The cries of alarm from recreational fishers about the lack of fish in the Nambucca River have been around for quite some time.
But recently they have gone up a couple of decibels, inflamed by a story we published in November with a statement from Department of Primary Industries that the quantity of fish taken commercially from the Nambucca River had dropped by 80 per cent.
The department attributed this drop to a decline in commercial fishing licences.
(DPI has since modified their position saying the source of '80 per cent' figure was unclear).
Local recreational fishermen dispute any such figures, citing years of anecdotal evidence that the decline is instead due to a severe decline in fish numbers.
The Guardian News has sighted upwards of 200 signatures on a petition in Macksville's Valley Emporium “expressing grave concern for the future of our recreational fishing industry in the Nambucca River due to overfishing by commercial fishermen” and calling for the closure of the river to commercial fishing.
"This problem has not gone away," the Emporium's Paula Davis said.
"I was born here and you used to be able to put a line in and get a feed of fish anytime. So many tourists are being lost and it is such a shame.
"Something needs to be done."
Another person who has been pursuing this matter tenaciously, is Brad Withyman.
“My connection with the Nambucca River began in 1974 during a family holiday. It’s where I learnt to fish and I’ve been returning ever since,” Brad said.
“It’s the most pristine river on the east coast. However, the last few years my attention has shifted from the end of my line to what’s happening on and around the river.
“You start to see all the pressures on the fish, bank erosion, habitat degradation, pollution and unsustainable harvesting.
“A fishery can’t sustain these constant impacts, and it could only take a significant climate event to push it beyond the brink of a species collapse. Menindee should be a wake-up call.”
Brad contacted a number of agencies, including DPI and the Recreational Fishing Advisory Council for some action … to no avail.
"I’ve since found out a lot about how the fishery is managed, and it's alarming. There’s no evidence of sustainable management practices in play.
“When you see mesh netting* targeting sensitive habitat of fish breeding grounds and spawning aggregations, you realise how the river’s fish stocks are in decline”.
*DPI records showed that mesh netting was by far the most popular method used commercially. Other methods used include crab pots and fish traps.
In 2005 mesh netting yielded 83 tonnes of fish from the Nambucca River system. In 2017, that figure was 23 tonnes.
In 2005 crab pots yielded eight tonnes, in 2017 the yield was five tonnes.
Records also show a decline in the commercial wild harvest of the five most common species: for example in 2005, gross tonnes of luderick caught was 18, in 2017 it was three.
As stated previously, DPI says this is due to the reduction in commercial fishers on the river - commercial fisherman agree (see link below).
Brad says the records received from DPI of the commercial wild harvest tonnages showing the decline are unreliable as there is no data about quantities caught by recreational fishers.
The Department of Primary Industry says:
… that on average, around 500,000 recreational fishing fee payments are made each year in NSW (with some annual fluctuations). It does not collect data on the number of exempt fishers, which includes pensioners, under 18s and Aboriginal people. Estimates put this number at 350,000.
A spokesperson said recreational fishing catch information was collected mainly through the Department's Integrated Monitoring Program which "involves biennial NSW Recreational Fishing Surveys, under a specifically funded research program to improve the availability of recreational data for use in management of shared stocks".
The report states that data collection for the survey was based on a telephone/diary approach – an off-site methodology developed to provide cost-effective data over large spatial scales, such as an entire state.
The 2013/14 report can be viewed by clicking here.
It states that fishers were both fresh and saltwater but 'the majority (67 per cent) of all fisher days on the Mid North Coast were shore-based and total effort was concentrated in estuarine waters (66 per cent), followed by inshore coastal waters (30 per cent).
Bream was the most common species caught (39 per cent), followed by dusky flathead (15 per cent), sand flathead, (12 per cent), tailor (10 per cent), sand whiting (6 per cent), prawns (6 per cent by number) and snapper (5 per cent).
The 2017/18 survey has been completed and a survey report is being prepared and will be published soon by DPI.
Regarding commercial fishing on the Nambucca River the spokesperson confirmed that;
"The Nambucca River is within region three of the estuary general fishery, which extends from the Wooli River to the Camden Haven River.
"The number of fishing businesses that can operate in region three of the estuary general fishery is 63, however only a small number of these businesses are used to fish the Nambucca River."
That number has since been confirmed to be eight businesses.