Permit Massacre – Just the tip of the iceberg

By Lindsay Dines

It wasn’t any great surprise that my phone should ring last Saturday with the news of a school of permit, or “oyster cracker” as they are commonly called here, that were lying in a net a short distance down the beach from where I live. After all, I tend to hear about every school of fish that are netted on Teewah Beach and from May to August, the reported nettings can come thick and fast.

Teewah is a small community of holiday homes on the Noosa North Shore that fronts 50kms of driveable surf beach to the immediate south of World Heritage listed Fraser Island. My family was among the earlier arrivals to Teewah having built a shack here in the early 1970s. We were fortunate indeed to have such a terrific location to fish and play each school holidays and the fishing was good.

Now things have changed dramatically with the beach a busy highway of 4WDs and thousands of campers descending on the camping areas to our north near Double Island Point. And the fishing is not so good anymore. In fact, at times, it is impossible to even get a bite from a legal sized fish.

Mullet are the species targeted by the beach netters for their roe. Tailor, whiting, bream and tarwhine are secondary consideration. But there is the odd school of oyster cracker taken, as there is of golden trevally, giant trevally, dart, mack tuna and kingfish with various other species often caught up as bycatch. And as sad as it is to see such beautiful fish as permit being netted, to me a haul of any of these species is a disaster for recreational angling and to fish stocks in the region.

It first became apparent in the 1980s that fish were becoming difficult to find following a haul of fish taken in a net. At the time, those of us that were regulars to what was then still an isolated and unknown part of the South East Queensland coastline didn’t understand why this should be the case.

Before a net would be shot, we would be getting fish from gutters to the north, south and in front of Teewah. But a net shot 10kms south of the village seemed to affect the availability of fish in gutters to the north of us. In fact a net shot anywhere seemed to affect the availability of fish along the entire beach.

I recall that at the time we joked about fish being able to talk to each other and that they must be yelling a warning to their colleagues up the beach about the slaughter in the net and the friends and relatives they’d lost. And at the time we did think that was a fanciful idea, but we had no better explanation as to why the fish all along the beach would suddenly disappear.

The solution to the puzzle came in the form of a story on the ABC’s 7.30 Report in the late 1990s about the netting of Atlantic salmon in British Colombia and the subsequent disappearance of schools from the area in which the netting took place. The researcher being interviewed for the story went on to play vocalisations being made by the netted salmon and the path away from the area being made by tagged salmon not trapped in the nets.

It was obvious to me then that precisely the same thing must be occurring here and that the fish were indeed “talking” to each other. More than a decade later and with countless hours of research and observation now under my belt, I have a far more thorough understanding of fish behaviour in relation to nets and the definite and likely side affects of this style of fishing.

To describe the situation in its entirety and to include all of the variables associated, would require many thousands of words, but the following is a brief account of how things work.
The mullet exit the Noosa River mouth during May and June to spawn in the gutters to the north which is where the pros are waiting for them. Hauls of 40 tonne are commonly achieved in a single day and often much larger when a “fresh” can trigger a mass spawning.

Every single mullet that is trapped in the net emits what is known as a “startle and escape vocalization” or “alarm signal” by drumming muscles against their swim bladder which amplifies the sound, to warn his or her conspecifics (other mullet) of the slaughter. With sound in water traveling five times faster than which it does in air and for far greater distances, other fish outside the net hear the alarm signals with their ears immediately and detect stress vibrations with their lateral lines.

These fish relay the message (secondary transfer) on to fish further afield and so on until fish that could be 60kms away have received the warning. All fish (other than baitfish that are too small for the mesh size of the nets and flathead which must go under, and some juvenile surf fish) that are in receipt of the warning and whose species have a history of being netted, swim away from the netted location on a slowly reducing scale with distance and alarm “pitch”.

It does not matter which species are in the net, as they all vocalise and each species can recognise alarm signals being emitted by all other species.

The resulting “area abandonment” of the surf gutters by fish to distances as great as 50kms is total. Angling is near pointless and it is usually one to two weeks before fish begin to return depending on haul size and food availability. The netters are aware of this and are awaiting their return. Another net is shot and the process repeats itself over and over until the end of November when the northern tailor migration peters out and Noosa River prawns for Christmas are a more lucrative option for the pros.

Here are some facts to consider:

•    Over 700 species of fish around the world have had their vocalisations recorded on hydrophones since the first recordings made in 1964 and those vocalisations placed on a database.

•    An individual species may have up to nine different vocalisations.

•    In Australia, recordings have been made of garfish and black jew, but many of our species are found elsewhere in the world and have been recorded.

•    Static and mobile hydrophones are being used in fisheries management in various locations around the world to assess stock levels and spawning time/location.

•    It is anticipated that hydrophones will become a common tool for rec and pro fishers to locate individual and aggregated fish.

•    Vocalisations are of a lower frequency to those made by dolphins and whales.

In between hauls of mullet at the mouth, the pros drive north along Teewah Beach looking for mullet that have managed to elude the nets further south and for any fish that is marketable. By the middle of July, the mullet are few and far between and bream, tarwhine and whiting become the target. August generally sees the pros with tailor nets on board for the schools of spawning greenbacks that are beginning to show. Tailor in particular are a species that are spooked quickly by the nets and are slow to return following hauls of any volume.

Tailor are known to now take a more offshore migratory path than they once did. I suspect that this would be as a result of beach netting that forces the tailor offshore. This, for a species that must spawn in the surf gutters and whose larvae must make it to an estuary to live for the first 12 months of their lives, seems to logically be unsustainable and could be the reason for the collapse of this species in Africa and the US.

Basing their management of the area on commercial catch statistics, Queensland Fisheries have declared this fishery to be sustainable with current quotas sufficient to protect stocks from collapse. Unfortunately, Fisheries are failing to build in to their equations the alteration in the commercial fisher’s methods of netting.

The pros realised that fish numbers were in decline in the mid 1990s and that with each license holder netting separately to the rest, they were spooking each others fish. So to increase their efficiencies, the pros got together and co-ordinated their netting so as to not spook each other’s fish and divided the catch.

At the same time spotter planes came into use to locate the mullet that began heading straight out to sea from the mouth of the Noosa to avoid the waiting nets and which would return to the surf zone further north to spawn. Larger trucks began collecting the catch from near the beach which permitted larger hauls and time saved on the part of the netters.

The increased efficiencies were reflected in the total commercial catch and which artificially levelled out the previous downward trend that catch stats through the 1970s and 1980s showed.

But the netters are now doing it tough and are mostly waiting for a buy back to occur while their licenses are still worth something. With no prospect of a buy back occurring in the foreseeable future, the nets will continue to be used with each year seeing further deterioration of the resource.

This particular mullet season has been a very poor one for the netters with catches of all species well down and subsequently less nets have been shot. As a result, recreational catches have been somewhat better than previous winters. However since the netting of the permit and other hauls of tailor and mack tuna over the last few weeks, we’re back to barren surf apart from shoals of unmolested anchovy.

I have been quite active over the years in trying to change netting practices here and at Fraser Island, as have many others. Quite obviously we have all been unsuccessful and are now pessimistic about ever seeing the day that Teewah Beach and Fraser Island are net free. Unless that day arrives, then rec fishing here, or anywhere that is netted, will be far less rewarding than it would be without the nets.

Ravaged by nets, Teewah Beach lies north of Noosa.

You don’t get too many 4.5lb bream off Teewah anymore. Why? Because they’ve been netted out.

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