Victoria’s Commercial Fisheries of 1862

13th June 2019

By Ross Winstanley*

In July 1862, Victoria’s out-going Inspector of Fisheries and Oyster Beds, James Putwain, wrote a report of his observations of the colony’s commercial fisheries to deputy premier Charles Duffy.  Irish-born Duffy was the Commissioner for Public Works, President of the Board of Land and Works, and Commissioner for Crown Lands and Survey, later to become Premier of Victoria.

Reckoned to be of public interest, Putwain’s report was published in the Lands Circular of the day.

Apart from its general historical interest in describing the fishes, fishing gear and boats of the time, this report remarks on the vulnerability of commercial fishermen to market wholesalers.  It also comments on the particular role of Chinese, both as fishermen and as a discrete section of the fish-buying community at the time.



In connection with the 53rd section of the Land Act, which authorises the issue of licences to occupy Crown lands for the purposes of Fishermen’s residences and drying grounds, Mr Duffy obtained a report from the gentleman who recently held the office of Inspector of Fisheries and Oyster Beds; and as the report is highly valuable and interesting, he has directed it to be published for general information.


St Leonards, 30th July 1862

SIR – I am in receipt of your letter dated the 14th of July, and beg to state, in consequence of my removal from Williamstown, it has only just come to hand, requesting me to furnish to the Honorable the President of the Board of Land and Works a statement of the kinds and quantities of fish taken in Hobson’s Bay, Western Port, and other parts of the colony, together with the number of vessels and men employed; also to distinguish the operations of the Chinamen, should there be anything peculiar in their habits.

I beg to submit the following statement:-

The kinds of fish taken in Hobson’s and Port Phillip bays.

1. Schnapper are taken in large quantities by hooking, from two to four miles inside the Heads, principally in deep water, commencing in September; they have been occasionally taken during the winter months in Bass’s Straits.  The smaller schnapper are taken more or less all round the Bay with seines.  I do not think that these fish come within Port Phillip Heads for the purpose of spawning, the roe always being found in them during the season.  They are taken in large quantities; some weeks there are thirty to forty tons, which, when not sent to the market, are disposed of to the Chinamen for the purpose of drying for their countrymen.

2. Salmon* are also taken about the beginning of September, and during the summer months, in large quantities, by the seine, all round Port Phillip Bay, principally near the Heads; they are generally met with in large shoals; I have seen them in Bass’s Straits, during the winter, in shoals more than a quarter of a mile in length. I believe they cast their spawn in shallow water; they are frequently taken more than a ton at a time.  *The fish must not be mistaken for the salmon of Europe.

3. Pike make their appearance in October, and are taken all round Hobson’s and Port Phillip Bays, by seine, set nets, and hooking.

4. Bream and silver fish are taken by the seine and hooking during the summer months, and are also taken in shallow water in the winter. I believe the bream cast their spawn in brackish water, and the silver fish in shallow or grassy beds.

5. Mullet, whiting, and flat-heads are taken more or less all the year round. The mullet is a particularly shy fish, and is generally taken in thick shallow water; a fine thread net is required for taking them.

The whiting (the principal marketable fish) is taken occasionally in the seine, but generally by hooking, in the south-west of Port Phillip Bay.  Of the flat-heads there are two kinds, one of which is taken all round Port Phillip Bay, in sandy or muddy bottoms; the other is found about the rocks, and is much darker in colour.  Flat-heads are taken in large quantities by seine and hooking; they are also found in waters 20 to 40 fathoms deep outside the Heads.  Their supply is from ten to twelve hundredweight per day.

6. Guard fish are taken by the seine; they require a bunt or the centre of the net made expressly for them during the winter; they are found in grassy beds or shallow water in large quantities, particularly on the western shore. The supply is from three to four tons per week.

7. Sole and flounders are ground fish and are exceedingly scarce; the flounders are taken near shore by the seine in muddy bottoms; the sole are seldom taken, as they inhabit the edges of banks in deeper water, and they require a particular trawl which is rarely used in this colony; they are a very rich and delicate fish, resembling the home brill both in shape and flavor, and I believe they are plentiful if properly fished for.

Having mentioned the principal marketable fish, I beg to state that I have seen mackerel taken in Port Phillip Bay; they resemble the home fish in shape and color, but are not so large; they are plentiful in Bass’s Straits; there is also the king fish; I have seen them in large quantities in the Rip between the two heads of Point Nepean and Point Lonsdale; they are sometimes, but very rarely, taken in the bays; they are a good eating fish and resemble the home salmon.  I think they could be taken in any quantity in Bass’s Straits with such lines as are used in the north of England in the cod fisheries.

I believe there are many valuable species of fish in Bass’s Straits (having found them on several occasions dead, and washed ashore on the back beach by Western Port Bay) which have hitherto been quite unknown; and I consider it would be a great acquisition to the fisheries if the banks or trail they inhabit could be discovered.

The description of fish that are taken at Western Port, Port Albert and Corner Inlet, are about the same.


These are generally small and open, from thirteen to twenty-two feet in length; there are from one hundred to one hundred and seventy in constant use in Port Phillip Bay, including the Chinamen’s; there are from two to four in each boat.  I find there are men of all nations engaged in the fisheries, more foreigners than Englishmen.  As regards the habits of the Chinamen, I find nothing peculiar in their manner or mode of fishing; they are very zealous in their work; they were in the habit of using very small nets, and saving small fish which they dried for the use of their countrymen.  I always found them very obedient to instructions given them regarding the removal of the small nets.  I have discovered Europeans and others procuring and making use of the nets the Chinamen had cast aside as illegal.  There are only a few stationed at Western Port or Port Albert, as they migrate from bay to bay to suit the seasons.  The market is supplied by four decked boats running between Queenscliff, Swan Bay, and the Sandridge jetty, and also by an overland route from Western Port to Melbourne, via Frankston, Mordialloc, and Ricket’s Point.

I beg to state that there is a great diminution in several species of fish within the last six years, viz whiting, mullet, guard fish, and bream, which is attributable to the use of the small nets.  I find the Select Committee on Fisheries, in their supposed Amendment Bill, have recommended (and I believe it has since passed the House) the use of one-inch mesh, through the complaints of ruthless destroyers who pretended they were unable to obtain a living with the one-inch and quarter mesh.  I do most firmly believe and am able to produce the opinions of some of the oldest fishermen in the colony, that if the one-inch mesh be allowed to be used, it will be the means of entirely exterminating several species of fish that have not yet fallen victims to the small-meshed nets.

The following is a statement I have obtained from one of the oldest fishermen in this neighbourhood, showing the quantity and the prices obtained for the different kinds of fish, and also the necessity of a fish market: –

He remarks that these fish were all in the best possible condition and first class quality, and I can say with certainty, that this person is one of the most industrious fishermen I know.

By the above you will notice the great disparity in the prices obtained by the producer, when compared with the price the consumer has to pay.  This is caused by the monopoly at present enjoyed by the men who buy from the fishermen, who in turn sell to the retailers, and receive an undue portion of the profits.  They will continue to do so as long as there is no established fish market, where fishermen can send their fish to properly qualified salesmen; by this means the fishermen would get a better price for their fish, and the public would pay less than they do at present.  Were a market to be established, I believe it would give encouragement to many who would turn their attention to fishing, but the low prices that they must submit to (or lose the fish) hinders many from embarking in what would be a very good living.

I have the honor to be, Sir,

Your most obedient servant


* * Ross Winstanley is a keen angler, fishing writer and fisheries consultant.  For 30 years he worked with Fisheries Victoria in policy, management and research.