Our “Protecting Ramsar Values” project is multi-faceted. Obviously, we are hugely concerned about the impact of industry on Western Port, hence our comprehensive response to the AGL proposal. We are also concerned about maintaining roosting and feeding sites for our migratory shorebirds, as well as other areas of research such as into the bryozoan reefs or resident dolphins. However, the main focus of the project is to minimise any impact recreational boating has on the environment. In Western Port, recreational boating essentially means fishing.
We have been spending time at boat ramps talking to boaters, we have spoken with Fishing Clubs and attended the recent Whiting Challenge run out of Hastings. The point of this work is to identify when, where and how the sport puts pressure on the environment and to, collaboratively, work out potential solutions. What we have found out has been very interesting. It has certainly disproved a lot of our preconceptions.
Firstly, boats have little impact on the shorebirds. People tend to fish around the high tides when the birds are normally roosting. Even when the birds are on the mudflats, the wash of a boat rarely reaches them. There is more chance of encountering a water bird or gull but, again, it seems birds and boats rarely meet. Litter, particularly bait bags and discarded line, was another area of concern. Just like on land, however, it seems 99% of people do the right thing and do not pollute the environment. One charter-boat operator commented favourably how he sees much less litter in the water now than in years past. The damage anchors do to reefs and sea grass beds is an issue but, we must be realistic in recognising that boats will always anchor so the question becomes how to minimise the damage. The boaters already know the answer and most of them follow best practice, lifting the anchor straight up not dragging it out. Our final concern was the size of the “take”; surely the sheer number of people fishing plus the popularity of fishing competitions must be putting pressure on fish stocks? Perhaps not. Recent conversations with fisheries scientists suggest they are comfortable with the level of fishing in Western Port. In their opinion, climate change with possible changes to the currents in Bass Strait plus altered rainfall patterns are likely to have a greater effect.
So, what are we left with? Recreational fishing does have a lot of benefits. Through the purchase of boats, gear and bait, there is an obvious contribution to the economy. It is a social, outdoors activity which has implications for general health and well-being. The level of knowledge many people develop of tides, winds, and seabed characteristics all translate into an appreciation for the environment. Finally, no one wants the fish to disappear so there is widespread observance of catch limits. In keeping with the Biosphere Foundation’s mission of connecting people and nature, we have to acknowledge those positives.
We remain concerned about antagonism between people who are fishing and seals. This seems more of an issue in Port Phillip than Western Port and, moreover, has obviously been going on since people first went to sea. Nevertheless, it is an issue we need to be conscious of. Finally, there is the lingering sense that thousands of people taking dozens of fish out of the bay cannot go on forever. That is why, the take home message of the project has become “be happy when you have caught your dinner, not your limit.”
Stephen Brend, Project Officer, Western Port Biosphere Foundation