Note: Last fall, I was invited to New South Wales, Australia, to share TU’s story with recreational anglers Down Under. After a long nine-month wait, I’m here in Australia touring conservation projects undertaken by the New South Wales government fisheries team.
It’s tough to describe the last two days… at least in words. I’ve seen some absolutely amazing things–vistas that are beautiful beyond belief. I watched the sun sink over the coastal mountains along Australia’s eastern coast, and I watched itcome up again the next morning with my feet in south Pacific. I’ve met some of the most
welcoming people… people who make good eye contact and who shake hands like they mean it. I’ve tasted good beer, good wine and good food. I’ve shared laughs.
I’ve even watched rugby and tried not to giggle when my host, Craig Copeland, in all seriousness, called it “footy.”
As I type this, about a thousand parakeets–and I’m not exaggerating–are carry on outside my hotel window.
Simply put, I’ve been amazed at every turn.
But I’ve also never been more proud of what I do and what we at TU do every single day. How so?
Australia’s fisheries managers covet the work we do… our passion, our mission … our capacity. You see, there is no such group in this corner of the world–there is no organized outfit that fights to protect rivers and streams or undertakes the muddy, mucky work of building exclusion fences, reconnecting rivers with their floodplains or restoring the natural order of things where the river meets the sea.
They look at the work we do–with the strong and passionate network of grass-roots volunteers as our greatest asset–and salivate.
Over the last two days, I’ve seen conservation project after conservation project–the vast majority of them funded by the government and constructed by the government. Each one has both managed to encourage me and worry me. There’s so much to be done, and only one tiny sliver of government money here in New South Wales to make it happen.
Most of the work I’ve seen is coastal–there’s a real need in this part of Australia to reinvigorate the coastal marshes, to allow the tides and the rivers to work their magic and instill life into this oddly barren landscape. These estuaries are the nurseries for Australia bass, a unique river-dwelling fish that migrates to the salt to spawn, and returns to the rivers–an odd reversal of what I believed was the norm. The estuaries are also homes for juvenile saltwater fish like blackfish, flathead and rays.
But in too many places, the marshes have been drained, levees have been constructed and land that would normally have been covered by water has been turned over to grazing. Mangrove swamps have disappeared. There’s been a loss of function, and the fishing, sadly, has suffered because of it.
Copeland and his fisheries team are doing their level best to remedy the situation, and we’ve seen remarkable projects that are having the desired results–marshes and mangroves are coming back, juvenile fish can be seen cruising the shallows and shorebirds are taking up residence in areas that were once only home to scraggly cattle. Progress.
But here’s what discourages me the most–anglers don’t seem to be participating. Certainly, there are recreational anglers in Australia–they call them “rec fishers” here–who care about habitat, but they’re simply not organized… they’re not involved. The projects we’ve seen, by and large, have been done by industrious government employees who get a kick out of seeing saltwater return to the marshes, not by anglers who get a kick out of seeing productive spawning and rearing habitat created, with the understanding that the little fish that live there now might be big fish chasing a fly in just a year or two.
It doesn’t make sense.
Then it dawned on me. That’s why I’m here. I’m here to let Craig and his team know how we make good things happen, and how, more often than not, our own grassroots “rec fishers” guide the work we do, and do a fair share of it themselves.
I’ve watched jaws drop as I’ve explained to project managers how our chapters and councils engage with local officials and get their hands dirty making habitat more functional and, as a result, fishing more fruitful. When I tell them of our reach and the sheer breadth of our work, they simply shake their heads in disbelief.
Organized anglers affecting change on the ground that improves habitat and makes fishing better. Imagine that.
I’ve got a few more days down here, and few more projects to see. But I have a feeling the reception I get will be the same, and the questions will continue: “How do we make that happen down here?”
Be proud to be a part of TU. It turns out, in this little corner of the world, we’re the bell of the ball.