Note: Last fall, I was invited to Australia to tour conservation work in New South Wales and to speak to anglers about the work Trout Unlimited does in the United States. I’ve been in Australia for a little over a week and am now attending the National Recreational Fishing Conference on the Gold Coast in southern Queensland.
This past week is one I won’t soon forget, thanks to Craig Copeland, the fisheries director at the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries. Starting last Monday, I’ve been treated to an amazing tour of the New South Wales coastline, complete with visits to various conservation projects and to points I never knew existed.
Couple the diverse Australian scenery with conversation and discussion about fisheries conservation issues, and it’s been one of the most educational experiences of my life. I’ve been fully immersed in the Australian recreational fishing arena, and I’m better for it.
Saturday, I gave a talk to about 150 “rec fishers” about Trout Unlimited, and how our army of volunteers get unparalleled on-the-ground results when we take on a project. I told this group of anglers about the time and money our members invest in TU–everything from the sheer number of volunteer hours they give each year to the simple act of writing a $35 check–and explained how we understand the connection between the work we do on the ground and the success we have in the field.
I talked about how fishing is like a bank account–anglers can’t afford to operate in the red, so we must make frequent deposits to match or exceed the withdrawals we pull from the craft. It was a short presentation–maybe 20 minutes, and it’s not even close to the presentation I made to the New South Wales fisheries department in Newcastle almost a week ago.
I arrived in Australia with an exhaustive presentation that included many examples of our work–it filled a Power Point file to bursting. After a week of seeing the sheer desire for better conservation work throughout the region–but the lack of organized angler support for that work–I figured the talk needed to be less about the work we do, and more about why we do it.
Here in Australia, much of the conservation work is left to government agencies and folks like Craig, who use sound science and an ever-smaller budget to get a few projects done each year with the help of a passionate staff made up of biologist, hydrologists and other experts. Anglers, while they’re “keen” about their fishing and have “organized” into fishing clubs all over the country, do not engage in conservation work like we do in the U.S.
Perhaps even more telling is the sheer level of distrust anglers her Australia have for “the greens,” and I imagine the contempt is a two-way street. Environmental groups are much more organized over here, and they’ve made remarkable progress in lobbying for the creation of protected fisheries habitat–but, in many cases, protecting the fisheries means locking anglers out. The issue of offshore “marine parks” is a tender one among the angling community, and the people here who love to fish see the effort to keep fishermen from the fish as an attack on fishing itself.
And they might be right. It sounds extreme, but if it wasn’t an issue here, I wouldn’t keep hearing more and more about it.
But just because they’re not organized on the conservation front–and that is hopefully changing–doesn’t mean they don’t buy into the idea of protecting, reconnecting and restoring habitat. It’s just not a role they’re accustomed to playing–and that’s more than likely a systematic failure rather than a lack of desire.
Folks like Craig look at TU and salivate. In his words, if rec fishers in Australia were to organize and operate like we do at TU, it would be much easier to get meaningful conservation done on the ground. He’s been doing his job for a long time, and he’s rightfully skeptical that a disparate group of anglers can come together and work toward common solutions to some fairly significant problems. As of now, the notion is foreign to anglers–as I said, conservation is a role played by the government, not by fishermen.
That may be changing.
Several weeks ago, it was announced that a huge Dutch “super trawler” is on its way to Australia to indiscriminately net fish from the waters between Victoria and Tasmania on Australia’s southern coast. The catch would be processed on board and then taken to Africa, where it will be sold for food in developing nations. The boat, which has operated in waters off of Africa for some time (and there is evidence that its activity has impacted fish stocks wherever its been), is rumored to be on the way to Tasmania, and actually has the blessing of the government agency overseeing offshore fishing
Saturday, at the National Recreational Fishing Conference, this boat was the talk of the event. In fact, a new alliance between recreational fishing groups and the recreational fishing tackle industry was announced at the conference, and this issue was referenced as motivation. The notion of a foreign trawler netting mackerel and redbait from Australian waters incenses these fishermen. And, just for the record, the green groups oppose the trawler’s plans to net fish off the coast, too.
As I said, there might be hope for a more organized movement here in Oz, and if this issue–along with the contentious issue of marine parks–brings everyone together and builds important alliances among the disparate angling groups in the country, then so be it.
It was just over 50 years ago in Michigan when a group of trout fishermen got together and fought back efforts to tarnish the iconic Au Sable River. That single issue launched Trout Unlimited, which today has close to 150,000 dues-paying members and list of accomplishments that is unparalleled by any group, anywhere.
I think I might be watching the birth of something promising here in Australia. And, after seeing the amazing fishing opportunities that exist here–and the incredible potential for even better fishing with a nudge here and there from the people who fish–I think these folks are on the right track.
As they say down here, “Good on ya, Mate.”