Snapper fishing – and eating – is a favourite South Australian summer pastime, but now it’s threatened. You need to know why.
Adelaide news accounts from a couple of weeks back reported a sharp decline in snapper numbers in South Australian waters, prompting a suggestion that snapper fishing may be banned for up to three years.
Snapper is a summer favourite here – both with diners and fishers – and the mere mention of a ban provoked sharp responses. With summer coming ever closer, I think we’d all like a little clarity on the subject and perhaps it’s even time we reviewed our fish options.
Fish numbers are monitored very closely in South Australian waters, but the problem with declining snapper numbers slipped under the radar for a few reasons. Over the last 20 years the research budget for surveys has been halved, the take numbers can’t be counted properly because recreational fishers are unlicensed and largely unmonitored, and snapper tend to ‘aggregate’. (This means that they bunch up in one area, so the catch might be high, indicating good stocks, when in fact the stocks are just high in that one spot.)
The research budget was funded by the commercial fishing industry, with the government matching their input on behalf of the recreational fishing sector. In 1999 the budget was a healthy $1.2 million. Since 1999 the government input has been gradually eroded – last year Fisheries contributed $800k and the government put in only $120k, effectively halving the funds in real terms. This erosion of funds effectively puts truly accurate surveys with fact-based results out of reach.
The Marine Fishers Association believes that the problem is compounded by the fact that recreational fishing is unlicensed in South Australia. Recreational fisher numbers are largely unmonitored and, for the most part, their take can only be estimated.
When I spoke to Nathan Bicknell, the Executive Officer of the MFA, I queried just how much of an impact weekend fishers could have on numbers. According to Nathan, the estimates from a 2013-14 PIRSA recreational fishing survey indicated that around 350 tonne of snapper was taken in that time. More horrifying was the figure that approximately another 150 tonne was thrown back. In full, this was 30% of the total snapper take for that period.
Further – these figures do not include interstate visitors who go fishing while on holiday here in South Australia.
That’s a long way from being a drop in the snapper fishing bucket.
Another part of this complex problem is, like so much in life, timing.
We expect to eat and fish snapper in the summer, and especially around the Christmas holidays. And snapper are relatively easy to catch at that time of the year – but that’s because they’re spawning. It really doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that the exact time that this resource is trying to build up it’s numbers is certainly not the ideal time to be taking them.
(According to Nathan Bicknell, fish are athiests with no regard for our religious holidays – it’s a similar situation with King George Whiting and Easter time – we expect to see them on our plates, but that’s their spawning time.)
So what can you do?
If you’re a recreational fisherman, how about giving the snapper a miss for a while and set your sights on something else? Tommy ruff, snook, yellowfin whiting, yelloweye mullet, silver trevally, Western Australian salmon, mulloway, flathead, golden perch and leather jackets are all excellent (and delicious) alternatives. (And just so you know you’re not alone – commercial fishers have been actively taking less than their quota for the last five years to try to help stock numbers.)
When selecting your next fish feed, check out the different seafood options available from the selection above. For further information, take a look at my post on resources for finding which fish is in season.
Seriously folks, these fish stocks need to be replenished, so our expectations need to change.
As it stands, there is to be a comprehensive assessment in December which will give us a more accurate picture of the situation, and it’s very likely that there will be some closures. The way I see it, we might as well start making the adjustments now, if we want snapper on our plates in the future.