Labor pledges to end net fishing in the Lakes

Liz Bell

RECREATIONAL fishers are celebrating Tuesday’s surprise announcement by Premier Daniel Andrews on community television that a re-elected Labor government would ban commercial netting from the Gippsland Lakes.

Mr Andrews used a fishing program as an unusual platform to announce that Labor would “give the Gippsland Lakes back to recreational anglers” by phasing out commercial fishing to boost local tourism and create jobs.

Under the plan, Labor will buy out the last commercial fishing licences in the lakes over four years and introduce a sliding catch cap, with all licences to be removed by 2022.

Key ‘say no to netting’ campaigner David Warren, head of the Gippsland Recreational Fishing Alliance, said he was “ecstatic” at the news that netting licences for the lakes would be scrapped in a bid to replenish fish stocks and restore the health of the waterways.

“I’m happy that they’re listening and considering the environment,” he said.

“This is not just about banning netting, it’s about the health of the lakes as a sustainable waterway.”

Loch Sport Angling Club vice president Justin Renehan said the premier’s announcement showed “goodwill” towards the Gippsland Lakes and the community.

“I’m happy, and I think it’s a bit of a wake-up call to the others — they’ve got an opportunity to put the health of the lakes first,” he said.

Mr Renehan rejected claims made throughout the ‘no to netting’ campaign that a ban would limit or end the availability of local fish for consumption.

“We need to put an end to the ‘smoke and mirrors’ stories out there; the fish that ends up in locals clubs and pubs doesn’t get caught in Gippsland Lakes — it comes from the offshore netting — and that won’t be affected,” he said.

But head of the Seafood Industry Victoria Johnathon Davey, described the news as “fairly shocking”.

He said the policy would hit commercial fishers hard, and warned that “they have to win the election” to implement a buyout.

“To have this dropped on us is very disappointing,” he said.

“We’ve been having discussions with the government and been assured all along that no further bans would be implemented after they banned netting close to river mouths.”

Mr Davey said the decision was made using “no research, no evidence, no rationale and no consultation with the fishing industry”.

“Once again the commercial seafood industry is a victim of the electoral cycle,” he said.

Gippsland anglers and commercial fishers have been at odds for years over how to protect the lakes amid anecdotal and conflicting documented evidence of unstable fish stocks.

There are currently 10 commercial fishing licences for the Gippsland Lakes, with the main species taken being Black Bream, Tailor, Yellow-eye Mullet, Dusky Flathead, European Carp, Luderick and Eastern King Prawn.

Figures compiled by the Victorian Fishing Authority looking at fish catches from 1978 to 2017 showed that fishing in the Gippsland Lakes had declined “to crisis point”.

In response to Premier Andrew’s commitment, the Liberal Nationals have reiterated their stance that a voluntary buy-out of commercial fishing licences is the best “fair and equitable” option for the lakes “to secure a sustainable fishery for future generations”.

A “Gippsland Lakes Sustainability Plan” would be developed in consultation with industry and the community, and would also explore opportunities to undertake habitat restoration work to boost fish stocks.

Shadow agriculture minister Peter Walsh said up to $2 million had been committed for the plan, which would “be informed” by the community and industry, and using available science on the history and health of the Gippsland Lakes fishery.

“The Liberal Nationals are committed to managing Victoria’s fisheries to ensure sustainable commercial and recreational fisheries for future generations,” Mr Walsh said.

“By reducing commercial fishing activity in the Gippsland Lakes region and planning for the future of the fishery, we can boost opportunities for recreational fishing, which is good for tourism and local businesses.”

The plan would also investigate methods to “modernise” commercial licencing arrangements, and explore habitat restoration works and fish stock recovery projects.

Gippsland East MLA Tim Bull said a thriving Gippsland Lakes was good for all users.

“Ensuring the health of the Gippsland Lakes is good for our commercial and recreational fishers and for our local tourism operators,” he said.

Mr Renehan said a buy-out was just “the first step”, and has called for a health audit of the lakes.

“Whether it’s the lack of fresh flows into the lakes, whether it’s the salt, or whether it’s a range of things, we need to address all these issues,” he said.

More than 230 commercial fishing licences have been lost in Victoria during the past eight years, as governments increasingly see recreational fishing and tourism as a booming income source.

Four years ago, Labor promised to grow fishing participation to one million anglers by 2020.

As has been done in Port Phillip Bay and Corio Bay, Labor has promised Gippsland Lakes licensees will be “properly compensated” as part of the buy-out.