KATRINA Hodgkinson is that rarest of all rare things: a Fisheries Minister who actually fishes.
NSW hasn't had a fisheries minister who actively enjoys recreational angling since the ALP's Bob Martin, a keen angler who guaranteed his place in history by banning the kingie traps back in the mid-1990s. Martin was replaced by Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid, who followed his predecessor's good work with the creation of the popular rec fishing havens. Outraged protest by the commercial sector, plus media scrutiny of Obeid's controversial business deals, saw him lose the portfolio.
Things then went sour for anglers with the appointment of Ian Macdonald to the fisheries job. Widely regarded as the worst fisheries minister ever, Macdonald held back the development of the rec fishing industry via his short-sighted decisions, botched introduction of marine parks and bias towards the commercial sector. Macdonald left parliament in disgrace after being sacked from his ministerial portfolios and was replaced by Steve Whan, who ended up losing his seat after the Keneally Labor government was routed at the recent state election.
Fisho interviewed Hodgkinson in her Parliament House offices in Sydney yesterday. Appointed Primary Industries Minister by Premier Barry O'Farrell after his landslide win in the election, Hodgkinson describes herself as a "passionate" angler who enjoys wetting a line with her husband and young children.
Based in Yass in southern NSW, Hodgkinson and her family regularly travel to the Shoalhaven area and fish around Jervis Bay and local estuary systems.
As part of Coalition policy, Hodgkinson has ordered reviews in the Fisheries Department and Marine Parks Authority. Terms of reference for both reviews are yet to be set and the Minister was reticent to make too many comments about her plans for NSW's 1 million anglers before these planned reviews are finalised.
Hodgkinson's appointment to the Fisheries portfolio was something of a surprise. The job had been expected to go to long-time shadow fisheries spokesman Duncan Gay. However, Premier O'Farrell elevated Gay to the Roads portfolio and gave DPI and Fisheries to Hodgkinson, who holds the seat of Burrinjuck for the Nationals.
It was also expected that northern NSW Nationals MP Rick Colless – another keen angler - would be given the position of parliamentary secretary for fisheries. This also failed to pass, with Nationals member for Dubbo Troy Grant instead assisting Hodgkinson as parliamentary secretary for natural resources.
While many fishos will be disappointed that there will be no specific fisheries representative in the new Coalition Government, Hodgkinson made it clear that things would be different for anglers under O'Farrell's rule than it had been for the past 16 years of ALP domination.
In a move that should please anglers, and incite fury among anti-fishing extremists, Hodgkinson made it clear that she didn't support the "lock it up" ideology that has marred fisheries policy in NSW for the past decade.
"There are more than a million rec anglers in NSW," Hodgkinson said. "It's a wonderful pastime, a great family activity. But there have been some incredible restrictions put on (anglers).
"The scientific audit of marine parks that I've ordered is designed to look at options regarding fishing access issues. I'm not going to pre-empt what that audit will find but I want to make the point that this review will be based on science, not ideology.
"If science recommends protection for some particular area, then so be it. But if closures are sought just for some ideological reason, well, it's just not on."
The Minister said she would be happy to look at using fisheries management methods, not closures, as a way to manage marine habitat and biodiversity issues.
She cited her recent decision to revoke a ban on fishing around Fish Rock and Green Island, near the fishing hub of South West Rocks on the NSW North Coast, as an example of the sort of management strategies she favours.
"I was very pleased to be able to revoke the regulation that tied up Fish Rock and Green Island. It seemed to me ridiculous that that was put in place without any community consultation whatsoever. So now it will be out there for consultation for three months and we'll see what the community feels about it."
The Minister said she was not interested in arbitrary or "made up" figures controlling areas to be closed off in marine parks.
"You'll see a very different approach to fishing and marine parks under a Coalition Government than that you saw under a Labor government," she told Fisho.
One of Katrina Hodgkinson's first decisions regarding recreational fishing was the announcement of an artificial reef to be deployed east of Sydney. Two further reefs will be situation in NSW's north and south. The Minister said it was intended that these reefs be used for the sole benefit of recreational anglers and told Fisho that she would investigate ways to ensure that no commercial fishing effort was allowed in these areas.
She also said that it was not her "intent" to allow any commercial fishing into the state's system of Recreational Fishing Havens. "
Hodgkinson confirmed that her department would be responding to the recommendations put forward by the recent upper house inquiry into recreational fishing, which was spearheaded by Shooters and Fishers MP Robert Brown.
"We're looking into that at present and will respond by the due date of June 10," she said.
The Minister had read Martin Salter's landmark "Keep Australia Fishing" report – in fact a copy of the report was on her desk when Fisho interviewed her. She said she regarded the report as "very good" and was "keen" to support the key recommendation involving the formation of a peak body representing anglers.
"As Minister I'd like to be able to have a direct line of contact with a key stakeholder group so as recommended in the report I'd be very keen to see something like that established."
It seems that the appointment of Katrina Hodgkinson to the NSW Fisheries portfolio will mark a welcome change in policy direction for the state's 1 million anglers. Hopefully the new Minister will achieve the right balance between environmental protection and development of recreational fishing opportunities. Unlike some of her predecessors, Minister Hodgkinson seems prepared to listen to anglers, not just kowtow to the demands of green extremists. But as with all politicians, the proof will come in what she does, not what she says. Our new Minister is certainly saying the right things and appears to be on the right track. We look forward to working with her in the interests of all anglers in NSW.
Fisho will report on the recommendations of the reviews Hodgkinson has ordered into Fisheries and marine parks as soon as the results are available.