John is a second-generation commercial fisher in Moreton Bay, and I have to tell you guys, he had a wealth of stories and information to share!
Though hopefully this podcast series and blog has brought to light some of the other very significant “stakes” we might have in Moreton Bay, it’s probably no surprise that when we think of “stakeholders” in the marine environment, the first groups that come to mind are always recreational fishers and commercial fishers.
For one thing, when decisions are made about how we use our environmental surroundings, fishers use the resource in a way that is (relatively) easy to quantify. Number of fish➡️economic value; number of visitors and how much they spent ➡️ economic value.
(Of course there are many more, diverse benefits to us that are much much harder to quantify: ecosystem services like filtering water or air, or buffering against storm surges. And cultural services such as providing a sense of place, or spiritual renewal. These are recognised, but so far, attempts to weigh up these services to compare them to economic values are difficult, time-consuming, and a harder “sell” to the public and decision makers, so they’re often given short space in considerations.)
Secondly, amongst all stakeholders, recreational and commercial fishers seem to have the most fractured relationship, and that means they’re the stakeholders we most often hear from in the news media, when management decisions come up.
While many of us are recreational fishers, or know one, or at least in theory understand what goes on out there, even if we wouldn’t have a chance in hell of bringing up more than an old boot (*ahem*), I think far fewer of us can connect with what commercial fishers do and experience.
For most of us, anything we know (or think we know) about commercial fishing comes from TV, social media, or even reality shows. So we think of enormous factory trawlers hoovering up unsustainable numbers of fish, along with treasured species such as turtles, dolphins, and mantas, which of course are killed and discarded. We might also think of those discarded or lost nets (ghost-nets) which ensnare and kill ocean life indiscriminately, and go on doing so for decades.
We all know, and worry, about overfishing, and the ongoing threats to our environment. Today it’s impossible to continue to assume ocean resources are limitless. And as with so many things, we want to find someone to whom we can assign responsibility.
Commercial fishers as a group are as diverse as any! And commercial practices across the globe are immensely varied. Certainly all the assumptions above came from somewhere – all those things – and worse – actually happen. But do they happen here? When we spot a commercial fisher working in Moreton Bay, can we assume they are having a greater impact on our fish numbers than the vast number of recreational fishers who are out there at the same time? (Short answer: it depends)
One of the lovely things about talking to John was how he gave me confidence that he at least is very dedicated to looking after the Bay. He also inspired me to learn more – like what type of gear do they actually use in Moreton Bay, and what species are caught here? Do they, and how do they, make sure they’re not catching turtles and other by-catch? Where can I buy seafood to make sure it’s from our local operators? Thankfully, the Dept of Agriculture and Fisheries has a whole section about the types of operations in Queensland; and the Moreton Bay Seafood Industry site answered that other important question!
Of course, if we happen to run into one of our commercial fishers, we could simply ask!
The hidden benefits of commercial fishing
John told me a bunch of stories before and after our interview, that stick with me. Once, he motored up near St Helena and encountered a group of school children who started shouting at him that he was a “porpoise-killer”. Another was about passing a fellow on the water who wouldn’t return his greeting… until this fellow got into some trouble and then hoped for his help.
I can’t imagine what it would be like to do a job where people are likely to take badly to you before they even know you, or what you really do.
Let’s face it, we don’t all want the same things, or agree on how to behave, or how our marine resources are used. But what we could do is make the commitment to learn about each other before we decide. And in the case of commercial fishers, we might also take a broader look at what our fisheries really provide us.
The most obvious benefit of commercial fishing is of course economic – providing jobs and income to the community, through the catch and sale of fish, and even through tourism, where local seafood is a selling point.
But there are other benefits. A 2016 study of the wild-caught fishing industry on NSW coasts found commercial fishing provided numerous social outcomes alongside the economic.
For example, commercial fishers are often involved with search-and-rescue operations, saving other mariners. There’s also a heck of a lot of infrastructure (boat ramps, wharves, slipways) that is available and maintained for the benefit of other users because of the presence of commercial fishers.
Commercial fishing contributes to a diversity of knowledge in the community, which in turn provides resilience to unforeseen change, and wild-caught fishing industries become part of our coastal identity (sense of place).
In short, our commercial fishers could just be absolutely necessary both to our sense of what Moreton Bay is, and how we experience it.
There’s a really encouraging movement in marine conservation science that acknowledges and respects that knowledge isn’t housed in academic institutions alone. What’s more, we know that research that is co-produced by local people is accepted by the community more readily, and management implementations that are based on that research are easier to enforce, in part because the community are more willing to be part of monitoring peers’ behaviour.
John has 40 years of data and observations on Moreton Bay, he told me. How does it stack up against our scientific publications? Well, judging by studies across the world, his knowledge is likely to be as informative, and complementary to, scientific studies.
Sometimes there are differences, in part because of the way we view and assess what we’re seeing, but on the whole, we are quite frankly nuts if we don’t engage with these holders-of-knowledge.
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