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Fears fish and chip favourite under threat after fishery mismanagement

Australia’s east coast Spanish mackerel fishery has been grossly mismanaged and urgent measures are needed to allow stocks to recover, an experienced fisheries expert has warned.

A preliminary stock assessment released in April estimated the east coast population of the species could be as little as 17 per cent of virgin stocks, well below the sustainable level of 60 per cent.

A Fisheries Queensland spokesman confirmed a peer review has since been completed into the stock assessment but no specific date for its release has been set.

In a statement, Minister for Agricultural Industry Development and Fisheries Mark Furner described the release of the stock assessment as “imminent” but did not address concerns about the length of time taken for its release.

East coast Spanish mackerel schools are line-fished from south of the Torres Strait to northern New South Wales with most caught commercially north of Townsville.

The East Coast Spanish Mackerel Working Group consists of four commercial fishing representatives alongside three recreational representatives, one from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) and one from the conservation sector, with the balance from government and research sectors.

fish and chips in wrapping
Local, wild-caught Spanish mackerel is the best seafood for fish and chips and is a bestseller in most Queensland takeaway businesses.(ABC Rural: Tom Major)

At the inaugural meeting in April, a group communique released by the department stated “significant” intervention was urgently required.

The group agreed that multiple meetings needed to be held to begin consultations on fishery changes this year, but a second meeting is yet to be scheduled.

Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) campaign manager Simon Miller said recent trends suggested the species was in serious trouble and called on the government to release the data urgently.

“We don’t want to see another case of what’s happened with the scallop fishery where the science said stocks needed to be rebuilt but there was a delay before urgent management action was taken,” Mr Miller said.

Stock levels critical

Despite debate about the stock assessment model, former James Cook University fisheries researcher and seafood retailer Andrew Tobin said the preliminary figure was likely an accurate reflection of stock decline.

“It’s certainly not healthy — whether it’s at 17 per cent is the big question,” he said.

State fisheries regulations set a target of maintaining population stocks at 60 per cent of the estimated number before widespread commercial fishing began in 1911.

Dr Tobin said since a quota for Spanish mackerel was introduced in 2004-05 with a 619-tonne commercial limit, that had yet to be reached despite being reduced slightly.

A man and a lady holding two trays of seafood in a fish and chip shop
Fisheries researcher Andrew Tobin says Fisheries Queensland’s regulation of recreational fishing is “third world”. (ABC Rural: Tom Major )

“Commercial fisheries only ever caught about 50 per cent of the quota allocated to them: to most people that should sound alarm bells but Fisheries Queensland have never stopped to ask ‘why?’.”

A previous stock assessment based on a 2016 study labelled the fishery sustainable with populations of between 30 and 50 per cent of unfished biomass.

But the report stated that pressure on spawning fish within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park had caused some aggregations to become unviable for commercial fishers to target.

Economically critical catch

Spanish mackerel is keenly sought after by Queensland fish and chip retailers and restaurateurs for its white, firm flesh.

Cairns wholesaler and retailer Stephen Parsons says half his business is filleting and processing Spanish mackerel, which is largely sold to fish shops along the coast.

man holding fish fillets
Stephen Parsons says the industry deserves more information on the apparent collapse in Spanish mackerel stocks.(ABC Rural: Tom Major)

“This is a multi-million-dollar business and people’s jobs are at risk, we need to know if the season is going to be there next year.”

Mr Parsons said an alternative to Spanish mackerel for fish and chips could be imported fillets of New Zealand or South African hake.

Pressures unknown

In addition to commercial harvest, the unknown quantity of fish caught by recreational anglers concerns many in the industry.

Many fishermen have also reported shark depredation, where bull sharks have learned to follow boats and take an easy meal from line-caught mackerel before they are landed.

Man brings in a Spanish mackerel over the side of a boat.
East coast Spanish mackerel quota has changed little since the original cap of 619 tonnes was established in 2004.(Supplied: Thomas Fowler)

Dr Tobin said the Queensland government’s refusal to quantify and manage recreational fishing pressure through a licensing system had hampered available data sets.

“There’s all sorts of surveys they run to chart participation and use to defend their position on recreational fishing but they’re definitely at Third World levels when you consider the information around recreational fishing in Queensland,” he said.

Queensland Seafood Industry Association chief executive Eric Perez has joined calls for urgent release of the stock assessment and says the delay is causing uncertainty for professional and amateur anglers alike.

“I can’t blame any sector for this situation before I’ve seen the science. We’re all batting at shadows until we’ve seen the document,” he said.

Solutions needed

The 100-year-old commercial fishery has been focused on spawning aggregations where breeding fish have been targeted while mating occurs.

Other Queensland fisheries such as coral fin fish have been subjected to fishing bans at times when researchers believe they are likely to be breeding.

“Spawning closures are a useful tool; they may well play an active role in recovering them Spanish mackerel population,” Dr Tobin said.

ACMS campaigner Simon Miller said Fisheries Queensland took four to five years from the first alarm over scallop stocks to make significant changes in 2021 to rebuild that fishery.

“I certainly don’t want to see that happen to Spanish mackerel; that’s why the working group and stakeholders need to be urgently working together,” he said.