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From Hardliners TV star to rusting away at a Sydney pier

Since digital television hit Australia a few years ago, the influx of new channels an increase in airtime has not only surprised audiences but broadcasters as well.

Channel 10’s digital offering, with the bland and unhelpful title ONE (since I’ve never seen it linked to an actual channel 1 on any digital TV) showed early promise as a sports broadcaster but switched to mostly reality offerings.

One of the better shows they picked up from cable TV was Hardliners, which featured tuna longline boat captains plying their trade. It was an attempt to show the ‘battle’ between captains for bragging rights but did more in showing how tough it becomes to just break even when chasing endangered or critically endangered species (for those targeting Southern Bluefin Tuna at least). Conservation issues aside, it did feature some colourful characters, as you’d expect on any commercial fishing boat not captained by George Clooney.

While checking out Sydney Fish Market this week (another shadow of its former self), I spotted a tuna longliner docked close to the market. A nearby tackle shop owner told me the ship, Santo Rocco Di Bagnara, was captained by Tony Lagana in the Hardliners series but had now been out of the water (not literally) for about 12 months.

Whether it was commercial licence or storage capacity issues was unclear – the shop owner said the boat had been also used for crabbing and had discovered some new territory with abundant edible crab species but had, in his perspective, been unfairly targeted by NSW Fisheries and forced out of the game.

Many conservationists would be cheering at the loss of a tuna longline boat but the news made me (not so secretly) wish I could spend a day on board one of these boats – to see firsthand the fish they are catching,  the amount and type of bycatch picked up and the sort of people who work commercial boats these days. My guess is they are less George Clooney/Mark Wahlberg types and more like the Hardliner boys, many of whom actually care about sustainable fishing as well as trying to make a buck.

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Deck of the Santo Rocco di Bagnara

Satellite trackers on the Santo Rocco

Satellite trackers on the Santo Rocco

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New shellfish reefs to be planted in Victorian bay

Mussel reef in Port Phillip Bay. Credit: Fishingworld.com.au

Mussel reef in Port Phillip Bay. Credit: Fishingworld.com.au

Dredging and bottom trawling of Port Phillip Bay in Victoria have destroyed most of the natural shellfish reefs in the 230 years since European settlement of Australia.

This new plan reported in the Age newspaper last week will help to restore shellfish reefs in the bay with the aim of increasing habitat for flathead, snapper and other commercially and recreationally valuable fish.

Shellfish reefs will be re-created on the bottom of Port Phillip Bay in a historic project that aims to improve marine habitats in Victoria’s largest bay.

Researchers say that if the reefs can be successfully established as expected, they would provide healthy habitats for shellfish like mussels and oysters. They would also provide habitat, shelter and food options for fish such as snapper, flathead, rockling and many other fish that live in the bay. They would also help improve water quality.

Shells from mussels, scallops and oysters that have been discarded by the seafood industry and restaurants could be sought as part of the project. They would eventually be placed in the bay at one of three locations, in order to form a base for the early stage of the shellfish reefs. Some artificial material could also be used.

But the project requires more than old shells. Millions of baby oysters and mussels, which will be bred at the Victorian Shellfish Hatchery at Queenscliff, will be used to colonise the reefs in the $270,000 pilot project. The baby oysters and mussels will attach themselves to shells at the hatchery, before they are placed in the water on top of the old shells.

The project, to commence this year, is expected to be formally announced on Saturday by Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh, the minister responsible for fisheries. It will be funded jointly, with $120,000 from the state’s Recreational Fishing Initiative, and $150,000 from The Nature Conservancy, an international organisation that undertakes conservation works around the world.

A patchwork of reefs will be restored at three locations, near Geelong, Chelsea and St Kilda, in about eight to 12 metres of water.

New year, same attack on the sharks

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Around this time last year, fishermen were hanging up their prize catches in a big annual fishing competition here in Warrnambool.
One of the fish that brought the biggest crowd was a 110kg mako shark- a common enough catch in Southern Australia but still of concern given the huge global exploitation of various shark species.
The Standard newspaper posted this photo yesterday of an 81.3kg mako from the first 2014 competition and it looks like nothing has changed – same happy crew posing with a trophy shark that may win them more praise than competition prizes. Catch and release should be the protocol for fish such as this: get the photo on the boat, have it signed off by judges and leave the fish in the ocean. The article stated that fishers in the competition had caught “several sizable Mako sharks”.
A local fishing group has been criticised lately for its targeting of unnecessary species for competition points, criticism that was definitely warranted. I attended one of their club meetings recently and a few members were complaining about fishing restrictions that stop them racking up points for certain species. Given that one member caught more than 30 fish in two days, some of which were inedible or destined for the closest rubbish bin, their whinging seemed pointless.
These groups may slowly understand the effect of their ‘overfishing’ when they pull in less the next year or have to hunt harder for elusive species (just like the global commercial industry).

Reef sharks and aggressive triggerfish: diving on Fiji’s Coral Coast

I’m still sorting through about 200 short videos from my Fiji trip so put together a clip of some highlights from the first week. I could make a Finding Nemo sequel with all the anemonefish footage (though they weren’t the clownfish variety but still very cute). Yes, not all fish in anemones are clownfish – try telling that to kids who grew up watching Nemo and expect to see talking orange and white-striped fish under every rock 🙂

And the fishing shot at the end is from a morning trip with a local villager, who charged tourists FJ$50 to help catch fish for his village. Well worth the (minor) expense and my first chance to see reef sharks up close, though my videos were mainly blurry.

Seal pup all grown up!

20131220-162409.jpgSpotted this seal and his mates a few months ago hanging around the marine sanctuary. It wasn’t long before one of them worked out that begging for fish in front of the pier is an easier way to get snapper carcasses and other tasty leftovers!
Seals in this area don’t have too much to worry about: the larger colony at Lady Julia Percy Island has to contend with a variety of sharks including makos and threshers and the occasional opportunistic orca.

Suva fish market wandering

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I could have spent many hours in the Suva fish market, chatting to stallholders about their catches, changes over time in fishing habits and the like.
This one stall (most of them were little more than old tarpaulins on the ground) had mussels, tropical crayfish and a species of giant clam I couldn’t identify.
The number of yellowfin tuna around the stalls was a healthy sign of the state if Fiji’s tuna stocks. I’ve never felt good about eating fresh bluefin tuna back at home but the availability of yellowfin sashimi at every function meant I’ve now had a lifetime’s worth.

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A mild recovery: bluefin tuna stocks may be on the rise

After decades of falling stocks of northern (NBT) and southern bluefin tuna (SBT) in fisheries globally, some possible good news: stocks in certain areas appear to be on the rise, according to this Oceana report on a recent ICCAT Standing Committee on Research and Statistics meeting.

I feel like I should automatically qualify that by skipping to the third paragraph of Oceana’s post, which stated:

Scientists say that the models  (SCRS is) using are flawed and therefore have little confidence in them, so they will spend 2014 working with more recent data and improving their calculations.

Which makes me think of this piece of gold from 30 Rock:

Just like They Might Be Giants’ Dr Worm, Dr Leo Spaceman is not a ‘real’ doctor but he comes up with some very apt quotes that show how people can trust an academic or medical professional just because they “know science”.

Anyway, some fisheries managers and tuna fishers will be pretty excited about the possible stock rebound but hopefully they’ll err on the side of caution before making any changes to quotas. Here’s some research I put together for a uni report that might shed some light on the Antipodean situation:

“Australia’s SBT catch peaked at 21,500 tonnes in 1982 (Farley, J. H. et al. 2007) and quotas established in 1989 restricted the catch to 5265 tonnes annually.

Japanese long-lining catch peaked at 78,000 tonnes in 1961 and quotas were also introduced to restrict Japan to 6065 tonnes annually.

Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing for the species is also a major concern with the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna finding that ‘substantial and continuous unreported catches of SBT had been taken by longline vessels since at least the early 1990s’ (Polacheck 2012).”

That’s just the Australian and Japanese reported data for SBT – areas of the New Zealand and South African coast are also key fishing grounds, as well as the international waters where self-reporting of catches is still a woefully inadequate system.

In my opinion, we need tougher quotas, not leniency for these ocean hunters.

1. Farley, JH, Davis, TLO, Gunn, JS, Clear, NP & Preece, AL 2007, ‘Demographic patterns of southern bluefin tuna, Thunnus maccoyii, as inferred from direct age data’, Fisheries Research, vol. 83, no. 2-3, pp. 151-61.

2. Polacheck, T 2012, ‘Assessment of IUU fishing for Southern Bluefin Tuna’, Marine Policy, vol. 36, no. 5, pp. 1150-65.

Blue shark attacked by Jaws! Ok, not Jaws but still…

Another one from the “Overhyped Shark Attack” Files, this one is a little more unusual than the common ‘Jaws bites man/woman/pet pitbull’ stories.

Bastion of truth and journalistic excellence*, UK’s Daily Mirror had this report on a blue shark caught by fishermen off Cornwall with reasonably small bite marks sustained by a “10 foot” shark of some description…

Supposed experts are said to be looking into the attack, which happened when one of the fishos hooked a 60lb blue shark and then watched a larger shark – thought to be a great white – takes bites out of the blue before they could pull their catch onboard.

The reporter makes the surprising mention that “Although it usually eats other sea creatures, it attacks between five and 10 humans a year around the world and has killed 29 since 1990.”

Many gossip rags don’t usually admit that white sharks are ravenous for human flesh, so this is a big admission for a tabloid.

More from the fisherman who snagged it:

“The blue shark looked like someone had taken a machete to it.

“There’s nothing round here that can do that sort of damage. I sent the ­pictures to a shark expert and he ­believes it could well be a great white.”

Well, that’s sorted then: if an ‘expert’ says so, great white it is! But probably not. Great whites can roam vast distances and aspects such as climate change-affected ocean currents or shortage of food (i.e. seals, not people) may have encouraged one closer to the UK southern coast.

Without more confirmed sightings and review by real experts, we’ll have to wave this off as a poorly-identified mako attacking a small bluey and leave it at that.

 

Photo: Mirror.co.uk

Photo: Mirror.co.uk

*For those not aware of sarcasm, this is a relatively straightforward example. The Mirror sits slightly above other UK papers The Sun and the defunct News of the World for integrity and believability.

Mako shark still seen as trophy fish for local club competition

I was walking with my favourite Park Ranger yesterday on our usual wander near the Warrnambool Breakwater (the long stone wall in the background of these shots) and noticed a crowd around the weigh-in scales.

At first I thought one of the local tuna fishermen had hoisted up a decent fish for the benefit of tourists (who usually don’t appreciate the plight of the southern bluefin, but that’s another story). On making a path through the onlookers, my partner and I were pretty horrified to see a 110kg mako shark on the scale and a few impressed fishermen boasting about the catch.

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Of course fishing for various shark species such as mako (Isurus oxyrinchus) and gummy (Mustelus antarcticus) is still legal in Australia (limits vary by state and territory) but hearing one fishermen state this was a “common shark in these waters” made me cringe: they are still heavily fished and listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

Hanging one up in front of a crowd helps continue the “man vs shark” stereotype that is continuing to push down shark numbers worldwide, whether for commercial or recreational purposes. Sizing up the shark when it’s caught, using circle hooks and operating on a catch-and-release basis is the only way to go for maintaining healthy shark populations.

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Circle hooks more humane choice for sharks, rays and sportfish

Just saw this Southern Fried Science post (nothing to do with chicken, everything to do with shark conservation) about the benefit of using circle hooks – a method I’m yet to try but definitely support.

Here’s their description of the hooks:

Circle hooks are used by recreational and commercial hook-and-line fisheries (and many longliners) to reduce hooking mortality in large fishes, sharks, and bycatch animals like sea turtles.  The idea is that the hook more or less works by itself without being set like a J-hook.  The shape of the hook prevents swallowing and encourages hooking in the corner of the mouth, where it’s less likely to do serious damage.

Some great shots in the post show how easy it is to remove circle hooks, up against the traditional hook technique. Many fisherman now cut off the barbs from their standard hooks – they may lose more fish but it helps cut down on damage, especially for sportfishing and the difficulty of returning undersize fish once they have been foul-hooked or swallow a barbed hook.

Photo: Andrew Thaler, southernfriendscience.com

Photo: Andrew Thaler, southernfriedscience.com

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