OPINION: What’s happening to our mulloway?

FISHING World reader and experienced mulloway fisherman Brian Hay offers insight into the state of the NSW mulloway fishery and his views on proposed changes to the management of this valuable resource. 

What’s Happening To Our Mulloway?
A simple question, why are mature mulloway so scarce? There have been stacks of smaller juveniles the past few years as a result of all the freshes in the rivers but where are they now? What is happening to these fish, where are they going, what’s become of them? Why haven’t they entered the fishery as mature adults? The commercial and recreational sectors blame each other but what’s the real story?

I suppose the first place to start is the fish’s environment but this is still OK right up and down the whole NSW coastline. The water quality is still good and the past few years we have seen good rainfall in all the major river catchments, ideal conditions for mature spawning fish. If the environment is OK and there’s no major disease wiping these fish out then the cause must be man-made. Obviously the juveniles are simply being removed before they get the chance to grow.

Let’s look at the two individual sectors that target these fish, the commercial sector and the recreational fishermen. Fisheries tell us that recreational fishermen catch the bulk of the fish, somewhere between 100 and 500 tonnes per year and somewhere in the middle is about right (how’s that for research to build policy on?) They also tell us that the total catch by the commercial sector is only about 53 tonnes per year. Do you want that figure again? Yes that’s right, 53 tonnes per year. Fisheries should be embarrassed to publish such low figures so obviously the mulloway population is a lot less than they would have us believe.

There are three commercial sectors that catch mulloway: estuary general, ocean hauling and trap and line and the majority of fishing businesses in each sector are licensed to target them. If all these commercial fishermen can only catch a lousy 53 tonnes between them in a full year in all of NSW then it tells us that the fish are in real trouble. According to these figures it’s obvious that not many pros target mulloway anymore because of the low catches and extra effort required.
Fisheries further admit that most mulloway in the markets are now mostly caught as “a non target” species. The exceptions seem to be the beach haulers who do occasionally target these fish and the trap and line licence holders who catch these fish on handlines. But here again these catches are small, beach haulers 9 tonnes per year, trap and line 10 tonnes per year and both form part of the 53 tonnes taken by all the pros in a full year.
Well, if it’s not the commercial sector catching the mature fish then it must be the recreational fishermen, or is it?

Now I don’t doubt that collectively recreational fishermen catch more than pros these days, especially in the northern rivers area but we are still talking about small numbers overall (Fisheries guestimation is between 100 to 500 tonnes per year in all of NSW). When you consider the thousands and thousands of fishermen and the man hours they put in, it’s such a small amount for such a large area over a twelve month period. Jews can grow fast into big, weighty fish so it makes these low catch figures even more disturbing. The point I’m trying to make is that a reasonably healthy fishery should easily and sustainably accommodate all the fish taken by both sectors.

So if it’s not the environment, diseases, commercial or recreational catches then why are there so few mature fish? For the last five or six years we have had excellent rainfall during the spawning period and in some areas large numbers of small juveniles have appeared. Some locals in the northern rivers say they can never recall so many juveniles as in the past few years. However, these fish aren’t coming through the system as growing and maturing fish. If they were then the north coast would be busting with all these 2, 3, 4 and 5 year old fish but this is just not the case. Now we know that both sectors catch many juvenile fish and that most don’t survive after being caught on baited hooks or in estuary gill nets, but I don’t believe these mortalities are high enough to do the damage that is being done. So what’s happening to all the juveniles?

I’m starting to believe that the commercial prawning industry is now having a bigger influence on the mulloway population than anyone wants to acknowledge. Think about this – the three river systems that produce the most prawns and the only three river systems where the prawn trawlers are allowed to work are the Hawkesbury River, the Hunter River and the Clarence River. The three river systems that have traditionally been recognised as the best mulloway rivers are the Hawkesbury River, the Hunter River and the Clarence River. This is not just a coincidence, there is an undeniable natural association between prawns and mulloway.

Obviously the damage is not just being done by removing the prawns that are the primary food source for the juvenile mulloway, but by the massive amount of juvenile mulloway that actually die in the prawn trawl nets. Mother Nature’s grand plan has put them in the same places as the prawns and at the same times, both in estuaries and offshore. In the past, possibly because the mulloway and prawn breeding stocks were so healthy, any damage done to the fishery wasn’t all that noticeable. However, up until the last five or six years NSW went through a long drought period with less than ideal spawning conditions for the mulloway but the trawlers continued to work removing both prawns and juvenile mulloway. Maybe the damage from all this effort is finally becoming noticeable.

So, What’s the Answer?
The fact that prawn trawling is the state’s most valuable fishery really throws a spanner in the works for Fisheries managers but one thing is certain – this form of commercial fishing is not going away any time soon. To its credit, Fisheries is aware of the problem and has been working for some time to reduce the numbers of juvenile mulloway dying in the trawl nets. They have already introduced bi-catch reduction devices and are looking for further improvements with trials of more efficient devices. Additional monitoring also needs to be done when there are excessive amounts of juvenile mulloway showing up in the nets. This has been done after flood events but maybe needs to be expanded for the whole season, flood or no flood. Surely, temporary closures during these times must be beneficial. Maybe there’s also a case to be made to temporarily close areas that are known to be preferred mulloway habitat during certain times of the year.

Another option is to reduce the effort by reducing the number of commercial fishermen operating in this sector of the industry. Maybe a buyback of licences, especially from the estuaries would make good sense. Couple this with a temporary freeze on new entrants and the prevention of dormant licences becoming re-activated. Reducing the effort will reduce the by-catch and give some security to the fishermen remaining in the industry.

Whatever management steps are taken they need not be set in stone and should be considered as temporary measures only and under regular review. Stock assessments should be made and the effort increased or decreased as required. Whatever it decides, Fisheries really needs to be pro-active and manage this fishery so it can survive with the least possible damage to the juvenile mulloway. It needs to be done as a matter of urgency.

New mulloway management proposals
Well, NSW Fisheries is now seeking our ideas to help the mulloway population recover while presenting us with three disappointing proposals of their own. They have overlooked the main objective of saving the fish by putting them first and seem to be more concerned about not upsetting the various stakeholders. They want to be seen to be doing something by taking just a little bit from both the recreational and commercial sectors.

Proposal 1 – A bag limit of one fish per day for recreational anglers with a legal length of 70 cms. Is this realistic – how many weekend fishermen will throw back a mulloway just under 70 cms weighing 3.5 to 4 kilos? This is a big fish for most recreational fishermen and the majority of these fish taken on baits won’t survive being released. If the recreational bag limit is only one then why not take the size limit off completely?
It’s a noble theory to have a size limit that enables the fish to spawn at least once but it makes sense to not have all recreational fishermen targeting the bigger mature fish that are actually spawning right now. They will still catch the undersized fish and if they obey the law they will throw them back dead or dying. It’s more realistic to let them keep the first fish they catch, regardless of size.

Proposal 2 – A by-catch limit of 10 fish between 45cm and 70 cm for commercial estuary netters. To me this idea is just an ineffective concession for the commercial sector. Does this mean they can still target juvenile mulloway but only sell 10 fish between 45cm and 70cm through a recognised market? If they catch 30 or 40 fish this size I can’t see too many being thrown back, experience tells us that more than likely they will be taken ashore and sold for cash.

Catch limits by netters as a conservation measure simply cannot work as the numbers and the size of the fish hitting the nets is completely random. It doesn’t really matter how many fish they are allowed to keep, it’s completely irrelevant because every fish that hits the net dies. If the commercial fishermen do follow the rules and keep 10 as by-catch and throw back all the others, how will the public respond to seeing all these dead mulloway floating around our estuaries and beaches? It’s more realistic to prevent the estuary netters from deliberately targeting mulloway and let them sell what they kill in “non targeted” netting. Fisheries should look for other options to manage the stocks of live fish as against this proposal of managing dead fish.

Proposal 3 – A catch limit of 500 kilos of mulloway per day for beach haulers.
To me this is just an ineffective concession for the recreational sector. The annual commercial catch of mulloway by beach haulers is insignificant and undoubtedly it’s still the most sustainable method of catching these fish but public perception is otherwise.
This proposal needs clarification. Is this 500 kilos per day for each hauling crew member, each endorsement holder or maybe each fishing business owner? How can fishermen target only 500 kilos from a big school of mulloway weighing between 20 to 25 kilos each on a surf beach? More than likely they will get 1,000 kgs or 1,500 kgs. Will they obey the rules, keep 500 kgs and throw the rest back into the surf dead or will they call other endorsement holders and sell the fish with their licence numbers? Would recreational fishermen be happy seeing dead mulloway washed up on beaches or in the surf ? How does this protect stocks?

To me it’s completely unrealistic. Despite public perception this sector doesn’t really take many fish in an average year and 500 kilos is not many fish, approximately 25 individuals. It looks bad to the public but overall this number is insignificant to overall mulloway stocks. Beach haulers get few opportunities with these seasonal schools of fish so limiting their catch to 500 kilos is not really going to change mulloway population dynamics. A more practical way to pacify recreational anglers and preserve these big spawning fish would be to remove beach hauling for mulloway entirely. There is only a very small number of fishermen who target mulloway on the beaches and many years there are no fish taken at all so the financial loss to these fishermen would be minimal.

For your say on these proposals go to: Submissions close November 13.

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