Australian Fisheries management is in chaos. Queensland Fisheries has reopened Gladstone’s recreational and commercial fisheries despite obvious diseased fish and illness in the people that caught them. Meanwhile, the Victorian Department of Health and other bureaucrats have used a unique “whole fish crush test” to find a toxin and subsequently closed Victoria’s largest recreational fishery at the start of the Christmas holiday season. The peak Recreational fishing body for the State VRFish has been silent but Lakes commercial fishermen have engaged with all the bureaucracies and as of yesterday negotiated a sensible testing regime that could see the lakes reopened to fishing for everyone.

Stretching along the eastern Victorian coast the Lakes Entrance system supports one of the state’s largest tourism industries. Like many similar sheltered estuarine systems around Australia, its sheltered waters support recreational fishery, boating and nature based tourism. The Lakes system generates the bulk of East Gippsland’s tourist industry worth $250 million annually from its eastern lakes alone, it’s centred around the townships of Bairnsdale, Paynesville and Lakes Entrance with many small towns scattered along its over 300km of shoreline .

Last Friday the incident control officer for the Department of Sustainability and Environment announced the “Lakes” would be closed to fishing due to a blue-green algal bloom. Recreational fishing for “catch and release” would be permitted but those who already had fish in the freezer caught in the last fortnight were told to dispose of them. (Pity if you’d already eaten them.) Slow to put up signs, people continued to catch and eat fish and crabs. The commercial fishermen were suspended from selling their catch and told that one of the three samples of bream they provided to be tested by the Department of Health showed toxins associated with blue-green algae.

The commercial fishermen were asked to supply the fish to be tested. Three samples came out clear, but one showed signs of a toxin associated with blue-green algae. If eaten persistently this could damage human health. Instead of testing the flesh of the bream, the part people eat, the whole fish was crushed, “vitamised” and then tested, including whatever toxins were on its skin. People wash fish and do not eat fish guts but many fish are sold to the market chilled and whole to be processed later that day. Selling the fish whole gave the bureaucrats the “toxic trigger” they needed to ban their sale.

If you “vitamised” unwashed cattle and tested them for toxins they would likely be banned from sale as “toxic” too.

Blue-green algal blooms have occurred in the Lakes Entrance system before on many occasions. Most of the blooms have been like this one, small, scattered, localised and break up quickly. According to commercial fishermen, who boated along the length of the lakes system last weekend, this bloom is breaking up now with the aid of wind and cool weather.

It is unusual for blooms to form when it is wet, diluting the nutrients that are often the cause. Patrick Ryan has lived on the Nicholson River for nearly 30 years — he experienced one of his worst floods ever in September. It was not only persistent but the water was putrid. With a bunch of neighbours he visited the Nicholson River dam a couple of kilometres upstream when this occurred, a little more than three months ago.  They found the dam had been drained leaving behind the river flowing through a black stinking mess that was oozing putrid water into the river.

“They could have told us,” he said, “for three months we were forced to use tank water for our gardens … it has only been in the last three weeks that the water in the river is clean enough to use.”

The decommissioning of the dam was posted on the web but locals living on the river downstream of the dam were not consulted and there were no announcements in the press. It seems that how the putrid dead water, in the bottom of all dams, was drained or its impact was not considered.  The whole lot was let go into the Lakes system where it flowed into Jones Bay and Lake King, discolouring the water over months.  This area became the centre of much of the current algal bloom.Blue-green algae occurs in brackish waters — not the tidal waters like those at Lakes Entrance township — yet landing and eating fish is banned here too. As the national media reported the blue-green algal event and the fishing closures, it’s now a virtual tourism ghost town. Lake Wellington and the townships on the far west of the Lakes system have lost their tourism too. Like Lakes Entrance blue-green algae was not found but it is assumed that the bream that failed the “crush test” would swim that far — more than 90kms. If the bream were also assumed to swim to the east and up rivers this could leave to the closure of many more areas. The advice not to fish in the Gippsland Lakes is unique.

Advice from GoulburnMurray water in regard to the current bluegreen algal bloom in Lake Eildon states:

 “People who come into contact with affected water should wash affected skin immediately in clean water.”

And:

 “Blue-green algae cells are known to accumulate in the digestive system of the fish. It is not clear if the toxins will build up in fish flesh, therefore personal discretion is advised to decide whether to eat fish caught in affected lakes.

“Should you decide to eat fish they should be washed thoroughly in unaffected water and only eat the flesh.”

On Wednesday the commercial fishermen engaged with the five government departments that have closed the fishery and got them to agree to taking more fish samples from across the lakes System.  Four fishermen left the meeting with observers and went straight to their boats travelling to all corners of the system, collecting samples and returning between 1 and 2 am.  There are no testing facilities in Victoria so samples were sent to Queensland Thursday morning. The results will not be in until after Christmas, costing tourism dollars in the meantime.

On Thursday morning Gerard Callahan on Gippsland Regional ABC announced that both the Baillieu Environment Minister Ryan Smith and the Labor Shadow were “too busy” and not available for either pre-recorded or live interviews regarding the closure of the Lakes Entrance system.

Today a DSE incident control officer was on ABC Regional Radio telling people they can swim and fish in bluegreen algae affected water — but not eat the fish. This contradicts advice from the Department of Health on December 16: “The Department of Health advises that contact with the water should be avoided …”

Will these departments be accountable for the losses in tourism if the new tests clear fish?

Peter Fray

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