Why is the iconic Port Phillip Bay Snapper disappearing?

This commentary from an expert fisherman and BW supporter is sobering indeed.  
Why is the iconic Port Phillip Bay Snapper disappearing?
By Bruce White
It is expected within the coming months the “Office of the Environmental Monitor” (OEM), the supposedly independent body formed to not only promote the Port of Melbourne’s controversial Channel Deepening Project as environmentally safe and sound, but to aggressively defend the project against any question it might have had an adverse environmental effect on Port Phillip Bay, will inform the Victorian public that all is well with another magnificent Snapper season passing.
There will be stories of great recreational angler satisfaction with plenty of the iconic species being caught and the commercial sector also having a relatively good time of it, but what about the future?
Buried away somewhere deep in the report will be the results of the Annual Trawl Net Survey conducted by Fisheries Victoria researchers. This survey attempts to get a handle on the number of “newly settled juvenile and larval Snapper” in known productive areas around Port Phillip Bay. This, in-turn, assists in gauging the future health of the fishery as many of the Snapper taken during this survey will not reach a legal catch size for quite a number of years to come.
Much of our current great run of size Snapper come from good breeding seasons immediately post the cessation of Scallop dredging and from a couple more peak breeding seasons early last decade. In fact our Snapper fishery recovered so well, post Scallop dredging, that fisheries researchers claimed the recreational and commercial sectors combined were touching less than 3% of the estimated biomass of Snapper present in Port Phillip Bay – an extremely sustainable fishery – and the only thing that would impact on the Snapper numbers in Port Phillip Bay would be on an environmental level.
Enter the Port of Melbourne’s Channel Deepening Project. From day one, with the trial dredging program commencing in the early part of the Snapper breeding season of 2005/6 the future of our iconic Snapper fishery had its fate sealed in the blades of the “Queen of The Netherlands” ripping and tearing though the bottom of our bay. The Channel Deepening Project had a profound affect across the bay, disturbing and smothering benthic communities, altering tidal conditions and distributing sediments, sometimes toxic, around Port Phillip Bay – in other words; on an environmental scale.
It is well documented that recruitment of Snapper can be variable to say the least, however there was a general and continued upwards trend in the recruitment post Scallop dredging, peaking in 2004/5, before a dramatic decline to report a “failed” breeding season recruitment surrounding the trial dredge in 2005/6. This was followed by several more seasons with recruitment levels well below the lowest seasons experienced prior to the commencement of the Trial Dredging Program and Channel Deepening Project, now culminating in what is expected to be reported as a second “failed” recruitment for the 2010/11 season.
Fisheries Victoria has finally acknowledged the loss of recruitment as a concern and mid last year sought the assistance of a couple of recreational fishers to spin a story of increased commercial sector activity from the Commonwealth controlled fishery. This was closely followed by efforts to impose disincentives to encourage the Commonwealth commercial fishers to stop targeting Snapper outside the state 3 nautical mile limit.
Of course this failed; as the perceived increase in commercial take from the Commonwealth fishery actually happened as a result of a change in the way “mixed species” were reported. The per trip catch level under which Snapper were not required to be reported was dramatically decreased, this resulted in reporting Snapper as being caught that were previously only reported as part of a “mixed species” total. In real terms it wasn’t reporting more Snapper being caught but more Snapper that were already being caught were now required to be recorded as Snapper.
So now we’ve eliminated the so-called increased Commonwealth commercial catch as a cause for the decline in recruitment, remembering the continued success of recreational fishing Snapper catches within Port Phillip; what is causing the sustained decline and failed breeding season recruitment of our iconic Port Phillip Bay Snapper Fishery?
There is little doubt the OEM will remain true to form and defend the Channel Deepening Project using diverting arguments such as:
·         the continued good recreational catches of size Snapper, OR;
·         the Fisheries Victoria line of increased commercial activity in the Commonwealth sector, intersecting the Snapper on their way to the breeding grounds in Port Phillip Bay, OR;
·         the most regularly used argument in relation the Channel Deepening Project; to categorically state they don’t know what is causing the problem. Strangely though, they can categorically deny it is caused by Channel Deepening.
Sadly, in years to come, it is likely the recreational and commercial fishing sector will be forced to pick up the slack by dramatically reduced bag limits or face other misleading options such as closed seasons; all based on the flawed assumption that fish only die by being caught. Remember we once had a Snapper Fishery in such good health that the only effect that would adversely impact on numbers would need to be on an environmental scale.
Sure, recreational fishers might happily assist in the recovery, but it’s not their can to carry by the imposition of closed seasons or reduced bag limits when that is clearly not the problem. Let’s hope our state corporations and agencies can at least learn from this and put in place measures to ensure the future recovery of our Snapper Fishery and that this sort of environmental vandalism is never allowed to happen again.   
Bruce White
June 2011

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