Mulloway in crisis

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The future of mulloway is in our hands. Image: Patrick Linehan

MULLOWAY stocks in NSW are currently at critically low levels, yet many don't want to admit or believe the facts. Trouble has been evident for many years, as is evident by the implementation of the NSW Department of Primary Industries 2013 Mulloway Stock Recovery Plan, which sadly did not go far enough to result in a recovery.

Stocks continue to decline and I believe that if it wasn't for the floods of last summer, a stock collapse would be imminent. Extraordinarily tough management decisions must be immediately applied to both the commercial and recreational sectors if we are to have a viable and thriving fishery into the future. In my opinion, recovery will only occur if we temporarily reduce the number of mulloway killed in both fishery sectors, understanding that the harder the restrictions applied now, the sooner stocks will recover.

Personally, I believe that the Minister (the Hon. Adam Marshall), MUST impose a total moratorium on mulloway, for at least two-to-three years, or at the minimum, until the DPI Mulloway Harvest Strategy is legislated!

Mulloway have historically been THE holy grail for many rec anglers.

VALUE OF MULLOWAY

Mulloway are a valuable resource for commercial (com) and recreational (rec) fishers. Whilst commercial fishers target them wherever they can be caught, it is within the Estuary General Fishery that most are taken.

Similarly, rec anglers catch mulloway from a variety of waters, with each habitat supporting a unique fishery. Mulloway have historically been THE holy grail for many rec anglers. The faded old black and white photographs found within family collections are testament to this: grandad with his cane rod and cedar Alvey in one hand and a strained "smile" as he attempts to lift a big mulloway clear of the sand in the other! Their place as a trophy species lies with species such as snapper, kingfish, Murray cod, big trout and huge flathead.

Rec anglers input large dollar values into our economy in the quest for mulloway. My mate Matt lives in western NSW and makes about 10 trips north annually to chase "jew." He has purchased a 6 metre offshore boat particularly for mulloway and reckons that with a total of over 60,000 kilometres travelled, with food, accommodation and tackle, spends about $30,000 annually, and Matt is not alone.

Personally, I have 5 mulloway specific outfits for the estuary mullet-run, the beach, estuary and offshore, as well as countless lures for each situation, and again, I am like many. Imagine the revenue that would be generated by a thriving mulloway fishery. Akin to the Territory's barra fishery, the angling dollar would be huge, and unlike commercial returns, this money would spread throughout the entire economy, much like the boost that the Murray cod fishery has been for parts of rural NSW!

Rec mulloway are worth multiple times the revenue provided via sale through fish markets; not that I am suggesting the coin fishery should be abolished. The stock should be allocated fairly, not evenly, throughout the stakeholder base, in accordance with economic value. After all, as the name Dept. of Primary Industry indicates, resources have economic value and rec fishing is at a basic level, an industry in itself. Imagine the impact a "Trophy Mulloway Trail" would bring to coastal towns where large fish were a real possibility! Not that the value should be limited to money, but if politician's want to be so basic in their valuation, so be it!

Images like this one from the 1974 June edition of Fishing World (formerly the Australian Angler) aren't common these days!

That said, we know the real value of rec fishing to be more about passive exercise, recreation, mental health and environmental stewardship (if we were allowed), much of which is encompassed by the term "enjoyment". Perhaps an essential prerequisite for Fishery Ministers is that they are anglers themselves... Only a fisherman knows the feeling!

A SPECIES IN CRISIS

As a member of the NSW Recreational Fishing Advisory Council, I've sat through NSW DPI presentations in which fisheries biologists have clearly explained the state of the NSW mulloway stock. Whilst confidentiality caveats limit the data that I can include here, I believe that the writing for stock collapse is on the wall.

Mulloway stock levels have been discussed at length over an extended period and the Council was the driving force behind the reduction of the rec bag limit from two to one as well as the removal of the 45-70cm by-catch allowance for commercial fishers. The data that I can include is available to the public and has been either presented by the NSW DPI and/or peer reviewed research papers. What follows therefore is a transparent summary of reality, one in which Rec. anglers and Comm. fishers should recognise as critical with a willingness to work together (albeit painfully) for a genuine recovery of mulloway.

If that's a reality, I'm not sure, particularly in light of one representative estuary general fisher, whom I heard make the following statement during a formal meeting: "Why should your sport (rec fishing), impact my wallet?" If that is the general feeling amongst estuary net fishers, then mulloway are stuffed, and the best we can do is to "go it alone"... Which will be damning, given that the attitude of "why should we (rec anglers), release fish so that pros can get them", is still unfortunately, alive and well.

WHAT DOES THE SCIENCE SAY?

For some time there has been concern over the population of mulloway in NSW, as indicated by continuing declines over the past two decades in reported commercial catches. Recreational fishers report similar reductions in both catches and the number of encounters with large fish (the last decade fishing mortality has been consistently several times greater than natural mortality).

Further, since the early-2000s, the spawning potential ratio (SPR) for mulloway in NSW has been consistently estimated to be below the mandatory threshold reference point (the percentage required for a fish stock to be self-replenishing) of 20 per cent, i.e. stock are at a high risk of recruitment failure. We know that mulloway grow quickly, reaching, on average, nearly 40 centimetres total length in one year and 95 centimetres total length in five years. Mulloway in NSW reach sexual maturity at a size of approximately 68- and 51 centimetres total length for females and males respectively and at an age of two+ to three+ years, which is much shorter than 80-85 centimetres for fish in colder water.

Mulloway grow quickly, reaching, on average, nearly 40 centimetres in their first year. Image: Scott Thomas

Mulloway appear to predominantly spawn in ocean waters between November and March in NSW, with fry returning to estuaries to grow.

The available data shows that in terms of weight (not numbers), the rec catch is very similar or even slightly greater than the weight of commercial landings, also see (Henry and Lyle 2003) reported the recreational catch to be ±351 t and in 2015, (West et al.). reported a catch in the order of 103 t.

Thus, it is clear that rec anglers play a significant role in mulloway mortality, and that the historical response of blaming the "bloody pros" is not valid in this day and age. Rec anglers have benefited from advances in technology and social media to the point where all can successfully target mulloway.

Whilst there appears to be a significant divide between rec and com fishers in many areas, one common response shared in both sectors (whether they really believe it or not), is that mulloway stocks are in great shape and the scientific data indicating the current shortfall is wrong.

I am further concerned when I hear commercial fishers saying that their data is rock solid because it is a quantified number/weight of dead fish passing over the market floor, whereas the rec data is only an estimation. Further, that because of the "inaccuracy" of the rec survey, they believe that the rec catch is far greater than what is estimated.

When it is all said and done, there is no way of determining whether com data is more accurate than rec data or visa versa. A survey is the only feasible means of collating rec data because the high number of rec anglers in NSW, but because of the high number of data points (incidences of angling), the results are quite accurate.

Further, it is important to understand that the NSW DPI scientists are using world's best practice design within the survey. On the surface, it appears that the com data is more accurate, but in reality, it is also an estimate.

We have to just assume the commercial catch is a perfect census of all mulloway harvested, which we know it is not (how could it be?). In most commercial fisheries where catch reporting is mandatory, there still exists a multitude of reporting issues, ranging from non-reporting, misreporting, underreporting and even over-reporting of catch.

NSW commercial fisheries is a typical commercial fishery so there's no reason to believe that these issues don't occur here. We therefore have no way of knowing or estimating how accurate the commercial catch statistics are... We just have to accept what is reported is what is caught. That's where the strength of the rec survey data lies, it allows us to say that the rec estimate is X, but could be between Y and Z. Whereas the commercial catch is just X — could it be double, could it be half? —impossible to know, it's a "guess at best". The commmercial data goes back in time further than rec data. We know that the 1970s were the golden years for commercial anglers in NSW, with almost 400t taken in a number of successive years and that since the mid 90s, the average tonnage of fish landed declined to a level of less than 100t, with a historic low of 37t in 2008/9.

In 2013, in response to the obvious decline in the spawning biomass, a Recovery Plan was instituted with the aim of increasing spawning stock of mulloway by "reducing fishing mortality on both adult and juvenile parts of the stock".

Whilst some commercial fishers seem to have changed fishing practices when mesh netting, current data clearly demonstrates that mulloway have not recovered. DPI data shows that huge numbers of mulloway are still being taken by Estuary General meshing from NSW river estuaries. Prior to 2018, the NSW com mulloway fishery was largely made up of juveniles, with DPI data indicating that around 80 per cent of the catch was

As a result of a continuing classification of being "growth-overfished", in 2018, two further restrictions were applied to the fishery, namely: the removal of the possession limit of 10 mulloway between 45 and 70 centimetres that applied to net fishers, and the implementation of a 70 centimetres minimum size limit in line with the limit for rec fishers. Secondly, a reduction of the rec bag limit from two to one.

I would expect that when the latest report on mulloway and the 2019 Rec Fishing Survey results are released, that the status of the stock will change from "growth overfished" to "depleted", given that the current spawning biomass will have to have fallen into single digits (at least as a minimum). STOP PRESS: That's exactly what happened!

FURTHER PROBLEMS

Immediate management options? Tragically, the mulloway black market remains alive and well. Black marketers (unlicensed rec anglers), tend to be connected and "good" at what they do and there is no data (of course), of how many fish are killed for backdoor sales.

Although, in mulloway hotspots such as the North and Mid-North Coasts, I'll guarantee that the catch is significant, and once in the co-op or restaurant cool room, these fish are terribly hard to trace... Which is another problem requiring a solution.

Further, fisheries officers can only bring about a conviction with direct evidence of money physically changing hands. An issue easily overcome with electronic banking. There is need to address the black market, which is another area beneficial to both com and rec anglers. With data clearly demonstrating continued decline in stock, action must be taken in response to the worst-case scenario. At what appears to be the 12th hour for mulloway, the introduction of Harvest Strategies is the light at the end of the tunnel. These tailored, predetermined frameworks enable Fisheries Managers to respond to changes in stock levels quickly and transparently, ensuring sustainable populations into the future. However, getting these species/regional strategies in place will take at least 18 months, so the implementation of interim measures is critical. Mulloway don't have the luxury of time...

It seems obvious that the following management tools should be implemented immediately, at least until the Mulloway Harvest Strategy comes into force:

  • The introduction of a slot limit of in all sectors to maximise the reproductive potential into the future, remembering that the larger females are the most viable breeders in terms of the number and fertility of the eggs produced by an individual.
  • Mandatory fin-clipping for rec caught mulloway to help limit black marketing, as suggested by Commfish.
  • A reduction of the rec bag limit to one fish only (in possession), between 70 — 100 centimetres.
  • Ensure the capture of the total recreational catch of mulloway in NSW, via a workable app.
  • Apply a moratorium to all estuary meshing and beach hauling, compensating income loss through funds collected by the NSW Fishing License Trust, being based on catch records for the last 5 years.
Many recreational anglers prefer to release mulloway these days! Image: Chris Cleaver

RECREATION ANGLER ACTION

Many anglers are now releasing mulloway regularly, with figures suggesting up to 89 per cent of rec caught fish are released, which is fantastic, and a figure that I hope has continued.

That said, it's my gut feeling that many of the fish killed are the larger breeders. Take the NSW North Coast winter mullet run lure fishery for example. Because mullet concentrate in river mouths on their way to and from the sea to spawn, and because the river mouths have been stabilised by break walls, the result is that many, many large mulloway are taken from large (and high) break walls each season. These fish tend to be gaffed as it can be dangerous to get a hand on them due to swell exposure, extremely strong currents, and the difficulty of climbing down blocks of concrete and large pieces of slippery rock. I'm thinking that as a result, many of these fish are retained.

Similarly, too, would be many of the fish taken from deep water off the coast have hyper-extended swim bladders by the time they come up to the surface. These are two areas that we can overcome, and I hope we do!

However, we could do much more... The most effective species recovery plans are those in which the most drastic actions are taken. Just imagine the rebound that would take place if there was a total moratorium on mulloway for two-to-three years! With no legal fish killed, 70 centimetre fish might (with adequate rainfall), spawn twice. All fish would be larger, and the base would be set for 0-2 year old juveniles to grow to 70 centimetres in the coming years.

I reckon that with high-level management, NSW could be mulloway mecca. Imagine the fun we could have, not to mention the revenue a vibrant mulloway fishery would contribute to the state of NSW!

 

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