At first glance, a quota system for fishing seems to make sense.  The catch set annually by scientists is “shared” among those fishing, divided into units or quotas and initially allocated.  Overfishing and the threat of a fisheries collapse are given as the reasons for capping catches with quota on commercial fisheries. Others see it as privatisation of fisheries by stealth.

Now the Victorian government is talking “off the record” and “behind the scenes”, about placing a quota on recreational fishfolk for southern bluefin tuna.  There have also been strong hints on the Department of Primary Industry website.

“… future management arrangements for this sector and for recreational fisheries more broadly, potentially with regard to developing resource sharing arrangements between the recreational and commercial fishing sectors in Australia.”

Quota is the most expensive fisheries management system, based on counting and weighing every fish landed.  All costs and royalties paid to the government are recovered from those fishing, and then passed onto consumers through the price of fish — or directly to recreational fishfolk.

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Southern bluefin tuna were listed by the International Union for Conservation and Nature (IUCN) as critically endangered in 1996, but the threats to this species are yet to be documented.

This year the southern bluefin tuna are back in a very big way along the Victorian west coast, with long queues at boat ramps and the recreational fishery spending in conservative coastal electorates.  A bag limit of two fish per person and mostly poor weather limits the catch.

Now the Victorian Fisheries Department is quietly advocating quotas for the recreational fisheries and the rumour mill is in top gear. Once the infrastructure is set in place, other recreational species such as gummy shark and snapper can be easily moved to quota too. Fisheries departments will expand and fishing and the spending it generates along the coast will contract.

Unlike the US where quotas (catch shares) may yet be rejected in votes of the Congress and the Senate, quota management of fisheries has not yet been put to a vote in Australia.

The government agencies say there is a boom in southern bluefin tuna because there have been such radical cuts to the commercial catch.  Perversely, the commercial fishery can financially benefit from catch cuts, as the landed price may rise by more than the quota is cut. This may explain why the industry has not compared the numbers of southern bluefin tuna — with a quota of about 4000 tonnes annually for Australia alone — to the about 4000 individual also critically endangered black rhinos.

This boom in southern bluefin tuna along the coast within range of recreational fishing boats also happens to coincide with the first really wet years in more than a decade.  The rivers are running hard and many species of coastal fish are abundant — including many that southern bluefin tuna feed on. The recreational fishermen found southern bluefin tuna accidentally while fishing for shark. There has never been commercial southern bluefin tuna fishery in western Victorian waters. Most recreational fishfolk don’t expect this boom to last more than a couple of seasons but quota management will, if implemented, see them pay annual levies for as long as they own quota.

Recreational fishfolk are a significant voting block and may well punish the Baillieu government at the ballot box. They have many radio shows that start very early every Saturday morning, email newsletters, websites and magazines. They may again form coalitions with the multimillion dollar boating and tackle industries. They may even overturn the stock assessments on which IUCN listing is based.

So will the Baillieu government take on the recreational fishing sector to implement quota on them for southern bluefin tuna? As Sir Humphrey Appleby would say, “it’s a very brave decision, minister”.