Commercial fishermen in Lakes Entrance Victoria have had their boats vandalised and have now been subjected to death threats. These fishermen belong to a fleet of 10 open boats with hand hauled nets of an original 50. They are now blamed for the poor catches by government, scientists, locals and especially recreational fishfolk.

This is not new — as long as unsuccessful amateurs could watch commercial nets hauled “full of fish” there has been conflict. In the past, successive governments of all persuasions have recognised that the commercial fishery is the sole source of fresh fish for the majority of the public that own them. Management was designed to reduce conflict. Commercial fishing in sheltered waters was banned on weekends etc.

Fisheries economics became increasingly influential with State government managers of these sheltered waters and since the “economic value” of recreational fisheries was highlighted.

Research that assumed that fish not caught by commercial fishing would be caught by recreational fishfolk ‘showed’ that this would provide a “greater economic return”. Around the same time marine biology changed too as funding was loaded into “stock assessments” — counts of fish that assume that commercial fishing is the prime or only cause of variation in fish populations.

Recreational fishing was extremely popular and by the early 1990s “I fish and I vote” stickers became increasingly common. To better control fisheries State governments “assisted” commercial and recreational fishing groups to organise themselves to be ‘better represented’ by organisations with appointed executives that were in part government funded — and controlled.

Over the last 30 years Lakes Entrance has attracted new residents as holiday homes have become retirement homes around its vast shoreline. Denied of any information regarding the link between habitat, water quality and fish catch, they invest their savings in moving to their fishing spot. Many clear the shoreline fish habitat for a view of the water from their home, run septic overflow onto the shoreline they fish and rage against the commercial fishermen that “caught them all”. It is classic case of both the residents and the poor government management killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

Bushfires, droughts and water diversions from major streams that fed these estuarine systems reduced streamflow needed to dilute increasing pollution as the holiday homes became estates along the shorelines of these former fishing “hotspots”.

As recreational fishing got worse recreational fishermen were made to pay for licences to catch their own fish and the funds raised used to buyout commercial fishermen. At each successive election targeted fisheries closures were announced to generate votes for strategic coastal seats for elections.

Of course each state is “running out of” sheltered water commercial fishermen. As the fresh fish supply declines its price and the price of bait “sky rockets” beyond the reach of most people and makes successive buyouts more expensive.

Environmental management of stream flows and pollution has been replaced by endless reports that usually blame dairy farmers — but never forestry, bushfires, industrial waste or sewerage. The Lakes Entrance system has suffered from successive algal blooms, seagrass loss and retreat of estuarine waters due to lack of streamflow more than most. The management of this complex system by the Victorian Government is reduced to meaningless statements on their “health“.

It is no small matter to sell up from the city and move to your favourite holiday spot with reduced super payments in these grim economic times. The opportunities to move again are limited — thus the rage as the golden goose stops laying.

Peter Fray

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