The Melbourne tea tree bloom in the first week of November signals the start of snapper season – Victorian recreational anglers flood boat ramps seeking big reds.
Snapper has been a small part of the South East Trawl (SET) Fishery’s catch for more than 100 years and some by-catch is an unavoidable part of the sector’s 10,000+ tonne catch of other species.
There is also a separate State commercial snapper catch of around 100 tonnes in Port Phillip Bay and a recreational catch across Victoria of perhaps 500-600 tonnes.
Victoria and the Commonwealth operate an agreement under what is known as the Offshore Constitutional Settlement (OCS). This agreement sets down which jurisdiction will manage and target which stock.
In the past under Commonwealth rules SET fishermen have been forced to discard any catch of snapper if they were over “trip limits”. Most, if not all discarded snapper is discarded dead. This management measure aimed to discourage trawl fishermen from targeting snapper but had the perverse outcome of often forcing the infrequent catches of commercially valuable snapper to be discarded dead.
Even though the Commonwealth manages trawl caught snapper SETFIA is mindful of its importance and sensitivity as a recreational species. So in 2013, SETFIA set out to find a way that minimised discards but also limited commercial Commonwealth catches. The Association initiated a trial in eastern Victoria that placed strict move-on requirements on SET vessels that caught snapper but allowed for all unavoidable by-catch to be landed rather than thrown away dead.
Under the agreement, SETFIA is able to grant an exemption to the 200 kg trip limit provided the Skipper can make a case that the snapper was caught without intent. Skippers must call and apply for an exemption before landing the snapper. They are questioned about things such as the catches on other vessels in the area and their recent history of snapper catches. Only Skippers who have passed a TAFE accredited course on this management rule are eligible to even apply.
When an exemption is granted the area is closed to further exemptions for a week meaning that other vessels cannot move into the area to target snapper.
All landings under this exemption are pre-reported to AFMA which allows them time to have someone meet the vessel or follow up later on to ensure that the catch was indeed unavoidable. All vessels have satellite tracking which AFMA sometimes review.
The trial saw SET snapper catches fall and was hailed as a great success by all stakeholders. This led to a formal co-management agreement in February 2015 between AFMA and SETFIA for the management of trawl caught snapper in waters relevant to Victoria.
SET snapper catches since the co-management arrangement started have been lower than previous years. Only about 75 tonnes of snapper have been landed during the 4.5 years the arrangement has been in place. Average annual landings have dropped from 60 tonnes before the exemption arrangement to 17 tonnes following it.
Having two jurisdictions (Victoria and the Commonwealth) managing straddling fish stocks is far from ideal. However, the management of snapper is an example of how well it can work when all stakeholder co-operate. As long as Victoria continues to act in good faith and maintain their side of the OCS agreement then Commonwealth trawlers will continue to make every effort to avoid snapper.