Labor candidate Rosy Buchanan’s job of holding the seat of Hastings in this year’s Victorian state election has just been made more difficult by her boss, premier Steve Bracks, who announced last weekend that commercial fishing on Westernport Bay would stop if Labor is returned.

It appears to be another big win for Rex Hunt – who joined Bracks to make the announcement – and the recreational fishing lobby. Commercial fishing operators well remember what happened in 2002 when a fortnight before the election Bracks, again flanked by Hunt, made the same commitment for the Lake Tyers and Mallacoota fisheries. Sure enough, those commercial fisheries disappeared shortly after the election.

“You can’t keep shutting things down. The community’s fish have to come from somewhere,” Tim Mirabella, a fisherman whose family has worked Westernport Bay for over 100 years, told Crikey.

“This has got to do with the people’s right to access fresh fish. It’s not an issue of sustainability. The fishery has demonstrated itself to be sustainable. Commercial fishing was not impacting on the resource, the commercial effort is actually in decline and has been so for two decades.”

While Buchanan has close relationships with the local commercial fishing community, she supports the move and disagrees with Mirabella’s environmental assessment. “I certainly support the decision to take the commercial netting fishing out of Westernport Bay. They’ve done some real damage over time. Westernport has been struggling, especially since the loss of the seagrasses, and I believe that this has been a good decision for the long term health of Westernport.”

Buchanan also pointed out that the fishermen were able to work in Port Phillip Bay, and that she would support any fishing operation through the buyback. Further, while commercial netting will be banned, longline fishing is still permitted. But according to Mirabella, those phrases are calculated to ameliorate the PR damage in the wider community.

“The reality is you can’t longline all year round. With longlining you’ll only catch fish over the winter months. You’ll only catch gummy shark, and maybe a limited amount of snapper. To say ‘We haven’t shut you down’ is a fairly spurious claim.”

So what’s in it for Bracks? Knowing Buchanan won the seat in 2002 by fewer than 600 votes, and then only because preferences flowed her way, why would he willingly endanger one of the state’s most marginal seats?

The answer, according to some, is the Port Phillip Bay channel deepening project. Rex Hunt and his recreational fishers are a powerful lobby group who could be make all sorts of unpleasant noises during the project.

The Blue Wedge, another albeit less powerful lobby group, drew those threads together in a press release late yesterday:

(T)he Bracks government is cynically using Rex and recreational anglers as his (sic) puppets. Victorian anglers are not so ill-informed as to fall for this. The Port of Melbourne Corporation admits there may be medium term interruption to fish stocks in Port Phillip Bay as a direct result of their destructive channel deepening proposal – and yet they expect recreational fishermen to tolerate that on a promise that Bracks will remove the last few commercial netters from Westernport…

Wherever the truth lies, the seat of Hastings will be an interesting one to watch come November 25.