Rec only…why not?

Australian salmon are a good candidate for a “rec only” species.

IN October 2007, then US President George W. Bush signed Executive Order 13449, Protection of Striped Bass and Red Drum Fish Populations, which decreed that these favourite fish of US surf casters and boat fishers could no longer be commercially harvested in Federally controlled waters. Most states followed suit with similar prohibitions. In recent years, numbers have re-built due to this action and the imposition of strict size and bag limits for anglers. Daily limits have now increased in some areas. Non-anglers can still eat striped bass and red drum as they are successfully farmed species in the US.

In Western Australia, on the south coast, exists one of the most exciting and undervalued recreational beach fisheries in the world. Huge schools of breeding-age Australian salmon come close inshore and some of the recent videos showing beach spinning action are just spectacular.

The salmon are in big numbers presumably because the commercial fishery targeting them has massively declined. Since the last cannery closed at Albany in the 1960s, the harvest has gone down from around 3,000 tonnes per year to between 75 and 300 tonnes per year over the last five years. Most of what is still beach hauled is frozen and chopped up with bandsaws for crayfish bait. The commercial fishos get about 50 cents a kilo…for premium sport fish.

Now Curtin University and the WA Fishing Industry Council are trying to promote Australian salmon as a quality table fish. They’ve enlisted celebrity chefs to spruik the fish’s table qualities and the ABC’s Landline program ran a very entertaining segment on their efforts early in the year.

There are a couple of issues with salmon though. The phrases “red, oil-rich flesh and strong flavour” and that “chefs just needed to learn how best to use its strong flavour” and “not be scared to put them on their menus” are probably true, if not exactly enticing. The only time I keep a salmon is if I want to cook up some fish cakes…traditional, with onions, potatoes and parsley, or Thai, with red chilis and a splash of coconut milk. Or to smoke a couple of fillets. And even then, there’s an awful lot of wasted red meat at the preparation stage.

So why push to re-vitalise a dormant industry which will provide a not very good eating product with a meagre return to the harvesters? Sentiment maybe, a return to the “good old days” of big hauls for the netters? Recfishwest can’t understand it and neither can we.

It almost seems sometimes that our fisheries regulators seem compelled to encourage the harvest of a resource commercially just because it exists in sustainable numbers, irrespective of what it’s “worth”. It’s not all that many years ago they were encouraging commercials to target the “under-harvested” queenfish and mahi mahi, both great candidates to be rec-only.

Longtail tuna, tailor and Australian salmon do have partial rec-only status in the eastern states, but there are by-catch allowances for commercial operators. Other premium sport fish such as permit still get netted from beaches. Surely it’s time to push for full rec-only status for some iconic species, as they did in the USA ten years ago.

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