Building on evidence-based stock assessments and fisheries regulations, behavioural science and social marketing are providing new strategies to help fishers rebuild and maintain stocks of Australia’s favourite fish species
By Catherine Norwood
Fishers are being urged to help rebuild populations of several popular fish species by diversifying their catch to alternative species.
Campaigns with this aim have been launched in South Australia and Queensland and discussions are underway in Western Australia as high-profile species in all three states struggle to recover despite management plans in place to reduce fishing impacts.
SA has already closed two of its Snapper (Chrysophrys auratus) fisheries to all fishers for three years to 2023, with stocks designated as depleted in the 2020 Status of Australian Fish Stocks Reports (SAFS).
This is a drastic step that fisheries managers across the country are keen to avoid for other stocks and species, and it has led to new approaches to effect change being trialled.
Although fisheries regulations make it easier to control commercial catches, the dispersed nature of recreational fishing makes it difficult to direct fishing activities away from a few favourite species. Consumers also have a role to play, whether eating their recreational catch at home, or buying it for dinner.
Current efforts to direct fishing to alternative species touch on these three aspects: commercial and recreational fishing activity and consumption choices.
In SA, four species are ‘in need of a break’ says Dr Mike Steer, Research Director, Aquatic and Livestock Sciences at the Department of Primary Industries and Regions’ (PIRSA) research arm, the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI).
These are Snapper (Chrysophrys auratus), King George Whiting (Sillaginodes punctatus), Southern Garfish (Hyporhamphus melanochir) and Southern Calamari (Sepioteuthis australis).
Although the Snapper fisheries in Gulf St Vincent and Spencer Gulf/West Coast are depleted, the south-east stock, which is shared with Victoria, remains sustainable. SA’s stocks of King George Whiting and Southern Calamari are also sustainable. The Southern Garfish stock in the Spencer Gulf
is recovering but is depleted in Gulf St Vincent.
These are considered ‘Tier 1’ species under a reformed management structure in SA’s marine scalefish fishery, which has recently introduced more regionally-based management of fish stocks and quotas for the commercial sector.
The campaign provides information for seafood consumers and recreational fishers. A collection of recipes by chef Callum Hann is featured, pictured here are Australian Salmon tacos. Photo: PIRSA
Mike says reliance on just a few high-profile species poses a risk to the long-term sustainability of the stocks and the productivity of the fishery. “But there was also concern when quotas were introduced for key species that it would shift fishing effort to other species,” he says. “We needed to identify those species that could support higher levels of production before promoting them as alternative targets.”
Sally Jenyns from Channel 7’s Creek to Coast program cooking up a Cobia dish. Photo: Kieran Tunbridge
In SA, there are more than 60 species that can be targeted by commercial fishers within the community-shared marine scalefish fishery. These range from premium finfish, such as King George Whiting, to lesser-known species such as Blue Mackerel (Scomber australasicus), leatherjackets (Monacanthidae spp.), Sea Sweep (Scorpis aequipinnis), octopus (Octopodidae spp.) and sand crabs (Ovalipes spp.).
With funding from FRDC, SARDI conducted a risk assessment to evaluate which species could support higher catches. Researchers identified 26 species for in-depth assessment. They found that Ocean Jacket (Nelusetta ayraudi) and Australian Salmon (Arripis truttaceus) would support the greatest increases in catch, possibly hundreds of tonnes more.
Although the risk assessment primarily focused on capacity for commercial fishing, there is also interest from recreational fishers in these alternative species. Researchers recognised that barriers to changing target species for both commercial and recreational sectors included the different gear and know-how needed to catch those alternative species.
Following this study, the PIRSA took the lead to promote the catch and consumption of several of these less popular species, launching the ‘Same Dish, New Fish’ campaign in 2020.
Pan-fried Snook with celeriac and grilled radicchio is one of South Australia’s alternative fish recipes. Photo: PIRSA
Get hooked on something different and take the #SameDishNewFish challenge. By choosing a wider variety of local seafood, you can help support sustainability. www.samedishnewfish.sa.gov.au
This ongoing campaign provides information for seafood consumers and recreational fishers on how they can change dining, shopping, cooking and fishing habits to choose alternative species.
The campaign includes details about the location and best techniques to catch and handle each species, and a collection of recipes created by chef Callum Hann and Paul Baker. The SA television program Out of the Blue (part travel log, part cooking show) also featured the campaign and alternative species during 12 shows in 2020 and 2021.
Mike says building consumer confidence in other species will also give commercial fishers the confidence to diversify their catch. Previously, they may have felt locked into the few top species that consumers were after. “Even though they can fish for a range of species, many specialise in targeting one or two, relying on their expertise and fishing for the market,” he notes.
In the recreational fishing community, a state-wide survey underway this year is expected to provide data on what is being caught and evidence of any changes in species targeted. The 2022 survey is being partly funded by FRDC as it is trialling a new smart phone app to collect data, in conjunction with traditional telephone surveys.
Recreational fishers are also involved in a Queensland program that assesses fishing favourites Snapper and Pearl Perch (Glaucosoma scapulare) as being depleted. Stocks have failed to recover under previous management measures, requiring a tightening of regulations, which most recently have included an annual closed season, increases in the size of legal fish and reduced bag limits for recreational fishers.
Managers are also exploring other strategies to help rebuild stocks and, in 2020, FRDC funded the ‘Fishing for change’ project in partnership with the recreational fishing sector, which is responsible for the largest share of the catch of both species.
The project was conducted jointly by Currie Communications, Griffith University, the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF) and the Centre for Marine Socioecology. The primary output was the ‘Switch your fish’ social marketing campaign to help influence the decisions of recreational fishers.
The research team began with a co-design and stakeholder engagement process, including interviews and surveys, to identify solutions to the central issue: what can fishers and other interested parties do to help increase Pearl Perch and Snapper stocks? This engagement process involved 239 stakeholders representing 14 stakeholder groups, and they identified 923 possible solutions. There was strong interest from fishers in contributing to the process and supporting a positive message. Further consultation whittled the priority actions down to 25, and these were taken to a workshop to co-design a strategy with stakeholders.
Workshop participants included fisheries managers and regulators, researchers, fishing club representatives and recreational fishers, charter boat operators, tackle and equipment retailers, fishing sector bodies and behaviour change experts.
The emerging priority was to encourage fishers to catch alternative species. This resulted in the highly targeted ‘Switch your fish’ pilot campaign. A Senior Consultant at Currie Communications, Sophie Clayton, says the campaign principally used social media and was largely focused on the Sunshine Coast between April and September, the months when Pearl Perch and Snapper are traditionally targeted.
Switch your fish
The alternative species promoted were mahi mahi (Coryphaena spp.), Amberjack (Seriola dumerili) and Cobia (Rachycentron canadum), which all offer comparable eating
and fishing experiences for fishers.
Sophie says the campaign worked closely with Sunshine Coast fishing identities and influencers, including the organisation SCF Australia, which promotes sustainable fishing and clean waterways for future generations and which led local activities. There was strong local support for the campaign, with content shared across social media platforms. This included influencer-generated content that helped to provide information and education for fishers targeting new species, what gear to use and how to find the new species, effectively showcasing the desired behaviour.
Social media played an important role in the ‘Switch your fish’ campaign.
The campaign featured signage at boat ramps, social media posts, media releases, a website, newsletter and local events.
The target audience was Sunshine Coast males aged 25 to 55 years with an interest in fishing. Sophie says Facebook analytics show that they successfully reached at least 20,000 people in their target audience. Survey results also showed that recreational fishers landed more of the alternative species that the campaign promoted than they had previously.
Evidence of impact
To understand the on-ground impact in detail, Dr Sam Williams, a Senior Fisheries Biologist from Queensland’s DAF, analysed data collected from the state’s boat ramp survey program. He compared fishers’ targeting behaviour and catches during the campaign period with those of previous years, and he compared data from a control location on the Gold Coast with data from the Sunshine Coast. Sam says that although there are signs that the campaign positively influenced fishers to target new species, the short timeframe makes it difficult to understand how widespread the influence was.
“There was an increase in the fishers’ intention to target mahi mahi and Cobia on the Sunshine Coast during the campaign period. We also observed an increase in the actual catch of Amberjack,” he says.
Analysis of fisher intent to target Pearl Perch and Snapper showed a decline, but the campaign period included a one-month closed season for these species. “There was a slight increase in the actual catch of these species landed during the campaign period, which was not the result we were after,” Sam says. However, he points out that campaign messaging did not focus on reducing the catch of these species.
Sophie says stakeholders in the campaign were keen to see it expanded to foster active involvement by charter fishing operators, bait and tackle shops, local fishmongers and restaurants in promoting alternative species. The ‘Fishing for change’ webinar outlining details of the project can be viewed on YouTube: www.youtube.com/watch?v=REbdUvgR2pU
Playing the long game
Dr Emily Ogier leads FRDC’s Human Dimensions Research Coordination Program, which co-sponsored the Queensland project, along with FRDC’s Queensland Research Advisory Council. She says the ‘Fishing for change’ project demonstrates how behavioural insights can be used to encourage more positive behaviours across all levels of commercial and recreational fisheries and aquaculture.
“FRDC wants to harness these insights alongside the important sustainability science it invests in, to help processes of change for enduring prosperity,” she says. She sees the co-design of the campaign with stakeholders as important to build trust in the process of identifying target behaviours, to support the campaign and the positive reach of its messages.
But the results also show how difficult it is to generate change. “There is something positive in asking people to seek new experiences and adopt new behaviours, such as targeting different species. But asking them to forgo something, such as a species they may have a long-term attachment to, is not the same thing,” she says.
“Targeting a new species does not mean fishers have stopped targeting the old species. Behaviour change is a long game to play. The campaign’s positive impacts can include greater acceptance of changes to fishing rules to protect species in future. That would be a measure of success, too.”
Benjamin Glass, SCF Australia, with a mahi mahi he caught. Photo: Kieran Tunbridge
“There was an increase in the fishers’ intention to target mahi mahi and Cobia on the Sunshine Coast during the campaign period. We also observed an increase in the actual catch of Amberjack.” Dr Sam Williams, Senior Fisheries Biologist
Recovery in WA
WA is facing challenges with its iconic West Australian Dhufish (Glaucosoma hebraicum), Baldchin Groper (Choerodon rubescens) and snapper. Recreational fishers catch more of all three species than commercial fishers do.
Stocks of all three were assessed as ‘recovering’ in the 2020 SAFS reports. A 20-year management plan designed to help rebuild their populations is midway through; however, the stocks are not recovering as quickly as anticipated.
CEO of Recfishwest Dr Andrew Rowland says that, in the coming months, recreational fishers will join other fisheries stakeholders to discuss further initiatives. Encouraging fishers to target alternative species is seen as one such solution.
“It’s about finding alternative opportunities for people to continue to put their boat on the water and spend time on the beach fishing,” says Andrew. “Whatever alternative species we are looking at, we will be considering the biological impact and how resilient to the shift in effort those species will be.”
Options include a shift to open-ocean species such as mahi mahi or marlin (Istiophoridae spp.), which would provide a different kind of experience, more akin to sportfishing, although these fish can be good eating too.
Andrew hopes a focus on alternative species can build on the dining trends that emerged during the past two years of COVID-19 restrictions, when diners proved more adventurous in their choices and willing to try new culinary experiences and new fish species.
He expects the Queensland ‘Fishing for change’ project will help to guide the approaches WA may take to shift effort towards the less vulnerable fisheries.
He has welcomed the behavioural science approaches being used as having equal value to the biological and regulatory approaches.
“It is great to see these social elements being considered,” he says. “We need to understand how we can modify and influence behaviour in a way that still delivers people’s quality fishing experiences and allows them time to enjoy the benefits of fishing, but at the same time protects the vulnerable components of the fishery.” f