There’s nothing less attractive to a beach-going holiday maker than sharing her sandy idyll with thousands of dead and decaying fish. Yet that’s what visitors to Byron Bay and surrounds may soon be contending with following one of Australia’s most massive fish kills.

“All the fish, prawns, crabs and even blood worms in 60 kilometers of the lower Richmond River are dead and dying. Eels were even hauling themselves out of the polluted water,” John Gallagher, a retired fisherman now monitoring the river, told Crikey.

“How long do we have to wait for governments to remove the half dozen sewerage outfalls in the river and reopen floodgates that have drained the estuarine swamps and created this massive acid discharge?”

Flowing into the sea at Ballina just south the newly declared Cape Byron Marine Park, the Richmond River once supported a vibrant commercial river fishery. But increasing problems from acid discharge, sewerage and government “buyouts” of fishing licenses have reduced this fleet to only half a dozen boats.

Following persistent heavy rain, fish kills in the Richmond River have happened before, in 1945 and 2001. Amazingly, in 1945, the commercial catches boomed following the kill, once the low oxygen water and dead fish were purged by the tide.

In 2001, NSW Fisheries closed the river to commercial fishing for seven months and only reopened it to fishing when it was boiling with fish and prawns. They call it management, and they claim it’s scientific, which gives their operation a patina of rationality. Certainly, no-one questions them.

But when the fishery was reopened, the average annual catch was achieved in just five months. The coastal prawn fleet also boomed. In 2001, prawns that breed in the estuary were so abundant that the price collapsed to just $6 per kilo. Once the clean tidal waters and streamflow refreshed the river the fish returned from the sea. So much for the impact of fishing on fish stocks.

But the broader issue here is the fishing bureaucracy. Australia has developed a multimillion dollar academic and management industry based on cutting commercial and recreational fish catches. We have even exported academic overseas to teach others how to model fish stocks based on the assumption that commercial fishing alone regulates fish stocks.

Yet the environmental problems that beset our fisheries, evidenced today in the Richmond River fish kill, have all but been ignored. Recreational fishermen and taxpayers have had to dig deep to pay for multiple, million dollar commercial fleet buyouts and Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). All of this has massive tertiary academic support, which flows into fisheries departments and ministerial advisors, who in turn create empires in fisheries management and research consultancies. And they appear to have almost unlimited, unquestioning support from the media, especially Radio National’s Science Show.

The recovery of the Richmond River estuary after each kill doesn’t make the news either. Nor does the money wasted on fishing license buyouts, the job losses in small coastal communities, and the higher price that you and I pay for fish caught by the tiny remaining commercial fleet.

As the dead fish wash up along the coast in the newly declared Cape Byron MPA, the pointlessness of drawing lines in the fish-strewn sand, chiefly to earn a few cheap conservation votes and to create academic employment, must surely dawn on the most stubborn academics. And perhaps even Radio National.