The lack of baby anchovies in Port Phillip Bay could threaten the second largest tourist attraction for international visitors in Australia — Victoria’s multi million dollar Phillip Island Penguin Parade.

Most Australians are deeply divided over the issue of anchovy on pizza but give little thought to this small, hairy, fish that formed schools of billions in the sheltered waters of Port Phillip Bay as recently as 2004. A recent trawl survey of anchovy has revealed that there were very few less than 12 months of age — a breeding season missed.

Commercial fishermen that work in the bay presented personally to the Channel Deepening Inquiry. They spoke of a vast schools of anchovy hanging in the bay, many kilometres wide and long and thick through the water column. Despite the size of this school the catch remained relatively constant. The fish market has a limited number of buyers that can take only so much fresh anchovy before the price crashes — effectively limiting the catch. Anchovy are vital food for many other species of recreational and commercial fish species — and Phillip Island Penguins. This is why they are monitored by the Office of the Environmental Monitor, the watchdog reviewing the dredging project.

As Victorian Fisheries monitor fish stocks by variation in catch rates, the ‘uncaught’ anchovy of 2004 or any other year are not recorded. Using a trawl to sample the anchovy schools, a brand new data base has been established — but it was established after the dredging project. Despite this, it has revealed a possible impending disaster — anchovy may have stopped breeding in the bay.

The Phillip Island Penguins parade is said to be Australia’s second largest tourist attraction for international visitors after the Great Barrier Reef. According to the Phillip Island Nature Park, the penguins bring in an average of 707,000 tourists annually. According to our calculations, the spending of these international tourists are equivalent to ‘export income’ of around $200 million pa.  (A more precise and updated figure was not available from Minister for Tourism Tim Holding’s Office or Tourism Victoria or the Federal Department of Tourism.)

Phillip Island Penguins have been tagged and monitored since the 1960’s and their range is well known — west of Phillip Island to Port Phillip Bay, which is their principle feeding ground.

Little penguins live in burrows and venture to the sea to feed and ‘parade’ in their night return, each colony adapted to the food resources within its range. The young pilchards that once made up a significant portion of the diet of the Phillip Island penguins around egg laying season October to November, were hit hard by disease in the 1990’s. Anchovy too became scarce but recovered in subsequent years to become a major part of their diet and the chicks became heavier and grew faster — as the Channel Deepening Inquiry was told.

The way anchovy are now being “monitored” it’s likely the first we would know of a crash in their population would be a collapse in the Phillip Island penguin populations. After the late summer/autumn moult penguins cannot go to sea for 17 days or more and are reliant on their fat reserves alone. In the past this has been when many have died.

This is apparently of little concern to the office of the Environmental Monitors’ Mick Bourke who is quoted in The Age:

“It was not clear whether or not the lack of (one-year-old or less) anchovies in the sample was real or an artefact of sampling methods. The 2009 survey will answer this question.”

His deputy Don Hough is even more dismissive and quoted as saying;

“Scientists were confident a generation of baby anchovies had been missed by a flaw in the testing regime.”

If you do not like research outcome — blame the methodology apparently.

The Victorian Government and the ALP have been belligerent — forcing through the Channel Deepening Project despite a wide range of environmental concerns. The cost to the Victorian and Australian Economy may yet be far greater than anyone predicted.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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