The serious business of angling

By any measure, recreational fishing is a serious business in Australia today. The last survey – in 2005 – showed Aussies spent $680 million a year on fishing tackle alone. With rapid growth, especially by big retailers and outdoors leisure stores, that figure is on track to crack the billion dollar mark sometime in 2008 or 09.

Five million Australians – the exact number is unknown – now spent as much on trying to catch a fish as the total landed value of the professional finfish harvest.  They spent more on rods, reels and flies than the whole farm sector does on importing tractors. The fact that 4 million of them manage to go home empty-handed is testimony to unquenchable national optimism. Or something.

But it isn’t just the economics that are changing.  So too are the values of the 21st century Compleat Australian Angler: what you can catch, how much, where you can catch it, how you catch it, why you catch it, what you do with it and how you behave when you’re doing it are in the grip of a revolution.

Bill Classon has been observing these trends a while. As publisher of the Australian Fishing Network and three leading angling magazines catering to salt water, freshwater and fly fishers, and as president of the Australian Fishing Tackle Association, he considers it is high time recreational angling came of age.

“It’s a big activity nowadays, but it’s hard to develop sound policies because we still know so little about it.  Some much of the information is anecdotal or inferred from local surveys.  That’s why we’ve teamed up with the Fisheries R&D Corporation, because we know we need to carry out some serious research into recreational angling.”

Marine parks are a case in point. There simply isn’t much real data on the impact of marine parks on recreational angling – or of recreational angling on marine parks, he says.  In its absence the public argument roars on, full-throttle, producing much sound but little light as marine reserves gradually spread along the coastline.

It is equally difficult to find good information on the impact of commercial fishing on recreational or vice versa, and the scale of the impact of five million anglers - or the one million of them who actually catch fish - on fish stocks locally and nationally remains largely a mystery. Yet a million efficient anglers must still be having an appreciable nationwide effect.

Or are they? Their notional impact is diluted by the fact that angling values are also changing at a remarkable pace, Bill says. “Anglers get a huge amount of conservation advice from the 60-odd fishing magazines now published in Australia and, as a rule, they’re much more conscious of not leaving line, plastic and other litter around, observing size, species and other restrictions, not taking a full bag limit, practicing catch-and-release.

“In our magazines we try now only to run photos of live fish that are likely to be returned.  We won’t run images of dead, gutted fish as a matter of policy.

“The message we are constantly sending out to our readers is “Limit your catch – don’t catch your limit”.

The shift in angling eco-consciousness is exemplified in the growing fishing competition scene. “A decade or so only a few hundred people took part in this kind of activity.  Now it’s over 10,000.  They are highly competitive and skilled, practice catch and release, use only lures, observe good safety and environmental care standards.”

This new angler, with the focus on high-technology equipment and precision tactics, catch-and-release and eco-care, is the customer largely responsible for growth in tackle sales, Bill considers. The sport is changing from its 20th century mode of filling the esky at any cost and discarding a load of tinnies while doing so, to taking only what is required for a good ‘feed’, and often not even that.

And that in turn is sending economic signals up the line. Large retailers like K-Mart and Big-W are selling more tackle than ever before, major outdoors and camping stores are getting in on the angling act, while well-run smaller tackleshops are banding together to achieve the buying power necessary to compete against the big guys.

“The mum-and-dad tackle shops, which don’t really have any buying power and rely instead on personal service or a special location, are doing it tough,” he adds.

The thought that an activity as disparate, unorganized and riven as angling could emerge as a coherent, well-planned and significant sector in the same way that dairying, tourism, or professional football did a decade or more ago has not yet dawned on most of its participants.  But it’s on the cards, Bill feels.

What it lacks, in his view, is leadership.

“Every state in Australia has a definitive angling body, many of them funded from license revenue.  It’s a real disappointment, in my view, that they are failing to represent their industry so dismally.”

Bill’s critique is aimed at what he terms the ‘chorus of bitching and moaning’ that seems to greet every new measure taken to conserve fish stocks and protect the condition of oceans and waterways.

“To be taken seriously, to deal with criticism, any industry or activity needs to have a good public image. We need to recognise that the future of angling will depend on its public image. Instead of reacting negatively to everything that goes on we need more “clean up the environment” days”, more public indications that anglers are prepared to do their bit for the future, a more forward-looking attitude among our leaders.”

“There’s no point in living in the past.  We all know as anglers we have to clean up our act.  Many people are taking steps as individuals to do that – but it’s time the industry had some strong leadership in that regard.”

Part of this enlightened leadership, Bill recognises, will come from doing more research to understand exactly what effect angling has on fish stocks, on the environment generally and on other sectors, to understand what is motivating the young generation of anglers and where they want to take the sport, to understand how angling interacts with the rest of the economy and society.

He acknowledges there are no easy answers: for example, anglers who switched to catch-and-release in response to criticism from environmentalists found themselves the target of charges of cruelty from animal welfarists. But a sector with a firmer grasp of its own identity, its values and ethos, its role in the society and its future is better placed to respond to them.

Julian Cribb is adjunct professor of science communication at the University of Technology, Sydney and edits R&D Review and ScienceAlert.

Editor's Note: First published in FISH, the journal of the Fisheries R&D Corporation. For permission to reproduce this article please contact FISH.