Sustainable seafood

Guide to responsible spearfishing #3

So far in this series we have looked at where your can spear and what you can spear. Next up we’re going to take a look at what gear you’re going to need to go spearfishing.

What gear should I buy?

Be prepared to spend a bit of money on your gear. Cheap gear is cheap for a reason. Talk to some locals or get onto some forums and see what other people are using and saying about their equipment. If possible, try to borrow some gear before you invest in your own kit. Most experienced spearo’s will have spare gear laying around. Talk to them and see what they liked/didn’t like about that gear. You can build up to better gear to some extent, but there are some basics that you will need to get started.

Mask and snorkel

If you’re considering getting into spearfishing, you’ve probably done some snorkelling or diving. It’s fine to use a mask and snorkel that you’ve bought for this purpose however there are a few things you may want to consider for a spearfishing mask when it comes to upgrading or buying your first one. Firstly, a black (or any non-clear colour) silicone skirt. This will stop reflections on your mask lens and enable you to spot fish better from the surface. It sounds like a minor annoyance, but it’s one of those little things that can make a big difference. Second, you want a low volume mask. A low volume mask requires less air to equalise at depth and will sit closer to your eyes giving you a better field of vision. lastly and by far the least important are mirrored or shaded lenses. These are totally non-essential, but fish will tend to come in closer when they can’t see you looking at them. I have always owned masks with clear lenses but it means that I track fish in my peripheral vision and only look directly at them when I’m ready to shoot.

Comparison of freediving (left) and scuba diving (right) masks

Snorkels – In my experience, it doesn’t really matter. Try to avoid those big splash guards on the top as they tend to make the snorkel flop around. Learn to use your tongue as a splash guard instead. A stiff snorkel is better for spearing as it won’t flop around as much. Also, don’t rely on those plastic clips to attach the snorkel to your mask. Get one of the old-school silicone ones or simply slip the snorkel under your mask strap.

Fins

Comparison of diving (top) and freediving (bottom) fins. Note: the split in the diving fin is not appropriate for spearfishing.

You can use pretty much anything to get you started but you will probably want to upgrade as soon as you can. Good fins will make a big difference in your breath holding ability. That being said, I know people who use body board fins for spearfishing. Proper freediving fins are much more energy efficient which is why a good pair will help a lot with your breath hold and you’ll be able to chase faster fish with them too. The down side is that a decent set are going to cost you. split-fins, often used for scuba diving are not so great for spearfishing. They are ok in terms of speed and energy, however your float line can get very easily tangled between the blades. For that reason, I really would not recommend this style of fin. Full foot or strap? I prefer full foot for spearfishing as it means less neoprene around my feet – you use a thin sock rather than wetsuit booties. However some rock hoppers might prefer something more solid on their feet for getting to their dive sites.

Wetsuit

Again, pretty much any wetsuit will be fine to get you started as long as it’s an appropriate thickness for the water temperature where you dive. When you decide it’s time to invest in a good wetsuit, there are a couple of things to consider. Firstly, 1-piece or 2-piece? Most spearfishing wetsuits are 2-piece. I don’t really know why. I did use my 1-piece scuba diving wetsuit for spearfishing for years before upgrading so I don’t think there is any real issue there. Just good to know that both types exist. Secondly, open or closed cell neoprene? Most spearo’s I know like the open cell wetties because they’re warmer and allow for a greater range of movement. However, they are harder to get into (you’ll need to lube yourself up) and they are less durable than their closed cell counterparts. Next, think about the colour. I used to laugh at people in camo wetsuits until I saw one in action. I watched my buddy almost disappear into a bed of kelp. Now I wear a camo wetsuit. Whether you like camouflage or not, darker colours are better, but at the end of the day, get something that is comfortable for you and suitable for the area you dive.

Gloves

Quite possibly the most contentious issue in spearfishing! At the end of the day, gloves aren’t going to cost you an arm and a leg so try a few and find a pair that work for you. But you will need a pair of gloves. Some fish are very spiky so gloves will help to prevent a painful encounter. Also you’ll most likely be around rocky reefs or some kind of hard substrate so gloves will mitigate scrapes and cuts and make entries and exits from a rocky shore much less painful.

Weightbelt

Anything will get the job done here, but most spearo’s prefer the rubber type as they don’t slide around as much. Some people like a crotch strap to keep it in place. Other people love weight vests as you can distribute the weights evenly around your body. A downside to vests is that they may not ditch as easily in an emergency. Be sure to position your weights toward the back so that if you pass out, your weight belt will roll you onto your back. Never overweight yourself! If you’re negatively buoyant at the surface, you’re wearing too much weight. You should be able to float with your collarbone above water when you position yourself vertically and take a breath in. It’s worth taking that extra bit of time to get your weights set up correctly before you head out into deeper water.

Spear or Speargun

Hand spears

Some people love them. Most people start out with them. Some people I know tow one behind their float for flathead or fish inside caves. Honsetly, I can’t tell you much about these as I haven’t used one for a really long time. Basically you can buy them with aluminium or fibreglass shafts. They are cheaper than a speargun and you will catch some fish using them. However, they have less range and in my limited experience tend to be less accurate, though that probably comes down to the user.

Spearguns

Spend some money here and get something decent. Do some research and find out the pro’s and con’s of each brand and each model. A cheap gun will be less accurate and won’t last you very long. They are also quite inconsistent in their aim which makes it very difficult for a beginner to develop that skill – what worked last time may not work next time. Look for a gun with rails to guide the spear.

Size matters, but bigger is not always better. Long guns will give you longer range (generally) and tend to have more ‘punch’. Shorter guns are easier to track side to side. Have a think about what kind of fish you want to target. Long guns are generally better for bigger pelagics whereas shorter guns tend to be better for reef fish darting in and out of the rocks. Shorter guns are generally easier to load. Don’t agonize too much over length though. You’ll probably go through a few until you find a size that suits your style. 100 to 110 cm guns are probably a good starting point. I have used a 120 cm gun around rocky reefs to great effect and I’ve brought in some good sized kingfish on a little 90 cm.

Single or double rubbers? It comes down to what you’re targeting. I find a single rubber suits me for most of my fishing, however my gun can accommodate a second. I like this configuration because it allows me to attach a second rubber to my gun as a spare in case one of them breaks. Having both rubbers loaded won’t give you a longer range, but it will give the spear more ‘punch’ and the spear will reach your target quicker so the second rubber can be good for targeting faster moving species.

Reels or wrapped line? Never used a reel so I can’t really comment. A reel won’t increase your range. The spear will lose momentum well before it reaches the end of a wrapped shooting line. However if you’re wanting to shoot bigger fish, a reel will probably help you land it. Comments on reels welcome! Bungee or no bungee? Doesn’t really matter. A bungee is a small piece of rubber attached between the shooting line and the muzzle. I like them because it makes reloading the shooting line easier. More importantly it dampens the movement of a struggling fish meaning less tear-offs while you’re landing a fish.

Open or closed muzzle? Open muzzles allow you to aim down the full length of the spear and make reloading the spear a bit quicker as you don’t need to thread the spear through the hole in the muzzle. The line wrap is a little more complicated though as the shooting line is used to hold the spear to the barrel. The shooting line which holds down the spear on an open muzzle may come loose in rough conditions and you need to be spot on with the length of the shooting line when you replace it. You can’t use a bungee on an open muzzled gun. Closed muzzles may take a little longer to reload, but I’ve never really considered this to be a big problem on my closed muzzle guns. While you can’t see down the full length of the spear for aiming with a closed muzzle, you do get used to it and I certainly haven’t had any issues with accuracy using a closed muzzle.

Roller guns are becoming popular and are worth a mention. I have never used one so would love to hear from anyone who has. The idea of these guns is that the length of the barrel can be reduced while still facilitating a longer rubber, giving more power with the advantages of a shorter gun. The spear also gets a straighter pull from the rubbers and hence greater accuracy. They seem a little more complicated to reload and maintain, but certainly nothing that couldn’t be learned from a YouTube tutorial.

A note on safety

Never ever point your spear or speargun at another person. In fact, don’t even point it at a fish unless you’re going to shoot it. Treat it like a firearm. Even though most spearguns come with a safety catch, there is no guarantee that it will hold. These things are not toys. They are killing implements. Treat them with respect.

Float and line

Yes you need these! Anyone who’s ever driven a boat knows how difficult it can be to spot a person in the water. For this reason your float should be a bright colour and stand out (unlike your wetsuit). Get a float that comes with a flag, preferably on a giant pole sticking way above the water. You may need to add a ballast weight to the bottom of your float to stop it rolling flag-side down. Streamlined floats are easier to tow, however I started out with a couple of spray painted milk bottles. Not ideal, but they got me started.

My float is probably my favourite bit of gear. It’s a great place to store a bunch of things. I keep an abalone knife and a mesh bag on mine as well as a photocopy of my fishing licence in a waterproof bag. One of the requirements in NSW is that you must carry your licence with you when you’re fishing. Obviously you don’t want to take your wallet with you into the water, so a lot of people just write their licence number on their float. This should satisfy most reasonable fisheries officers. Make sure you have your actual fishing licence in your car though.

You can use pretty much any kind of synthetic rope for your float line. It should be appropriate for the depth you want to dive to. Too much line will get tangled and your float will probably be up on the shore. Too little line and you won’t be able to get the bottom. You need buoyant rope. If your line sinks, you’ll spend all of your time trying to untangle it from rocks and weed. Your line also needs to be thin enough to thread your fish onto but not so thin that it breaks off in the swell. Five to eight millimeters is a good diameter. One end of the line should be attached to your gun and the other end to your float. Most people I know string their fish on their float line. You can get a neat bit of gear called a speed spike which allows you to thread your fish (through the gill slit and out the mouth) onto your line more easily. I highly recommend getting one of these.

Knife

Spearfishing knives (left and middle) vs diving knife (right). The Mac Sub 11D is on the left.

You need a knife for spearfishing. Firstly to kill your fish (if you don’t kill it outright) and secondly in case of entaglement. Remember, you will be towing a float and there is the potential for an entanglement. For that reason your knife needs to be in an accessible location on your body. I don’t like knives on the leg. I know you think it looks cool with a big dagger strapped to your calf, but it is more difficult to get to. A lot of spearo’s strap their knife to their forearm or upper arm. Personally I like mine on my belt. Get a knife with a slender blade and a fine point. This is what you will use to kill the fish. Typical scuba diving knives have a broader blade and these can work for spearfishing but they’re not great. The Mac Sub 11D is a great starting point that won’t break the budget.

Summary

Well, I think that just about covers all of the gear that you will need to get you started. I may do another post on ‘nice-to-have’ gear later on. I know that it’s very tempting to look for the cheapest gear you can find when starting out and that is ok in some areas. but I think you can save yourself some money in the long run if you invest in decent gear. The speargun and fins are probably the two areas that it’s really worth spending the extra cash.

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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.

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/

A MADAGASCAN ADVENTURE: Part 3

Part 3: Conservation and the Vezo

I promised to talk more about the Vezo people, whom I lived amongst for three months, in my last post, so here we go…

The Vezo are known to be the best fishermen in Madagascar. The name ‘Vezo’ translates to, ‘ROW!’ (Literally the imperative form of the infinitive verb ‘mive’, so it’s the command ‘ROW!’), which is apt, as they may well be the best seafarers in Madagascar as well!

Readying the pirogue

Readying the pirogue

Local fisherman. Photo by Sandy Maksimowska.

Local fisherman. Photo by Sandy Maksimowska.

(See more of Sandy’s beautiful photos here)

Living a hand to mouth existence as they do in Andavadoake, is a hard life. It begins before sunrise and ends when you have enough fish to feed your family, and on a good day you might have a little left over to sell as well.

The ocean and the seafood it provides is vital to the Vezo as the main source of protein in their diet and a crucial source of income. The sandy soil that surrounds their homelands make agriculture near impossible, so the sea really is their food bowl and therefore, needs to be managed in a sustainable way. Not to mention the inherent cultural value that the ocean represents for the Vezo.

Who are we, coming from rich, developed countries, to tell these subsistence fishermen what they can and can’t fish and what sizes they should be? The people of Andava (and beyond) don’t have the luxury of being choosy when it comes to their catch. They don’t have the luxury to be able to afford to throw things back if they don’t meet our conservation standards.

However, with a booming population (the village of Andava doubles in size every 10-15 yrs) comes increasing pressure on the once abundant food bowl; the sea. And what about the national and international (Europe and Asia) fleets that fish these waters as well? This has amounted to huge pressures on the inshore reefs and eco-systems that feed so many.

Blue Ventures (BV) recognized the challenge facing the reef and its people and seeks to engage and educate the community not only on the issues of overfishing and destructive fishing practices, but also to assist in developing strategies that will help fishers fish more sustainably (BV’s efforts are not solely focused on the marine environment. Take a look at their website to learn more about their integrated approach to conservation, incorporating community health and education programs! I simply cannot cover it all here). This has seen the adoption of temporary and permanent Locally Managed Marine Areas (LMMA’s) and the development of aquaculture projects such as sea cumber and seaweed farming. Aquaculture is growing rapidly, generating alternate incomes for families and also getting women more involved in income generation and importantly, management of these industries.

Seaweed farming in Tampolove

Seaweed farming in Tampolove

Seacucumber pens in Tampolove

Seacucumber pens in Tampolove

BV’s establishment in the area came via an unlikely hero… Octopus! They’ve had incredible success with this lucrative fishery, which I believe, cemented the relationship between BV and the wider community. After the first temporary closure of the octopus fishery on one small section of reef in 2004, the community saw amazing results with unprecedented catches, and an increase in number and size of individuals. This strategy has been reproduced up and down the coast over the following years, and has now gone countrywide with communities in the northwest and northeast of the country using the same model, and Madagascar’s government establishing an annual national closure!

On the back of this success, many of the fishing communities saw the benefits of marine reserves and created their own network of reserves called the Velondriake (means ‘to live with the sea’ in local Vezo language) which comprise 640 sq km of protected area. It encompasses 25 villages and representatives from these villages establish and protect their marine reserves under the LMMA structure. BV volunteers collect data on both reserve and non reserve locations to help with the decision making and build a stronger case for the implementation of marine reserves.

Sustainability is key to the Vezo’s survival – what more of an incentive does one need to protect the Great Reef? And coupled with the adoption of aquaculture projects and other alternative income activities, such as eco-tourism, are showing this community that there is hope for their future.

President of the Velondriake stating the rules on opening day

President of the Velondriake stating the rules on opening day

Octopus reserve opening day on Nosy Fasy

Octopus reserve opening day on Nosy Fasy

My experience in Andavadoake told me that yes, conservation is a luxury, and yet it is necessary for the survival of fishing communities, not only in Madagascar. It was amazing to see so many people in this community willing to make sacrifices in order to mitigate the challenges they face with food and income security. It’s inspiring to see a community so focused on a common goal, which will not only benefit them as a people in the long term, but the environment upon which they rely, as well. Win, win!

So what did I learn/what have I taken away from the experience?

I’ve learnt to appreciate living a day-to-day existence, rather than always looking to the future for the next big thing – though whether I can maintain this back in the fast paced, developed world, remains to be seen. I’ve learnt to be more mindful of our oceans, what we’re taking from it and what we’re doing to protect it. I was inspired by many of the staff and volunteers I met along the way and am grateful for having made some great connections with people I know will be my friends for many years to come.

People always ask me, “what was your favourite part?” This is such a difficult question, but I guess my answer would be: Having the opportunity to live with the people of Andavadoake. Learning (sort of!) their language, listening to their stories, meeting their families, observing and participating in their way of life. Having that sort of context overlaid on the volunteer work we were doing, was for me, the best part. I wasn’t just counting fish, I was contributing to building a sustainable future for the people I met along the way.

On the whole, it was eye opening, enriching, challenging at times and a whole lot of fun. It gave me an appreciation for what it is to live in a remote community and the challenges they face each day and it gave me perspective on my own life.

Beautiful Andava Rock

Beautiful Andava Rock

And I saw the boababs and lemurs that had lured me here in the first place!

Boababs!

Boababs!

Brown Lemur in Parc National de I'Isalo

Brown Lemur in Parc National de I’Isalo

Ringtail lemurs in Réserve Park

Ringtail lemurs in Réserve Anja

Magical Indri in Parc National Andasibe

Magical Indri in Parc National Andasibe

Simporna (Silky Sifaka) in Parc National de Marojejy

Simporna (Silky Sifaka) in Parc National de Marojejy

Misaotra Bevata!

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.

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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.