Book review: Fishing in the Good Old Days was it really better?

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Fishing in the Good Old Days was it really better? Bob Kearney, Melbourne University Press

THIS is a great read. Bob Kearney has produced a book that combines his passion for rec fishing with his fisheries research career and gives us 15 chapters that recount wonderful fishing experiences in his “good old days”, centred around the Kingscliff rock fishing spots he fished heavily in the late 1950’s through the 1960’s, and sporadically beyond. He uses fishing for his favourite target species the jewfish (mulloway) to highlight memorable fishing sessions, techniques of the time and long- gone characters he fished with. As well as the jewfish, there are great encounters with outsized bream and tailor and even GTs recalled. There are also mentions of his later fishing adventures chasing bonefish, Spaniards, NZ trout and big jewfish from Sydney’s Garie beach, destined to become brood stock for NSW Fisheries’ mulloway breeding program.

The book’s worth getting just to read these wonderful yarns. For this reviewer…who’s not much younger than Bob….it prompted a whole range of recollections and memories from around the same period of big fish caught or lost, great rock fishing spots and characters befriended and fished with. If you’re younger, you’ll marvel at the size and number of fish talked about.

But the book’s much more than that. Interspersed are five chapters essentially devoted to fisheries management and social issues, based on Bob’s 50 years of research and fisheries management experience. It allows him to unpack the big issues confronting rec fishing right now: social acceptance, the impact of modern gear…particularly fish finders… on fish stocks, data inadequacy regarding rec catches and the use of social media to publicise hot spots.

It's really clever. It allows him to examine a variety of meanings of “better” when comparing the fishing of 60 years ago to the fishing now. He knows, like the rest of us of his generation, that there were many more big fish around 60 years ago in NSW at least and that they were more widely distributed than they are currently. But that’s not his only definition of “better.” He makes a bunch of other points. In the good old days fisheries management wasn’t good. Rec catches weren’t even estimated in stock assessments. There were no bag limits. Size limits were often ignored. Virtually all legal sized fish landed by rec fishos were kept and often sold in pubs or to fish merchants or restaurants, if they weren’t given away to neighbours or bartered.

To paraphrase some of his questions and what would seem to be answers, either written or implied:

  • Did those of us fishing 60 years ago catch more, bigger fish regularly (in NSW)? Sure did.
  • Did we do things no longer considered acceptable, such as keep far more fish than we needed and dispose of them in questionable ways? Yep.
  • Has the rec fishing ethos changed for the better? Generally, yes.
  • Has modern fish finding gear and the use of social media made the fishing experience better overall? Questionable.
  • Do marine protected areas work to conserve fish stocks or are they more a way for governments to avoid more far -reaching conservation actions? Probably the latter.

Bob also considers range contraction, habitat preference and environmental impact of coastal development in much more detail than can be done justice to in a review. He’d also clearly like to reduce conflict between rec fishers and commercial operators and see them combine to push decision makers for a true ecosystem management approach to fish conservation.

So, while the book evokes a feeling of nostalgia and envy for the “good old days,” Bob leaves us with a sense of cautious optimism for rec fishing’s next 60 years, as long as governments play ball at addressing climate and environmental impacts. Here’s his final message from the book’s last paragraph:

“Conservation of the marine ecosystem is essential if recreational fishing is to be better in the next sixty years. Recreational fishers have an increasingly critical role to play in that conservation. Hopefully, that role will be progressively characterised by informed leadership. From the perspective of more direct self-interest of recreational fishers, equally essential will be public appreciation of the many wonderful benefits that can be derived from the wise and sustainable use of the resources that healthy marine ecosystems support.”

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