Profile: Karl Schaerf – Fighting for our inland fish

RECENTLY on the Fishing World website we ran news of a stocking of Macquarie perch in the upper Lachlan catchment in NSW. The guts of the story came from a NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) media release – see details HERE – which outlined the amazing work DPI researchers had undertaken in rearing Macquarie perch fingerlings in enough numbers to attempt stocking in the wild.

As the story mentioned, the 7000-plus fingerlings had resulted from a groundbreaking captive breeding program funded by the NSW Recreational Fishing Trust and undertaken at the NSW Government’s Narrandera Fisheries Centre (following an initial release, 12 months earlier, of the first, much smaller batch, also successfully hatched and reared at the NFC).

The original press release featured quotes from the secretary of the Central Acclimatisation Society (CAS), Karl Schaerf, which unfortunately at the time of publishing, were mistakenly edited out. Understandably, Schaerf was a little miffed that his words had been taken out. To rectify the situation, Fisho contacted him to garner more background on his association with the campaign to save Macquarie perch and his thoughts and experiences on inland fish stocking.

After a lengthy chat it soon became clear Schaerf’s enthusiasm for the work acclimatisation societies such as the CAS carry out, is limitless. He clearly has a passion for inland fish and fishing. It’s also quickly apparent that he’s been campaigning for a better future for the inland fish of NSW for many years, and he’s probably forgotten more about fish stocking than I’ll ever know…

Schaerf told Fisho that in the 1960s, aged 18, he attended his first CAS meeting and was immediately hooked. After spending time at that initial meeting with others who clearly shared his passion, he wanted to become more involved in helping maintain fisheries in his local waters. The organisation now boasts over 600 members and is involved with stocking waters from Wentworth Falls Lake (brown and rainbow trout), in the east to Canowindra in the west, and Mudgee in the north, to Burraga in the south. Schaerf has been the CAS’s secretary for over 30 years.

“I cut my teeth on trout,” Schaerf says referring to his days growing up and fishing the Abercrombie River near his hometown of Bathurst in western NSW. He now laments the fact the same river was once so thick with Macquarie perch it was difficult to get a spinner past them when targeting trout. A no.1 Celta was apparently the gun lure for both trout and Mac perch back in the day… He also remembers catching Macquarie perch at Wyangala Dam on trolled Devon spinners, again while chasing trout.

Despite seeing rivers like his beloved Abercrombie – into which CAS released Murray cod purchased with their own funds, and trout cod provided by NSW Fisheries – largely overtaken by introduced species in the decades since those early days, Schaerf isn’t “anti-trout” unlike some in pro-native fish circles. While he recognises that salmonids (trout) pose a threat to vulnerable native species like Macquarie perch and trout cod, he regards the more recent invasions of carp and redfin perch as “the biggest problem”.

“Redfin breed like flies and eat everything,” he says.

He also notably highlights similarities between the spawning habits of Macquarie perch and trout. “They are very, very specific about their spawning requirements,” he says referring to the endangered perch’s preference for gravel beds, clear water and suitable spawning temperatures – requirements also duplicated by trout.

Like many fishos, Schaerf can admit, perhaps not too loudly … to being “a greeny at heart” – just not a lock ’em out, stop ’em fishin’ type of radical green. It may not be widely known, but under Schaerf’s tenure the CAS has supported funding campaigns – through the Recreational Fishing Freshwater Trust Expenditure Committee (RFFTEC) – to save endangered “non-fish” such as the Booroolong frog, an amphibious species once abundant along western flowing waterways in NSW.

Schaerf has also experienced the decline of other freshwater fish in a relatively short time, notably that of native blackfish or “slipperies” as his grandfather called them. In more recent years he has observed the decline of eel-tailed catfish and silver perch that were once commonly encountered by anglers in inland rivers.

In the case of the recent stocking of endangered Macquarie perch, Schaerf has been largely involved, moreso behind the scenes. He readily admits to having endlessly “badgered” former boss of NSW Fisheries Steve Dunn during the 1990s to fund Macquarie perch and trout cod breeding research. Schaerf too was involved with the introduction of a ban of the taking of Macquarie perch by anglers that was introduced in 1987 (Macquarie perch have been completely protected in NSW since 1995).

Early in the following decade he had hands-on involvement with stocking trout cod around Bathurst, with mate Peter Hanrahan.

Schaerf told Fisho that NSW Fisheries eventually produced $10,000 for research for Macquarie perch and subsequently, much more, via the RFFTEC. The endangered fish got its lifeline when a captive breeding program began under Dr Dean Gilligan in 2010. And the rest as they say is history…

There is no doubt Australia’s inland rec fishos have lots more to thank passionate people like Karl Schaerf for. While they may not always get the most recognition, members of acclimatisation societies and their associated volunteers around the country are out fighting for the future of our fish and fishing. For Karl Schaerf, the fight to save our threatened freshwater fish will never end and that’s probably the way he likes it.

“It’s a great thing to be part of,” he concludes.

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