WHEN I was somewhat fitter and more flexible back in the late 1960’s I’d often take a break from line fishing on around Sydney’s North Head rock platforms at low tide and venture in into rock pools with a heavy bladed knife to pick up a couple of abalone to supplement dinner. I never seemed to manage to cook them as well as the chefs in Chinese restaurants did, but they were still pretty nice and the price was right.
Abalone bring extremely big money, about $160 per kilo both in export and domestic markets and the fishery is tightly controlled in the States where they occur. There have been suggestions that even the tight allowable catch rates applied may have been a bit too generous historically. Then in 1992 the perkinsus parasite was detected in NSW and abalone stocks in some areas declined. There is a current FRDC funded study looking at the economic impact and implications for the fishery. It has been suggested that the decline led to a big increase in sea urchin numbers, which led to both an expanded fishery for that species and damage to the areas where the urchins replaced the abalone.
The NSW Total Allowable Fishing Committee (TAFC) set a Total Allowable Catch (TAC) of 100 tonne of abalone for 1/7/21 to 30/6/22. Is that a lot? Well, if there’s 4-8 abalone to the kilo, in 100,000 kg that could be between 400,000 and 800,000 fish. That seems a lot. The TAFC also recommended that a Harvest Strategy for abalone be completed by 1/7/23. I’m unsure as what effect that might have on future TACs. It also recommended that fines for poaching abalone be increased from $500 to $10,000, which would seem to indicate it’s a significant problem.
Which leads to consideration of a couple of other issues. The first, out of self-interest, is that in the face of the commercial TAC numbers, plus poaching, a recreational bag limit of two abalone per person does seem a bit on the low side to this angler. And more significantly, it’s led to incredibly bad blood between indigenous fishers and DPI fisheries inspectors on NSW’s South Coast. The fishers say they shouldn’t be subject to bag limits when taking abalone to feed their family and friends and that legislation passed in 2009 was designed to protect cultural fishing. DPI says it won’t enact the provisions of that legislation until there’s agreement on limits for cultural fishing. Indigenous fishers say there won’t be any agreement on bag limits. They don’t accept their validity. Since 2009, more than 200 indigenous fishers have been prosecuted in NSW for fisheries offences, and that’s a lot of prosecutions.
Are indigenous fishers really a proven threat to the sustainability of the species? Is the current government, and/or DPI, just being bloody minded? Are the indigenous fishers being deliberately provocative? If they are, do they have every right, given their customary use of abalone and the un-enacted legislation? Might be good questions for some mainstream journalist to put to the Minister for Fisheries and the shadow minister in the run up to next March’s state election.