Seafood

Guide to responsible spearfishing #2

So, you’ve sussed out a nice easy dive site that isn’t in a no-fishing zone and looks like it could hold some fish.

In my last post I covered the rules and regulations around where you can/can’t spearfish. Next up in this series is a little bit about what fish to catch. The number one take away message from this post is: If you don’t recognise it, DON’T shoot it! 

What fish can I catch?

There is NO catch and release with spearfishing. If you spear a fish, it is most likely going to die. I have seen fish swimming around with spearfishing injuries, but these fish can’t swim as well as healthy fish and are more likely to suffer mortality through predation or reduced fitness. So, if you’re going to pull that trigger, make sure that your spear is pointing at something you are going to eat and be damn sure that it’s not a protected species – heavy fines apply. If you don’t recognise it, DON’T shoot it! 

The NSW DPI website has all the details of fish you are allowed to spear and their bag and size limits. Fisheries authorities in other states and countries should have a similar resource. It has pictures. Learn these species and their bag and size limits. No short-cuts here. Spend some time on this page. If a species doesn’t appear on this list, it probably isn’t regulated, but it’s also probably not fished very often, usually because it doesn’t taste very good. There are a lot of fish to learn on this list so my advice would be to pick a species that you know is abundant in your area, memorise the bag and size limits for it and only target that one species when you go spearfishing for your first time. Pick another species to memorize on your next outing and soon you will have a long list of species that you can quote the bag and size limits off the top of your head. Again, there really is no substitute for having someone experienced show you what is ok and what is not. If you don’t recognise it, DON’T shoot it! 

There are a number of good fish identification books available and I would recommend getting very familiar with these. Below are a few of my favourites. A great online resource if you can take photos is inaturalist.org. Make a profile and post some pictures asking for advice and you will find a very helpful and knowledgeable community to help you ID that fish. It will be difficult at first to tell a lot of fish apart, but you will get better at it the more time you spend in the water. If you don’t recognise it, DON’T shoot it! 

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You will learn to identify fish a lot faster if you take an active interest in it. When you’re next out in the water and see something you don’t recognise, try to memorise as much detail (or take a photo if you have a camera) and go searching for it when you get home. You’d be surprised how often google hits the mark when you search for “fish with yellow stripes”. Markings are not the only thing to look for. Look at shapes. This will often help you to identify families of fishes. Fishes in the same family often (but not always) taste similar. Look for where the fish is found – bottom dwelling, surface swimming, mid water. Look for behaviours. For example, a fish sculling with its pectoral fins is probably a wrasse. Knowledge of all of these aspects will help you to recognise fish species from a distance and in low vis and will definitely help you to avoid a nasty fine. If you don’t recognise it, DON’T shoot it!

 

What fish can’t I catch?

There are a number of protected species and unfortunately these protections can vary from state to state. On top of this there are also Commonwealth protected species so you need to check a couple of places. For Commonwealth protected species check out this page. It’s not the easiest page to navigate, but if you find a species on here it will have a lot of information and links to pictures of it. For NSW protected species look no further than the NSW DPI page. It is worth getting to know the protected species living in your area as interfering with these species can result in massive fines. A few special mentions for southern NSW are below.

Blue groper

Blue wrasse aka blue groper are off limits to spearo’s. This is because they are a naturally inquisitive fish and will swim right up to a diver to check them out. For this reason, a lot of newbies get caught out and get excited about the great big fish right at the end of their spear. DO NOT shoot these fish. Be aware that the female blue gropers (they change sex to male when the dominant male in the area dies) are brown or yellow in colour. Learn to identify this species and do not shoot them. You can have a lot of fun when these fish are around. They will hang around and check you out. Try tapping your knife on a rock – they will often swim in very close to you to see what you’re doing. Some people like to cut up sea urchins for the gropers but I advise against this practice. These fish are very capable of feeding themselves and cutting up urchins is an unnecessary waste of life.

Blue drummer

Blue Drummer

Black Drummer

This is an interesting one and not a species that I was aware of until recently. Not usually sighted in southern NSW, but there was a recent report of one so worth knowing about. I’ve included it here because it could be easily confused with the black drummer, which you can spear and which is really good eating. They (the black drummer) are fairly long lived though so make sure there is a healthy population before taking one. Info on the blue drummer can be found here.

What fish should I catch?

 Some good sustainable species for beginners

Most nearshore species are quite abundant and good for cutting your teeth on. They are also excellent eating. Some species that I recommend are luderick, bream and tarwhine. These species may take some practice as they spook easily and can move really fast. But they are often found up in the shallows which makes them good species to target while you’re learning to increase your breath hold. Red morwong are also often targeted by beginners because they don’t move much. It’s ok to target these on your first few outings, but try to move on to other species as soon as you can as morwongs are relatively long lived species. I include them here because fishing pressure is generally low and they are fairly abundant on most reefs.

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Some more challenging species

Once you gain some confidence, it’s a good idea to try for some of the faster, more challenging species. The good news is that these species taste great and the challenge makes them really exciting to catch. Most of these species are fast growing and highly fecund (good breeders) so are more sustainable than the slower growing fish.

Australian Salmon

Australian Salmon gather in large schools and will sometimes cruise past. They are more common in the winter months in NSW. The challenging part to catching one of these fish is that they are quick and the schooling behaviour makes it difficult to target a single individual. Good aim is a must on these fish as the flesh is very soft and a body shot often results in the fish tearing off your spear and slow a agonizing death. Head-shots are best for most species, but Salmon especially. Bigger is NOT better with salmon. The big ones are quite dry so aim for fish around the 30 – 50 cm mark.

Bonito

Bonito also gather in schools but are sometimes seen as solitary individuals. Bonito is one of my favourites. Dive bombing works well, but you have to be able to keep pace until the bonito turns to be able to take a shot. A good breath-hold is needed to chase one down.

Trevally

Trevally are also great eating. While not as fast as the salmon and bonito they do spook easily and their schooling behaviour can make an individual difficult to target. Stealth is required to catch these fish.

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Invertebrates

You can catch lobsters with your hands but you must not use your speargun or any other tool to obtain them. Abalone, scallops, urchins and other shellfish are also fine to take by hand (you’ll probably want a knife for abalone) but you must still abide by the bag limits. Do not dispose of abalone guts in the water. This is to reduce the transmission of a disease that severely impacted the abalone fishery a few years ago. Process them at home and bin the guts. See the applicable closure notices here for the rules on abalone.

Tasty, but think twice

Flathead

Flatties are good eating but just be aware that all of the large ones are female so bigger is NOT always better. Also, don’t shoot directly down at them. You will bend your spear in the sand. There are techniques for damping the rubbers on your gun which you should learn.

Kingfish

Kingies are a real challenge and very tasty. They do get big and they are strong so be prepared for a fight. I have bent spears whilst landing Kingfish. I don’t target Kingfish very often any more. They do grow and breed quite quickly, but they also face very high fishing pressure from recreational and commercial fisheries.

Black Drummer

Black Drummer are fairly abundant on many reefs, but they are slow growers. I catch them every now and again, but I always make sure there are plenty around before deciding to target one. Also, make sure you can tell the difference between black and silver drummer. Silver drummer are yuk (in my opinion). They get massive and swim around in large schools. You will be tempted to take a shot on one, but I wouldn’t advise it. Black drummer can change their colour and can appear silver, especially when stressed. They don’t tend to get as big as the silvers, and usually hide among the boulders. Juveniles will school like silver drummer.

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Next Issue

Hopefully this post has given you an idea of where you can find information on fish species and some things to think about in terms of sustainability. Obviously there are dozens more species than those I have listed here. The species above are common on near-shore reefs in southern NSW. I would love to hear from you about what you target. The take home message is to do your research into the species in your local area before you hit the water and of course, if you don’t recognise it, DON’T shoot it!

Next up, I will take a look at the equipment you need to get out into the water.

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Guide to responsible spearfishing #1

Spearfishing is a great way to connect with the ocean and to get some omega 3 into your diet. It is a sustainable method of fishing when done responsibly as you only take what you need and you can target the more sustainable species and sizes. Contrary to popular opinion, the average spearo doesn’t go out indiscriminately killing everything that moves. In fact I often come home with nothing. For me the pleasure comes from being in the ocean and learning about fishy behaviour. If I happen to catch a feed that’s great! but I’m just as happy to have been underwater, watching the aquatic world pass by. Last weekend I was lucky enough to swim with a pod of dolphins for a few minutes. The video below is worth a look and talks a bit about these motivations.

My impetus for writing this article comes from discussions I’ve been involved in recently regarding how difficult it is to find information on spearfishing rules and regulations. Additionally, the Christmas period is fast approaching which often brings on a spate of green spearo’s who’ve been given some brand new gear as a gift and are perhaps a little over-excited to go and catch a feed. While this excitement is understandable, I would like to see everyone enjoying this activity responsibly for many years to come.

I’ve been involved in spearfishing for many years now and I still find it difficult to find good information so I hope that this series of articles will help to bring the information together that you’ll need to get into this sport safely and responsibly. At the very least it should give you an idea of the authorities involved in regulating spearfishing activity. A lot of this will be aimed at people just starting out in spearfishing, but I hope that some of the resources will help experienced spearo’s to figure out where they can fish as well.

Before I get into it, I want to apologise for the bias toward NSW regulation in this article, but that is where I fish so it’s what I’m familiar with. Similar resources should be available from the equivalent Fisheries/land management authorities in your region.

Starting out

Spearfishing in Tonga. I’m using a homemade slingshot and the spear is the shaft from the hinge on an old chest freezer. The Tongans are a resourceful bunch!

There really is no substitute for tagging along with an experienced person. Someone who can guide you in safety and in what you can/can’t shoot. However, I realise that it’s not always possible to find someone willing to take you along. I suggest checking out some spearfishing forums and asking if anyone in your local area is happy for you to go along with them. My experience with these forums is that most people are supportive of helping out a newbie and are pretty happy to show you the ropes. But before you even get to this stage, you should do some reading – I hope the following article will provide a lot of necessary information for you. A little bit of prior knowledge will go along way toward showing an experienced buddy that you are serious about getting into this activity and that you care about the reputation of your fellow spearo’s.

Forums:
Adreno
Extreme spearfishing – Currently unavailable, but check out their facebook page

Before you get in the water

Get to know the rules for your local area. 10 minutes on google could save you a massive fine for being an idiot and spearing a protected species in a no-fishing zone. In NSW you must obtain a fishing licence. These are very easy to acquire, available at most fishing tackle shops or online here. Spearfishing is NOT allowed on scuba in NSW.

Where can I spearfish?

You’ll want to start out somewhere nice and protected. Have a look on google earth for places close to you. Identify somewhere that looks like it has good access for the time being. You’ll learn to identify good fishing areas as you progress, but for now, just find somewhere you can get in and out without too much difficulty. Headlands may offer some protection from wind and wave action depending on the direction of the wind and swell. Beaches are easy to enter and exit from, but you are only permitted to carry a spear within 20 m of the end of the beach.

An example of an easy site. Close to parking, beach entry/exit and plenty of rocky reef close by. Assuming north is toward the top of the pic, this site would get good protection from westerly winds.

In NSW, spearfishing is subject to all of the rules applying to saltwater fishers. The fisheries rules are in place in order to sustainably manage this shared resource. They may not be perfect, but take it from me, our fisheries in Australia are much healthier than regions where fisheries are unregulated. Visit the NSW DPI recreational fishing page for these rules and closures. There is NO spearfishing in freshwater in NSW. Ocean beaches (except 20 m from either end) are also off limits. A great resource for checking whether an area is closed to spearfishing is the NSW DPI Primefact available here. In addition to these closures there is a network of marine protected areas (MPAs) along the coast of NSW. MPAs consist of marine parks, aquatic reserves and special aggregation areas.

Marine parks

There are six marine parks in NSW. They have several types of zone. Usually you can fish in a general purpose (yellow) zone, but check the zoning map to make sure. There is NO fishing in red zones. Information and zoning maps are available here. There is signage at most access points to beaches within marine parks showing the zoning of the area.

Aquatic reserves

Aquatic reserves are a tricky bunch as each one differs in what you can/can’t do. Thankfully, the NSW DPI has consolidated all of this info for you and you can find out whether speafishing is allowed or not on this website.

Grey nurse shark aggregation sites

Photo Credit: Kylie Brown

Grey nurse sharks were hunted to near extinction in the 1960’s. It’s a black mark in spearfishing history, but thankfully the species is showing signs of recovery. There are several recognised grey nurse shark aggregation sites and like aquatic reserves, they vary in what you can and can’t do so make sure you check whether you can spearfish or not on this website.

A lot of scuba divers will talk about how harmless these sharks are and that’s pretty true. However be aware that these are large wild animals and you should treat them with respect. I know of at least one case of a spearo being bitten by a grey nurse shark, so just be aware. By all means, take a look if you see one – they are majestic animals, but be aware of their behaviour and take into consideration whether you are trailing dead fish on your float. Learn to recognise a pissed off shark (fast, erratic movements; pectoral fins pointed down; head arched back). They will let you know if they don’t want you around. Always give them an exit.

National parks

NSW national parks generally only manage activities on the land but there are some rules that may apply to you as a spearo accessing the water through a national park. National parks are tricky to find info about spearfishing. From what I can gather each park has its own plan of management and if that plan makes reference to spearfishing or spearguns you must comply with that. If the plan of management makes no reference to spearfishing or spearguns, then I think the regulation below applies. Plans of management are available here. The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Regulation 2009 contains the following:

National Parks and Wildlife Regulation 2009
Part 2 Division 3 Clause 20
20   Weapons
(1)  A person must not in a park:
(b)  carry or discharge or have in the person’s possession any airgun, speargun or other lethal weapon
(6)  A person does not commit an offence under subclause (1) (b) if the person carries or possesses an unloaded speargun in a park, unless a plan of management for a park or a notice erected in the park or given to the person prohibits the carrying or possession of a speargun (whether loaded or unloaded) in a park or any part of the park.
(8)  In this clause, unloaded speargun means:
(a)  an assembled rubber powered speargun that does not have the shaft engaged in the trigger mechanism and the rubbers stretched and engaged in the shaft, or
(b)  in the case of a pneumatic, spring or gas powered speargun—one that does not have the spear shaft located within the barrel of the speargun, or
   (c)  a disassembled speargun.

If you are going to be carrying your speargun through a national park, I would recommend calling the appropriate office and talking to the park manager. You shouldn’t have your gun loaded on land anyway, but ensure that it is unloaded at all times in the national park and disengage the spear shaft from the trigger mechanism. i.e. carry the spear shaft separately from the gun body.

Commonwealth National Parks

There are six Commonwealth National Parks in Australia. Kakadu NP is bordered by the sea to the north, though admittedly, I know absolutely nothing about spearfishing in the Northern Territory and I couldn’t find any reference to spearfishing on the Kakadu NP website. My advice would be to call the ranger station and ask about it if you plan on braving the crocs up there! Booderee National Park encompasses waters of Jervis Bay. Spearfishing is prohibited and spears or spear guns are not allowed in this parkNorfolk Island and Christmas Island National Parks also have oceanic boundaries and again, I could not find any reference to spearfishing on their respective websites. If you are lucky enough to be on one of these islands, then talk to the rangers to find out if you can spear there. The take home message here is that if you can’t find the information, talk to someone. Don’t just assume the it’s ok to go spearfishing. You could end up with a nasty fine or with your gear impounded.

Next Issue

So that pretty well sums up the rules and regulations around where your can spearfish or at least should give you some idea of where to find the information. I know it’s a lot, but you only have to check out your sites once and you will get to know your local area. In the next part of this guide I will cover what you can/can’t fish for. Remember, there is no catch and release in spearfishing. If you don’t know what it is, DON’T shoot it. I’ll cover where to find information on protected species and suggest some easy species to get started on and move on to some good sustainable fish species.

A plea to new spearo’s

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A great weekend diving with friends was somewhat tarnished by the actions of a naive spearfisher. We were unfortunate to witness a spearo enter the water in a sanctuary zone (no-take zone) and spear a blue wrasse, a protected species in NSW.

Spearfishing is a great way to get some fish into your diet. It can be a great challenge learning to freedive and learning to observe fish behaviour. That being said, there are no throw backs with spearfishing. Which is why I implore people new to the sport to know where you can fish and what species are ok to target. Do not pull that trigger unless you are 100% certain that the fish is of legal size and not protected. The fisheries rules are in place to help sustain our fish populations so that everyone can continue to enjoy our oceans.

Getting started can be daunting. It might seem like there are a lot of species to learn and there are. I would recommend tagging along with someone more experienced until you get to know your local fish. Join a spearfishing forum – there are often people looking for buddies. Failing that, get out and go freediving without the spear and look up the fish you see. In only a few dives you will quickly learn the common fish at your local sites. If you really want to get straight into it, consider deciding on a specific species to target before you even get in the water. Failing all of this, you can follow 1 simple rule: If you don’t know what it is, don’t shoot it. 

Some useful websites:

DPI Fishing rules – http://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/fishing/recreational/fishing-rules-and-regs/saltwater-bag-and-size-limits

Marine protected areas – http://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/fishing/marine-protected-areas

Spearfishing forum – http://www.spearfishing.com.au/sf-forum/

For Fish Sake!

If you love seafood, as I do (or know people who love it), I would highly recommend watching “What’s the Catch” which aired on SBS last night. If you missed it you can catch up on it here.

What's the Catch

The three part series follows Matthew Evans (of Gourmet Farmer), former chef and restaurant critic, on his mission to raise awareness and start a conversation about the origin, practices and sustainability of the seafood that we eat. Last night’s episode focussed mostly on prawns and seafood labelling.

In the spirit of starting a conversation about sustainable seafood, I’d like to talk about one of the most staggering statistics mentioned in last nights episode, which was that in Australia, we import 70% of our seafood! I think that figure is worth repeating here and it’s a figure that I would like to encourage my friends to pass on to their friends.

70% is massive! In the 2008/09 financial year that figure equated to 193 000 tonnes of imported seafood (Fisheries Research and Development Corporation). That’s 1 930 000 000 standard servings of fish in a country of just over 23 000 000 people – about 1.5 standard servings per week per person. The NSW Food Authority recommends eating 2-3 serves of fish per week. That means that half of our recommended maximum weekly fish consumption is coming from overseas (assuming that every single person in Australia eats seafood and sticks to the NSW recommendations, which they clearly don’t, but I think my point still stands). I see this as an issue, as it indicates that we’re not supporting our local fisheries.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Some people tend to think of commercial fishers as indiscriminate pillagers of the sea. However, In Australia, most commercial fishing is highly targeted and must conform to strict environmental regulation. I can’t deny that there are bad apples (or should I say smelly prawns?) amongst the bunch, but overall, the fishers themselves know the importance of fishing sustainably. It is their business and livelihood after all. My experience of Australian fisheries is that they are generally supportive of sustainable practices. We need to get behind these fisheries which have strict environmental regulation and good practices rather than continuing to buy cheap imported seafood, of which we have absolutely no control over how it is produced  (not to mention the carbon footprint involved in importing 193 000 tonnes of seafood).

In my opinion (having worked in fisheries organisations in Tonga and Australia), Australia does have some of the best managed fisheries in the world, despite what some conservation groups might say. I’m not suggesting that Australia’s fisheries are perfect, I know we still have a long way to go, and I think that the consumer has a big part to play on that journey. Keeping our fisheries sustainable requires solid governance, research, extension and compliance (to name but a few components) which all costs money.

Australia’s Northern Prawn Fishery (NPF) is held up as somewhat of a gold standard in industry best practice (for the prawn trawling industry). Whilst acknowledging that there is still a large amount of bycatch produced in this fishery, the NPF really has done an outstanding job of improving their practices. They have been able to research and implement technologies to reduce bycatch (over 50% reduction in bycatch), develop management plans and conduct continual stock assessment modelling and ecological risk assessments because they are one of Australia’s largest and most profitable fisheries.

trawlers

Which brings me to my point; If we, as consumers want premium quality management of our fisheries we need to start supporting our fisheries and be willing to pay a premium for the seafood produced. Supporting our fisheries means that the individual fisheries industries will have more money to put toward sustainable management and implementing good environmental practice.

That starts with knowing where our seafood comes from (seafood labelling has a big role to play here) and choosing the sustainable options. That’s not always easy to do, but I think that keeping our fisheries sustainable is worth hunting around for that option. To help you to make those choices, I’ll put a few links at the bottom of this post. I highly recommend watching the rest of “What’s the Catch” and please engage in the discussion on sustainable seafood!

Links:

If you have any other resources that you’d like to suggest, please leave me a comment and I’ll add it to the list.

Guides and Recipes

Good Fish Bad Fish – A page dedicated to sustainable seafood with an excellent seafood guide including a seafood converter to convert less sustainable choices to more sustainable ones. Contains good summaries of ratings given by other organisations.

The Australian Marine Conservation Society’s (AMCS) Sustainable Seafood Guide – A simple “traffic light” system for seafood. An easy to use and understand tool but keep in mind that the simplicity of this system may miss some of the subtleties of choosing sustainably and may conflict with other agencies. For example Banana Prawns are categorised as yellow or “eat less” whereas the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has certified the NPF, where the majority of banana prawns are caught, as sustainable.

Sustainable Table’s Seafood page – Sustainable Table advocates sustainable food choices from all sources, not just seafood. But this is their seafood page with some excellent information.

The Good Fish Project – An AMCS initiative. Good summary of fishing and harvesting methods here.

Sustainable seafood restaurants

Fish & Co. – Fully MSC certified Sydney restaurant, meaning that if you wanted to, you could trace the fish on your plate all the way back to the vessel it was caught from.

Love.Fish – Though not MSC certified, they obviously care about where their fish comes from and support local fisheries. Sydney based.

Swampdog – Sustainably sourced fish and chips in Brisbane

Certification agencies and Non-Government Organisations

Marine Stewardship Council – The most rigorous international certification scheme available for seafood. See here for an interactive map of the certified fisheries.

Aquaculture Stewardship Council

International Union for Conservation of Nature – For threatened species lists. Keep in mind that these lists are based on international data and may not accurately represent local populations. This works both ways; just because one species is sustainable in Australia doesn’t mean that it’s sustainable on a global scale.

Government organisations

Australian Government Department of the Environment – Australia’s export fisheries which have been assessed against the Australian Government’s Guidelines for the Ecologically Sustainable Management of Fisheries.

Fisheries Research and Development Corporation – A good resource for fisheries statistics and information on fisheries research.

Australian Fisheries Management Authority – For information on the management of Australia’s Commonwealth managed fisheries. i.e. fisheries operating within 3 – 200 nm of the coastline. For state managed fisheries (within 0-3 nm of the coastline) see the individual state fishery pages.

Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences Fishery Status Reports – Status reports on Commonwealth managed fisheries.