisheries recognise this?

Truth is, they do but their corporate structure has always been focused on commercial fishing. The good news is that’s changing, albeit slowly. For example, NSW Fisheries employs an excellent team of recreational fishing managers. I know these blokes and I can guarantee they are in there batting for us. Unfortunately, their colleagues in the commercial department still live in the Stone Age … and that remains a big problem that needs to be dealt with if NSW Fisheries is to be an effective manager of our collective fisheries resources.

While what the pros are asking for and the way their “wish list” was released remain as significant concerns, in the long-term there is potential for the rec fishery to benefit from changes stemming from reform of the commercial sector. For instance, we could use trust fund money to buy shares in a fishery and thus create more rec fishing havens. And it’s hoped that fewer but more efficient commercial operators will have less impact on fish stocks as a result of the strict catch limits that will be imposed.

Despite these possible benefits, it’s disappointing that errors of judgment from commercial fisheries managers in releasing the “wish list” information without consultation has now compromised the entire reform process.

All that said, there’s little point focusing on what went wrong. Far better to instead ensure past mistakes aren’t repeated.

In Fisho’s view, senior Fisheries officials probably need to have a little talk with the guys from the commercial department and impress on them the need for a more inclusive approach to their reform agenda as it moves forward.

Perhaps more importantly, we – ie, anglers – need to make sure NSW Fisheries knows how we feel about the proposals already released. As we understand it, consultation meetings are being planned. And it’s good to know that promises have been made from pretty high up the Fisheries management chain that our voices will be heard and our concerns considered and acted on as appropriate. We’ll keep you in the loop on how that progresses …

Meantime, have your say HERE.

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