OPINION: The importance of recreational fishing during a crisis

Fishing helps to reduce anxiety, fight off depression, and promote relaxation.

THEY say the worst day fishing is better than the best day working.

The millions of Australians who pick up a rod and reel every year would certainly agree with this statement, because whether getting out once or twice a year, or every weekend, fishing has been a part of the culture of this continent for thousands of years.

The recreational fishing sector is larger and more widely dispersed than any other recreational activity that utilises a natural resource.

Well before Europeans arrived in Australia, fish formed the main source of protein and essential micronutrients for many Indigenous communities.

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, fishing is as natural and as necessary as breathing.

Many communities have a cultural and spiritual connection with water which extends to saltwater, estuarine and freshwater systems, and fishing is a matter of cultural practice informed by traditional knowledge.

Fishing doesn’t discriminate for age, race, wealth or social status, and anyone can pick up a rod and go fishing.

Fishing in times of COVID-19
Given the importance of fishing to Australian people, it is no surprise that when the Victorian government included recreational fishing on the list of banned activities in response to COVID-19 isolation measures, there was bound to be an outcry.

Even some sitting ministers voiced their opposition, and it is an issue that has divided the states.

Queensland still allows recreational fishing if you are fishing for food for your family, whereas New South Wales classed it as “passive exercise”.

The Australian Capital Territory allows it for the purposes of fishing for food or exercise, and South Australia, Western Australia, and the Northern Territory allow fishing provided social distancing rules are complied with.

Tasmania is similar, but further adds that fishing is good for mental wellbeing.

The link to mental wellbeing is significant in a time of social distancing and isolation.

A study in the USA found that returned servicemen had reduced incidences of post-traumatic stress disorder when they added recreational fishing to their lifestyle.

This is because fishing requires lots of focus and awareness, which takes your mind off internal conflict and stress, like a form of meditation.

As a result, it helps to reduce anxiety, fight off depression, and promote relaxation by lowering your stress hormone – Cortisol. Indeed, The Fly Program was derived from these key principles.

It is estimated that three-and-a-half million Australians fish each year and spend $650 million just on fishing tackle, which justifies the suggestion that fishing lures are far better at catching fishermen than fisherman are at catchingfish.

If you also include the amount spent on vehicles, fuel, accommodation, professional guides and all the other accessories that go along with fishing, the contribution to the economy is almost $3 billion annually.

It is therefore no surprise that some states were hesitant to ban the activity because in addition to reducing stress and providing food for families, it keeps the economy ticking over.

But COVID-19 has been a double-impact in many areas.

The impact of bushfires on many regional areas, such as the NSW South Coast, Snowy Mountains, Victorian High Country and South East Gippsland came at a time when tourist activity was at its highest, and a popular pastime in these regions is recreational fishing.

Communities recovering from the impacts of fire are now hit with social distancing measures.

Fishing guides who are dependent on tourist dollars have lost significant sources of income, tackle stores have lost customers, and it filters through communities because visiting fishers also bought groceries, stayed in hotels or caravan parks, and purchased fuel.

When these economic factors are examined, the value chain that recreational fishing supports is very significant.

Because it will take years for local economies and businesses in these areas to recover, when social distancing measures are lifted the best thing fishers can do to help these regions to recover is to grab their rods and hit the water.

How can recreational fishers keep sane during these unusual times?
A significant drop in recreational fishing pressure will bring about benefits as well.

It is widely known that recreational fishing, especially in heavily fished areas, can impact the resource base.

So while fewer people are fishing, more fish will remain uncaught and these fish will undoubtedly be growing bigger.

It can also bring about water quality impacts, which have been most dramatically seen in the canals of Venice since boat traffic has reduced due to COVID-19, with the normally turbid canals now flowing clear.

Reductions in boat traffic will also reduce inputs in Australian waterways; it can be considered a mini-reset which will ensure waterways and fish are healthier when the restrictions are lifted, as long as anglers respect the rules when they return to the water.

Until the restrictions are lifted, the keen angler has an opportunity to use this time for jobs which are always put off to a rainy day.

Clean out tackle boxes, service reels and lines, support struggling tackle shops by stocking up on any gear lost last season, upgrade fishing rods, or perform much-needed boat maintenance.

Fishing involves keeping the mind active and focused, so why not take the leap into fly fishing and fly tying?

Fly casting lessons in the backyard can entertain and frustrate anyone for hours in an attempt to master the perfect loop.

Or why not take a Charles Sturt University fish conservation and management course and advance your skills by learning how to think more like a fish.

Keeping the mind active, hitting the water when (and if) you can, and preparing for the upcoming season will pay off in the long run.

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