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Opinion: Changes to SBT bag limits – Good or bad?

THERE’S no doubt that the resurgence in southern bluefin tuna stocks has been a massive boon for gamefishing in southern Australia. The past several seasons have seen legions of anglers heading out wide to target these great gamefish. The economic benefit of this influx of anglers, many of whom travel great distances, is undeniable.

However, there’s also little doubt that SBT stocks are still fragile. The biomass of these fish is just a fraction of what it was 50 years ago. Unlike yellowfin or albacore, SBT take a long time to reach sexual maturity. This means they need to be carefully managed if stocks are to continue to recover.

The NSW Government has recently released a proposal outlining possible changes to recreational SBT bag limits. As it stands now, anglers in NSW can legally take five SBT under 90cm and two above 90cm per day. The proposed changes – see HERE – would limit anglers to a daily “bag” of one fish and a daily boat limit of two fish (with charter boats able to take a total of six fish).

While there has been the usual grumblings from a disaffected few about these proposals being another erosion of our “rights” to take fish, there seems little doubt that most thinking anglers understand that the rec sector needs to take a conservation-minded approach to the SBT fishery.

I’ve fished the past few SBT seasons from my 6.7m trailerboat. Although the distances travelled are extreme, catching these fish is a blast. And I have to say that fresh bluefin is pretty amazing stuff to eat (which probably explains why the fish have been longlined almost to extinction …).

Last season three of us fishing out of Jervis Bay kept four 30-kilo SBTs and released a few more during an epic day about 38 miles south-east of the bay. Back at the cleaning tables we realised that just one of these fish provided enough fresh tuna to feed our collective familes, plus friends and relatives. While our catch was well within the regulations, the fact is we didn’t need to take more than one in order to get a good feed.

As it was, my esky could only really handle two of these fish. Even in winter you need to get SBT bled and on ice ASAP to maximise their eating qualities. Leave these fish on the deck all day and you end up having to deal with soft mushy flesh that’s pretty much good for nothing except for berley. And killing an SBT for berley just isn’t right …

My personal opinion is that a limit of one fish per angler per day is a reasonable management option for the NSW SBT fishery. I’m not particularly keen on the boat limit proposals – one fish per angler is fair. Why bring a boat limit into the equation?

Most of the fish NSW anglers encounter are of a reasonable size – 20 kilos and up. We don’t tend to see the smaller sub-10 kilo fish that are so prolific in south-western Victoria, SA and southern WA. If you catch an SBT in NSW you can just about be guaranteed that it will provide you with enough sashimi and tuna steaks to satisfy you, your family and all your friends. If you’re fishing with a few mates and you each want to take a fish, well and good. That said, I think we should consider how much fish we actually need and/or can look after. Like I said, one decent sized SBT provides a shedload of steaks. And there’s really no point taking them unless you can ice them down.

So while I support the one fish per angler rule – and I’d oppose further restrictions as being unfair and discriminatory – we should, I think, take a proactive self-management approach to these fish. Personally speaking, if I’m lucky enough to catch more SBTs on my boat I’ll discuss with the crew the option of just taking one fish for us to share and release any others.

I wouldn’t impose that sort of mindset on anyone else, though. I reckon most anglers would, however, be pretty happy to keep one decent SBT for the table and release any others that they catch. The good news here is that SBT are actually prime candidates for C&R as they are very resilient. This bodes well for the future development of SBT as a major sportfishery.

While anglers need to think and act to ensure the future sustainability of the SBT fishery, I’m surely not alone in thinking that it’s vitally important that the commercial catch of these fish be closely monitored and controlled.

Let’s be clear: overfishing by local and foreign commercial fishing fleets (especially the Japanese) was the prime reason why SBT stocks have plummetted to virtual extinction. Recreational fishing had nothing to do with the decline of this fishery – it was commercial greed that saw SBT stocks collapse. Tight restrictions on commercial fishing operations have resulted in better numbers of SBT – but there’s still a long way to go until this tuna species can be considered “recovered”. Unfortunately, there are already disturbing signs that SBT stocks are being earmarked for increasing commercial exploitation …

While I for one am happy to see the rec sector do the right thing and adopt sensible management strategies to ensure SBT stocks are fished sustainably, it would be a travesty if these fish were again allowed to be so heavily commercially exploited that their stocks crashed. That would be an obvious environmental disaster but it would also adversely affect the regional communities and industries that are benefitting from the growth of SBT as a recreational fishery.

Hopefully the Australian Fisheries Management Authority realises this … And if it doesn’t then maybe the NSW Government, plus the Victorians, South Australians, Taswegians and West Australians, should ensure that AFMA manages SBTs to ensure the best possible economic returns for regional economies via the development of sustainable recreational fishing opportunities …

Anyway, that’s my take on the issue. What do YOU think? Are the proposals being put forward by the NSW Government fair? How would you like to see the SBT fishery managed? Is one fish per angler per day a reasonable compromise? What are your opinions about the boat limits as proposed?

Have your say here and also ensure you make a submission – follow the links HERE – and make sure the NSW Government knows how you feel on this issue.

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