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FISH FACTS: Australia shines at 10th World Rec Fishing Conference

THE World Recreational Fishing Conference (WRFC) is an international scientific gathering of researchers, managers and industry which has been dubbed a meeting of the “worlds brightest rec fishing minds”.

Held every three years following the inaugural WRFC conference in Dublin in 1996, WRFCs have
been hosted throughout the world in various places including (in chronological order), Ireland, Canada, Australia, Norway, USA, Germany, Brazil, Canada and Netherlands. I have just returned home from WRFC10, which was held at the convention centre in Melbourne between 18 – 23 February 2023.

On countback, I’m surprised at the realisation I’ve now attended 5 of the previous 10 meetings (Darwin 2002, Florida 2008, Brazil 2014, Victoria Canada 2017, and Melbourne 2023), 6 if the COVID-interrupted WRFC9 (which was scheduled for Rotterdam, Netherlands in 2020) is included.

The WRFC10 conference cultivated strong indigenous connections, which were aptly displayed
by the artwork behind the conference logo.

After lobbying extremely hard in 2017 (but unsuccessfully, being pipped by Netherlands) to host the 2020 meeting as part of their “Target One Million” campaign, the Victorian Fisheries Authority (VFA) dodged the bullet that was COVID and instead were granted rights to WRFC10 in July 2021.

The conference organising committee worked exceptionally hard in that one and a half years to develop a world class programme which explored the many challenges affecting recreational fishing in a changing world.

It is now evident they succeeded, as with around 350 delegates attending from 21 countries, WRFC10 was the second largest WRFC conference held to date, being pipped only by the 396 delegates from 21 countries who attended WRFC8 in Victoria, Canada back in 2017.

What set WRFC10 apart from many of the earlier WRFC meetings was how hard the VFA worked to link scientists and managers with rec fishers and indigenous groups. Indeed, thousands of anglers attended the Ultimate Fishing Expo which was held alongside WRFC10 at the Melbourne Convention Centre on the same weekend. Here they could mingle with a range of fishing personalities and check out the latest tackle and boating gear from more than 50 exhibitors.

In the conference itself, the sessions on indigenous engagement were a highlight, while the scientific program was of the highest standard. Prominent speakers included Keep Fish Wet ( executive director Sascha Clark Danylchuk and Trout Unlimited’s ( Steve Moyer from the USA, Norwegian fisheries researcher Keno Ferter (who presented some fascinating satellite tagging data on giant bluefin tuna), Australia’s own founder of OzFish Unlimited ( Craig Copeland, and last, but certainly not least, UK actor and host of the Extreme Fishing TV series Robson Green. World class indeed.

The awards night at the Melbourne Museum was also a cracker, with the highlight there being the Significant Recognition Award to Rex Hunt, for a lifetime of improving recreational fishing in Australia and around the world.

WRFC10 was also the chosen venue for revealing the results of Australia’s latest National Recreational Fishing Survey. Following 20 years after the first national survey in 2003, the 2023 results found that participation in recreational fishing continues to expand in Australia, with around 21% of the population (4.2 million anglers) fishing at least once a year, an increase of 23% from the 3.4 million recorded in the 2003 survey. Economic analysis found anglers undertook over 28 million fishing days, generating around 100,000 jobs (40,000 directly) and around $11 billion AUD per annum into the Australian economy.

This substantial economic clout was accompanied by evidence of substantial social benefits of recreational fishing including human physical and mental health benefits, and even improvements to fish welfare via conservationist anglers undertaking habitat protection and restoration activities.

Internationally acclaimed TV personality Robson Green delivered a moving keynote address at
WRFC10 on the benefits of recreational fishing to mental health.

However, it was not all good news. The presentation by Aaron Adams from the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust (BTT, put things in perspective. He reported how the recreational fishing industry in Florida alone was worth around $11 billion USD to the US economy (i.e. more than the value of all Australian states combined), with major contributions through targeting of light tackle sportfish like bonefish, tarpon and snook.

Nevertheless, BTT provided a chilling warning that economic might does not guarantee a sustainable fishery if water quality and fish habitat is not looked after. Using the iconic bonefish, tarpon and snook fisheries as examples, it appears unthinkable that populations of these species (which are not commercially targeted and over 98% catch and release), could remain threatened and be decreasing, even after extensive efforts at habitat protection and restoration.

Unfortunately, this is indeed the case. Speaking afterwards with Aaron and Justin Lewis from BTT, they indicated they are making some progress on the habitat front by working with fisheries and resource management agencies to figure out ways to incorporate habitat into fisheries management.

Addressing inshore water quality remains a challenging issue. Continued loss of inshore seagrass, mangrove and reef habitat is due to development, siltation, and chemical contamination (e.g. herbicides, pesticides, nutrients) from urban runoff, while recent studies suggest the health and reproductive success of wild bonefish is being threatened by pharmaceutical contaminants originating from sewage waste water (see my “Bonefish on Drugs” article

The upshot is that dilution is no longer an acceptable solution to pollution, especially when it threatens fish species that are literally worth their weight in gold. Aaron and Justin told me that BTT are now working with wastewater treatment experts in Europe to determine what needs to be done to upgrade sewage infrastructure in Florida using technology like Ozone treatment to neutralise chemical and pharmaceutical contaminants before they enter the aquatic environment.

Of course, this sort of technology is also sorely needed here in Australia too (we can only dream!). In comparison to these massive entrenched issues surrounding pollutants arising from human wastes, the shark depredation problems reported for Florida tarpon fisheries seemed relatively benign, though no less impactful to the tarpon, and just as difficult to fix.

The obvious benefit of international meetings like WRFC10 to Victoria and Australia is that they bring knowledge to our shores via visiting world experts. This allows us to learn from their experiences in other countries, so we can hopefully avoid the many pitfalls they have encountered. The WRFC meetings simply provide us with a clearer window into our fishing future.

For me, WRFC10 was a stark contrast to the earlier WRFC meetings from 20 or so years ago which revolved mainly around fisheries management and resource allocation. Today, with the anthropocene truly upon us as the global human population climbs past 8 billion towards 10 billion during our kids lifetime, the take home message was clear: Water quality and habitat protection/restoration must be the primary foundations of fisheries management in the 21st century.

It was fitting that Rex Hunt (who unfortunately could not attend due to illness) was given a
Significant Recognition Award at WRFC10 for a lifetime of improving recreational fishing in
Australia and around the world.

This change in priorities is absolutely necessary, because the experiences of BTT show regardless of how economically or socially valuable a fishery is, or how culturally significant it is to indigenous peoples, or how well it is managed, if we lose habitat or water quality, we lose our fish. Even if all fishing stops tomorrow, if 80% of fish habitat is lost, there is no way we can get more than 20% of the lost fish back. And with the animal rights movement actively entering the fisheries space, its worth reiterating that if we have no fish, we have no fish welfare, which of course also means habitat and water quality equals fish welfare. Which is why for me WRFC10 was summarised by BTTs three pillars of a healthy fishery, namely clean water, healthy habitat and effective management of healthy fish.

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