Commercial fishing boats can continue to deploy thousands of metres of fishing nets every day for eight months across some of the Northern Territory’s most popular recreational fishing river systems under a temporary plan.
Interim “effort limits” have been put in place by NT Fisheries for commercial barramundi boats – which do not cap the amount of fish that can be caught — in the Roper River, Moyle River and Anson Bay.
The changes, introduced this month, are in response to the closure of prime Top End fishing spots by traditional owners last year, concerned about the bycatch hooked or entangled in gill netting.
Recreational and commercial fishing industry figures disagree about a longer-term harvest strategy for the iconic Northern Territory barramundi.
In a statement to fishing industry groups, NT Fisheries said the changes had the “potential to displace commercial fishing effort into areas shared with recreational and tourism fishers”.
The organisation also warned it could “increase commercial effort in those areas above recent historical levels” and could lead to “increased direct interactions between recreational fishers and commercial operators, impacting on recreational catches and experiences”.
About 70 per cent of the NT’s commercial barramundi industry is controlled by WA-based company Wild Barra.
The new limits allow commercial operators to fish the rivers at roughly the same level as the year that had the most commercial activity over the past decade.
Last year, the equivalent of 10 nets spanning 100 metres were deployed every day in the Roper River across the eight-month barramundi season, according to NT Fisheries.
It marked the highest commercial fishing effort over the past decade and will be allowed to occur again in the Roper this year.
Anson Bay, at the mouth of the Daly River, has the highest limit, with the equivalent of up to a dozen 100-metre nets allowed to be laid every day of the season, which runs from February until the end of September.
Speaking on the ABC Country Hour this week, Wild Barra director Cameron Berryman said he hoped this year’s harvest would yield between 350 and 400 tonnes of barramundi and threadfin salmon.
Stakeholders at odds over sustainability, gill netting
NT Seafood Council (NTSC) chief executive Katherine Winchester directed questions about the 2024 effort limits to NT’s Department of Industry and Trade, but said the territory’s barramundi population remained healthy.
“There’s no sustainability issue with barramundi stocks,” Ms Winchester said.
“We all know that the stocks are really healthy and we want to keep it that way.”
Amateur Fishermen’s Association of the NT (AFANT) president Warren de With said recreational fishers were yet to see an impact of commercial activity on fish stocks on the Roper and Daly Rivers.
But Mr de With disputed claims that the strategy would conserve fish numbers in specific shared areas.
“Whilst they say the biomass is really healthy across the whole of the territory, if you get localised heavy fishing pressure then those stocks in that area will deplete,” Mr de With said.
Mr de With also cast doubt over how well the industry could prevent bycatch from gill netting.
“When you put a net out it doesn’t say: ‘Only barramundi must swim into this net’,” he said.
“Whatever’s in that ocean at that time or in that waterway may get caught in those nets, and that’s where they have interactions between crocodiles, dugongs, sawsharks and other protected species.”
The NTSC said the use of gillnets was “highly selective”, but that only half of its commercial fleet was equipped with real-time camera monitoring for unintended bycatch of protected species.
“We’re aiming to get 50 per cent of the fleet covered by mid this year, and then next year obviously the full fleet would be covered,” Ms Winchester said.
Long-term barramundi plan expected this year
A long-term review of the NT’s barramundi fishery is expected to be delivered this year by a committee comprised of recreational fishers, commercial operators, First Nations people and environmental stakeholders.
The NT Guided Fishing Industry Association (NTGFIA) released a statement last week accusing the review panel of being “aligned” with commercial interests.
“This alignment has focused on providing certainty for the commercial barramundi industry through a tailored harvest strategy and export accreditation,” the statement read.
Both the NTGFIA and AFANT are calling on the NT fisheries department to implement weight-based quotas, for the tracking of fish populations in heavily fished areas.
“They’ve got that information available, so they can quite easily collate all that together and work out what tonnage is coming out of what catchments, based seasonally every year,” Mr de With said.
While debate among industry figures over quotas, limits and sustainability continues, Wild Barra’s commercial boats are expected to drop anchor in the Daly and Roper Rivers this week, and anticipating good results.
“Obviously [we’ve had] a lot of rain down that way, so we’d expect some good fishing,” Mr Berryman said.
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