A Historical Moment for the Future of the Gippsland Lakes

Written by David Warren, President of the Gippsland Lakes Recreational Fishing Alliance.

On the 30th of October, Premier Daniel Andrews and Minister Jaala Pulford announced a policy commitment to end commercial netting of fish in the Gippsland Lakes by 2022.  The re-election of a Labor Government on the 24th of November 2018, with an overwhelming majority, will finally result in this becoming reality.

The LNP policy commitment for the Gippsland Lakes, announced by Minister Peter Walsh, was the same as in 2014, a voluntary buy out only, with no additional restrictions on the remaining licence holders. We found this confusing given the LNP were the first to announce a full buyout of licences in Port Phillip and Corio Bays with subsequent enthusiastic support for the passing the legislation in 2015. This was due to the greater economic benefit of recreational fishing to Victoria up to $7 billion dollars per year.

In the last few weeks prior to the election there was an advertising “blitz” against Labor (and our campaign) by the Seafood Industry and others in the commercial sector.  The blitz included advertising on television, radio, letter box drops, robo calls and hard print media.  The aim was to “scare” the public that fresh local fish would not be available to consumers and hundreds of jobs would be lost. There was an attempt to confuse our campaign to include the offshore industry. Only 0.2% of Victoria’s fish, much of it these days mullet, tailor and other low value fish, is supplied by the Lakes fisherman. The rest is supplied by the offshore industry or aquaculture and yes imports.  There was also an emotional plea for the welfare of the 10 fishing families who claimed intergenerational rights to keep fishing and who would be left destitute as a result of a buyout. Despite this there was a 4% swing against the sitting National member in the primary vote.

We acknowledge that implementation of this policy will be difficult for those affected and emotive to the community, however sometimes leaders have to make tough decisions. The reality is over the last two or more decades recreational fishing tourism has declined, along with the fish in the Gippsland Lakes. This has had a direct effect on small businesses in towns around the Lakes and the local economy. The tough decision has now been made to allocate the remaining resource to the sector that will have the greater economic benefit to the region and create more jobs as the fishery recovers. Two separate economic studies on boating and recreational fishing both estimate hundreds of millions of dollars direct benefit to Gippsland compared to $1.2 million from the 10 licence holders in the Lakes.

The 24th of November 2018 marks a beginning of a new era for the Gippsland Lakes, one that many in the recreational sector have been calling for, for decades. Not only has the returned Andrews Labor Government committed to end netting of fish but they have committed to addressing the ecological issues of increased salinity, reduced fresh water flows and habitat decline. There will be restocking of iconic species like Estuary perch and Australian bass, species that used to be abundant in the Lakes but are now rare due to their susceptibility to netting. We have also asked for a review of bag, slot and possession limits on fish in the Gippsland lakes to further aid recovery.

In time it is hoped that natural recruitment of Black bream and Dusky flathead will increase stocks of these species, however there may be opportunities to look again at breeding Black bream in a local hatchery.  Black bream can take 20 years to reach 38cm so recovery will not happen overnight and conditions in the Lakes need to be “just right” for a good recruitment. The last major recruitment of Black bream in the Gippsland Lakes was in 1989. Estuary perch and Australian bass are similarly slow growing and recovery will depend on not only ending netting and improving the ecology of the Lakes but recreation anglers and fisheries management will need to review a reduced bag/ possession limits and slot limits to aid recovery.

Based on the last 5 years average commercial catch of Black bream and Dusky flathead in the Gippsland Lakes, with the removal of commercial nets, over 30,000 Dusky flathead and 90,000 Black bream will become immediately available to the recreational fishing sector. These numbers do not include the availability of other species like Whiting, Silver trevally and Luderick.

This policy commitment by the Labor Party, which also includes $1.5 million for LEFCOL to develop a café on Bullock Island, is a significant gesture to the Gippsland region that the ALP has committed to governing for all Victoria.

An added benefit should see some of the fishing pressure ease on those smaller estuaries to the east like Mallacoota and Lake Tyers.

This is a pivotal moment in the history of the Gippsland Lakes. With the end of commercial netting the ecological management of the Lakes will become more critical with State and local government being required to play an active role in developing actions that will allow the Gippsland Lakes to truly become great again!

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