Story and photo by Brad Collis
Victoria remains, at the time of writing, the only state or territory to have banned recreational fishing completely. However, travel restrictions and the closure of public facilities, including many boat ramps, have curtailed fishing activity more broadly.
Sector leaders say most people understand the restrictions and the much-reduced contingent of fishers has been following social distancing requirements.
The chair of the Australian Fishing Trade Association (AFTA), Bob Baldwin, says the association has maintained a dialogue with governments because it believes recreational fishing needs to be maintained, within the social distancing rules. Fishing qualifies under two of the permitted Activity Schedules set out by the Federal Government: Schedule 1, which allows activities for gathering food, and Schedule 5, which allows people to exercise.
“So we believe people can, within the rules, cast a line and hopefully catch a feed … except in Victoria. This probably rules out sport fishing, where fishing – rather than food – is the main objective.”
In conjunction with its government-level discussions, AFTA has been running a social media campaign encouraging fishers to stay active, if possible, and to adhere strictly to social distancing rules.
The campaign features a tightly packed school of fish captioned, “Don’t be like these guys, use your fishing rod as a social distancing tool”.
In early April, Western Australia took the extreme step of closing its border to anyone travelling unnecessarily, following Tasmania and the Northern Territory. However, recreational fishing remains a permitted activity there, provided people observe social distancing rules.
That said, WA has been divided into nine exclusion zones, with limited movement allowed between zones. That means, for example, that fishers living in the Perth metropolitan area cannot travel to popular fishing destinations in the state’s south and north.
Andrew Rowland, chief executive officer of Recfishwest, says reduced fishing activity was particularly noticeable over Easter, which is typically a peak time for recreational fishing.
Those who did fish followed the social distancing rules. He says the ban in Victoria had helped to reinforce the message in WA, asking fishers to do the right thing.
“In fact we have seen a strong community approach. Crowded boat ramps, for example, can be places of frustration and unsettled behaviour, but now we are seeing people being patient and respectful.”
While Recfishwest supports fishing as a crucial escape in times of heightened stress, it is also asking fishers to re-evaluate their plans in light of the coronavirus threat.
The Recfishwest website reflects this position. “Recfishwest understands people wanting to go fishing at what is a very challenging time for the benefit of their mental health and wellbeing and to get a feed for their family,” it states, “[but] we advise recfishers to think very carefully if it is essential for you to go fishing and to be safe and be responsible for your own wellbeing, your family’s and that of the community as a whole.”
It is encouraging people to instead plan future fishing trips, which will support regional economies, and to stock up on gear in preparation, supporting local tackle suppliers.
Above: ATFA has been running a social media campaign encouraging fishers to stay active while adhering to social distancing.
In Australia, there are 60 fishing tackle manufacturers who collectively employ 300 people, 60 wholesalers employing 600, and 2000 retailers employing more than 100,000 people, according to a
2017 Productivity Commission report. These businesses supply an estimated 3.5 to 4 million recreational fishers.
AFTA president Michael Starkey says the economic impact of restrictions has been severe but varied. For east coast communities that have not even started recovering from the summer bushfires, the impact of coronavirus-related restrictions has been devastating. Overall, he says, wholesalers have been the hardest hit. They have inventories they cannot move because retailers have stopped ordering as they run down existing stocks ahead of closing up.
AFTA surveyed its members and found significant impacts in Victoria, where recreational fishing has been banned.
The survey at the end of March 2020 found 40 per cent of Victorian tackle shops had closed and 40 per cent were planning to close. The main sales activity was online purchasing.
“Fishing went from an entitlement to a privilege and it happened so quickly that it took time for people to take it in,” Michael Starkey says.
In WA, Andrew Rowland says tackle traders and charter fishing operators have both been seriously affected.
“Most stores will have stocked up for Easter, and April generally when the weather is ideal [for fishing], and are now holding stock that is not shifting. And the charter industry was effectively closed overnight.”
He says the charter fishing sector had a world-class reputation and there is a need to make sure this capability and expertise is not lost. “So we will be working with government to reopen this in some form as soon as restrictions can be eased.
“The sooner we can pull through this together as a community, the sooner we can all get back out there fishing,” Andrew Rowland says.
Fishing provides families with food and can be greatly beneficial to people’s mental health. The COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity for fishers and boaters to show the way and do the right thing. The Australian Fishing Trade Association says fishing is a privilege, not a right, and access can be taken away if people break the rules. If you need to go fishing, and are permitted to, abide by the social distancing rules. Each state or even council has different restrictions, so always check and follow local guidelines.
There should be no mass gatherings at ramps and boaters should not simply be out for a day on the water.
When fishing for food, fish locally. Fishers should not travel great distances to fish; social distancing and all other coronavirus-related regulations take precedence.
Source: Australian Fishing Trade Association
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