ENVIRONMENT: Localised bait crab depletion

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Should eastern blue groper be a "catch and release only" species in NSW? Image: Nathan Debono  

A RECENT enquiry about the most common species of crabs used for bait by NSW rock fishers set me thinking about how our eastern rock platforms have been exploited over the years that I’ve been fishing.

Take bait crabs. The three most popular rock fishing bait species are the red bait crab, the sowrie crab and the variegated shore crab. The second two are more commonly known to fishers as the “scotty crab” and the “purple nipper crab”. Red bait crabs live in red weed and in cracks and under crevices below the high-water mark. They are, as the name would suggest, a favourite bait of rock fishers. The scotty crabs are slower moving than the reds and are often in the bottom of slightly deeper pools, where they’re easily caught. The purple nippers are fast and mobile and range well above the tide line.

While the red bait crab has the big reputation, nearly every desirable demersal target species will eat each of these bait crabs, presented whole, or cut and threaded on the hook in segments: bream, snapper, silver trevally, rock blackfish, silver drummer, leatherjackets, red morwong, tarwhine, spangled emperor and even, on rare occasions, mulloway and yellowtail kingfish. Crabs are great in areas where there are big populations of undesirable smaller fish such as parmas and mado, which will demolish soft baits like prawns and cunjevoi in literally seconds. But there are still plenty of more easily obtained alternative baits for each of the above species.

There is, however, one species that’s inevitably targeted with red bait crabs, the eastern blue groper, NSW’s state fish, and that raises a few issues.

Eastern blue groper nearly got wiped out in the 1950’s and 60’s due to spearfishing, bottom set nets and over targeting by anglers. Their resurgence from the 1970’s to now is a great story…these days they’re relatively common around most east coast rock platforms. The nets are banned, they can’t be speared, and the bag limit for line fishing is two fish per day. Lots of anglers now treat the groper as a catch and release species only, particularly those of us who regularly snorkel and see how inquisitive and attractive they are.

However, there is still a steadfast group whose members really like to catch and eat blue groper and will continue to do so as long as it’s legal. They’ll continue to harvest lots of bait crabs to do so. And, in some areas, they don’t respect the bait crab bag limit (10 mixed species in possession) or the fact that the area might be an Intertidal Protected Area (IPA) or Aquatic Reserve. As a result, lots of spots around Sydney that previously had healthy populations of these bait crab species now have practically none.

So, what do regulators do? Increase education on the need not to overharvest bait crabs, using some of our licence funds? Crack down harder on crab collection in restricted areas? Or make our state fish, the “bluey”, catch and release only, and remove its appeal to the groper gourmets?

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