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OzFish Unlimited: Was fishing better 100 years ago?

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Releasing a nice Murray cod. IMAGE: Michael Guest.

THE classic fisherman’s tale. It wears all the trappings of a Shakespearean drama, comedy, and tragedy. The exaggeration. The pompous bragging rights. The heartbreak. There’s the unseen whopper that snapped 50lb braid. The local stud who landed a 121cm tuna off the break wall on a river rod during a cyclone. There’s not a fisher out there who doesn’t love a good yarn, especially accounts untainted by truth. These tales poured petrol on a debate formed when OzFish Unlimited asked their online members if they’d rather be fishing 100 years ago, or today. At first, this was thought to be a rhetorical question, but it ignited passionate opinions. The only agreement – they agreed to disagree. Many felt fishing today is better because our understanding of marine ecosystems has allowed the fish and the sport to flourish. Others were adamant that despite good-sized fish still being caught, this is thanks to the high number of people participating in the sport and technology. Unfortunately, that has masked the issues we are having with fish habitats. To unpack these opinions, we’ve broken down these perspectives so you can set the hook into the truth.

THE EFFECT OF TECHNOLOGY
Love or hate it, modernisation has changed the way we fish and forced a technological tide across almost all your gear. Satellite-assisted fish finders. Robotic motors. Drone casting. Okay, so you may not be flicking paddle tails from your hoverboard, but your gear does leave you with one foot in the future that people could only have dreamed of in the 90s. While much of this innovation is considered a win for the industry, it’s easy to see the disillusioning effect this may have on public opinion. In responding to the question online, many OzFishers voiced that if things like braided line, fluorocarbon, down scan, active target, bow mounted electric motors, scented soft plastics and high modules graphic rods existed 100 years ago, the fishing would have been unbelievable.

Yet because we have all that available at our fingertips today, the declining fish stocks and enormous loss of habitat are concealed behind the fact that finding and catching fish has become easier for the average angler. 

Need some examples? GPS now allows us to get right to the spot. Spot lock allows an anglers to sit there for hours without moving a meter. SideScan allows us to identify habitat and cast at it to the inch. Down scan allows us to identify fish from bait. Active Target allows us to track fish in real time and follow them without delay. Braided line means everything happening under the water is telegraphed right to our fingertips. Scented lures masks any human interaction. See the argument? Fishing isn’t necessarily better today than it was 100 years ago, technology has just made it easier for us to catch fish.

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LESS HABITAT, MEANS LESS FISH
Ask anyone in the marine conservation industry, and they’ll tell you the last 100 years has been devasting to the amount, and quality of, fish habitat. With agricultural and urban development, reductions in river flows and water quality, fish habitat in today’s world is in a vastly different place compared to what it once was. The numbers around this make for uncomfortable reading.

  • 90-99% of Australia’s shellfish reefs have vanished since British colonisation
  • 85% of seagrass has been lost from Australian coasts since 1950’s
  • 50-78% of Australia’s saltmarsh and wetlands have been lost in the past 100 years
  • 3 million snags were removed by one boat alone on the Murray River 100 years ago
  • 4000 weirs block fish passage on the Murray Darling Basin alone
  • Millions of larval and juvenile fish are removed from our waters each year by unscreened irrigation pumps and diversions

What does this mean for the average Saturday morning fisho? You’re unlikely to catch fish on the sandy bottom waste land. Fish need habitat and diverse habitat. Whether the water is salt, brackish or fresh water, habitats provide food, nurseries for their young and escape from predators. These areas have always been their homes. The question we have to ask, however, is what does this mean for fishing? Does the quality of habitat dictate whether fishing is better in one era over the other? 

Absolutely.

The less fish habitat around, the less fish numbers our waterways can support. In freshwater rivers, snags create a place where fish can lay their eggs and protect their young from other predators, while also allowing them to station themselves out of the current and pounce on passing food. In our coastal bays and estuaries, shellfish reefs attract micro invertebrates that provide an endless food source for recreational species. Every hectare of living shellfish reef restored producing an additional 2.5 tonnes of harvestable fish each year. Along our coastlines, seagrass meadows are the breeding grounds for many marine species, with a single hectare of seagrass supporting upwards of 40, 000 fish and 50 million small invertebrates. So, is there an argument to say fishing was better 100 years ago? Absolutely, because there was more habitat to support a healthier and more abundant fishery.

Let’s cast our minds back to what some call the “good old days”…

“That night we went to Palmers Island in a small boat pulled by the friends who came to meet us. All the way up the mullet and jewfish leaped and splashed in thousands and in the phosphorescent water we could see the trail of huge fishes as they darted away into the depths below” – Brisbane Courier 2 June 1880

“Dad told me a story there when he was working and went out to Wee Jasper. Dad and Uncle Alec used to go out there fishing, and at the right time the silver perch would be just roaring up the river. He said all you had to do was throw the hook in the water and bang they’d just hit the hook. Now you go there you won’t get one” – Adrian Brown in: Frawley, J., Nichols, S., Goodall, H. and Baker, E. (2011) Upper Murrumbidgee: Talking fish‐ making connections with the rivers of the Murray‐Darling Basin, Murray‐Darling Basin Authority, Canberra.

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THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT
Walk into the ‘pool room’ of any Australian fishing community and the photos of mammoth fish hanging from their jaws will hold pride of place. Equally, if you had entered a fishing competition 20 years ago, you would see buckets of dead fish waiting to be weighed. Compare this imagery to today’s practices, and you’ll appreciate the improved attitudes around fisheries management across the recreational fishing community. The competitive buckets of expired fish have been replaced by brag mats and a hashtagged picture on Instagram and of healthy-looking specimens before they are safely returned to the water. Social media even applies pressure to gently return the trophy fish, requesting release videos and the hashtags speak volumes: #CatchAndRelease or #LetThemGoLetThemGrow. What this confirms is that our awareness and education of correct sustainable fishing practises has developed enough to say that fishing in Australia t is heading in the right direction. Does this mean that fishing is better today? Probably not. But it is to say that if we were to ask this same question next century, the answer might be different.

The Murray cod renaissance is a classic demonstration of this. Steve Starling, OzFish Ambassador, and long-time fishing communicator commented our post that the number of metre-plus cod currently being caught (and released) is unprecedented. Steve says that you would have to go back 150+ years to see this many big cod as in those days the cod were caught in nets and killed for food, then their habitats were destroyed which created a dramatic decline by the 1960s. When Steve was earning, his stripes writing for magazines like Fishing World, a story of a 120cm cod was something you would expect from the late-night pub conversation.

Today, that is a different story. With native stocked impoundments and waterways, increased awareness of correct fish handling practices, restoration work by conservation groups and an increase in environmental stewardship, more and more anglers are catching trophy sizes fish that can be digitally adored. Moments captured of anglers releasing fish wins the hearts of the public and changes attitudes for the better.

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ABOVE: Mangrove jack. IMAGE: Michael Guest.

CONSERVATION WITH ENVIRONMENTAL STEWARDSHIP
After a slow day on the water, it’s tempting to look back and imagine what the fishing used to be like. Thoughts like this are bound to make a fisho feel better about getting skunked. Donut days are hard to swallow. They don’t need to be yoked to a sense of finality because fishing relaxes and gives you a closer connection to the environment which can motivate you to take steps to improve your local waterway. A tried and tested route in responding to debates about fishing stocks is to conserve and protect what we’ve already got by focusing on regenerating and enhancing fish habitats.

To turn the tide, our fish habitats need a sustained and coordinated effort put forward by organisations like OzFish Unlimited who aim to protect and restore fish habitat. Never has the rehabilitation work undertaken by OzFish Unlimited been more relevant to what’s needed by our native ecosystems. Through the power of many, OzFish are delivering fish habitat rehabilitation projects across Australia using their network of local organisations and volunteers. When you become an OzFish member you can connect with your local chapter and become part of protecting our native fish and their habitats. Their active work includes restoration such as re-snagging rivers, riverbank planting, fish ladders, shellfish reefs and other projects such as monitoring river health and educating future generations. Pull all these together and we can all look forward to hearing and telling more tales of the big one that got away.  Fortunately, dedicated fish habitat restoration work can bring back the fish stocks of yesteryear so that the Australians living 100 years from now can say their fishing is better than it once was.

If you want to get involved in OzFish, donate or find out more about the environmental rehabilitation initiatives delivered by OzFish, head over to www.ozfish.org.au or contact 1800 431 308.

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