This article was published as a comment piece in The West Australian Newspaper on Saturday 28th November as part of a two page spread called ‘The Great Fishing Debate’. The West Australian Fishing Debate 28th Nov 2010
Overfishing of our iconic fish species like crayfish and dhufish has led to economic pain and harsh fishing restrictions. It also threatens other marine life by damaging the balance of our ocean environment.
Some might argue there isn’t a problem, but both scientific and observed evidence says otherwise. Things are not as they used to be.
My Grandad used to catch big snapper off the rocks with a handline. Old fishermen have told me how dhufish, then called ‘schoolies’, were so plentiful thousands would gather in Geographe Bay to breed, now they are difficult to find on most reefs.
Declines have been caused by both professional and recreational fishing. With booming population, boat ownership and technology, everyday fishers are increasingly impacting dwindling stocks.
Why is this happening? It is because we haven’t completed the puzzle of managing fishing. The missing piece is marine sanctuaries, areas where breeding fish are fully protected.
Australia’s leading marine scientists are now in consensus in calling for large marine sanctuaries. It isn’t surprising given evidence shows they are a win-win for fishing and marine life. Sanctuaries provide areas where fish stocks rebuild, supporting fishing elsewhere.
At the Poor Knights Islands sanctuary in New Zealand, large snapper are 14 times more plentiful, and fish regularly migrate out to surrounding fishing grounds.
In Spain, a decade long study showed that crayfish catches have increased ten percent because of a marine sanctuary.
In southwest WA, there are no sanctuaries big enough to benefit large fish. However, Rottnest Island’s Kingston Reefs sanctuary has 50 times more legal sized crays, producing 100 times more eggs.
Sanctuaries also show us how the ocean looks without fishing, so we can better manage the impacts of our activities.
Some critics claim that creating sanctuaries increases recreational fishing pressure elsewhere. Marine scientists and our experience disagree. Ningaloo has world class protection and world class fishing, so does the Great Barrier Reef.
At Ningaloo and the Great Barrier Reef local economies are thriving and growing. A study by a top Australian economics firm recently confirmed that marine sanctuaries could provide these same long term benefits to the southwest economy.
It is possible that our children will catch big fish as our grandparents did. However, with less than one percent of WA’s waters protected, we need a network of large marine sanctuaries to ensure a future for fish, and fishing, in WA.