There’s a much-anticipated revival happening within our snapper and whiting fisheries. Fisheries Victoria’s researchers based in Queenscliff have been monitoring annual recruitment or spawning success of snapper and whiting for around twenty years. There are now clear signs of resurgence in both stocks in Port Phillip Bay, as predicted by our scientists in 2014/15.
As is to be expected, these signs are appearing at the ‘bottom end’ of our catches - with the numbers of just-legal sized fish increasing. These increased numbers will persist for the next two years or so for whiting and the next eight to nine years for snapper as fishing pressure, natural mortality and emigration whittle them away until the next significant boost to the stocks.
Anglers have been waiting impatiently for the turn-around in these two Bay fisheries, in particular for King George whiting. In early 2013, years of poor whiting catches by anglers prompted the start of the anti-netting campaign. The snowball began rolling in Geelong and gathered momentum, becoming a Bay-wide movement with the support of the tackle trade and the Futurefish Foundation. It eventually culminated in the Victorian Government’s current commercial netting buy-out program. While there were a number of issues underlying Geelong anglers’ concerns, it was the decline in their catches that spurred them into action and prompted the political lobbying that finally paid off.
Fisheries Victoria’s response included stepping up its output of information directly relevant to the issues raised by the anti-netting movement. Part of this response emphasised the strong monitoring and assessment program demonstrating the continued long-term sustainability of the Port Phillip Bay fisheries. Another part of the response countered the disinformation that had been circulating about the commercial fishery.
In 2011, Fisheries Victoria issued a ‘Snapper Fishery Forecast,’ which predicted ‘the recent exceptional catches to continue in the 2011/12 season, but catches are likely to moderate over the next three years.’ This was based on annual surveys that showed the numbers of large snapper that resulted from exceptional recruitment events in 2000/01, 2003/04 and 2004/05 that continued to support high catch rates but that the numbers of fish from these strong year groups were on their way down. This is after a number of years of being fished, and with lower replenishment as a result of mediocre recruitment in the following six years. As was the case with whiting, this forecast proved correct with the 2015 season in particular being the poorest experienced by anglers for quite a few years in terms of catches of large snapper.
Also in 2011, Fisheries Victoria’s ‘King George Whiting Fishery Forecast’ bulletin had predicted, ‘good catches in 2012 moderating over the next two to three years.’ This advice was based on annual surveys that found strong post-larval recruitment in 2007 and 2008 followed by two poor years, with the 2010 year being the lowest for juvenile whiting recruitment in the bay since 1999. Those ‘next two to three years’ coincided with the period of growing angler dissatisfaction around Geelong which came to a head in early 2013, when King George whiting numbers in the bay would have been at its lowest in many years.
Queenscliff researchers found that the 2013 and 2014 snapper recruitment levels were the third best and fifth best recorded since monitoring began in 1993. This prompted Fisheries Victoria in 2014, to encourage anglers to expect ‘a significant pulse of small snapper into the fishery in coming years.’ This pulse was likely to appear first as legal sized pinkies 2-3 years later (starting in 2016) with increased numbers of adults at 40cm appearing around four years later again, from 2020.
Sure enough, following the predicted poor big-snapper fishing in late 2015, the pinkie fishery is picking up, with large numbers of fish in the 26-30cm range appearing on the inshore grounds. As these fish grow around 1cm/month during the warmer months, catches should improve through autumn.
After two years of ‘average’ whiting recruitment, the 2013 survey found the third highest recruitment of post-larval whiting since the survey program began in 1998. On this basis, in February 2015, Fisheries Victoria predicted an upturn in the Bay whiting fishery beginning in the 2015/2016 summer, with continued good fishing through 2016-17. As I write this article the signs from Corio Bay suggest that this 3-year recovery is well under way.
In August 2015, after reporting poor snapper spawning success over the previous summer, Fisheries Victoria referred to the two earlier years of exceptional recruitment in reassuring anglers that this was part of the normal year-to-year variation to be expected in such a long-lived fish.
It’s just as well we have two average and one excellent (2013) whiting year classes ‘in the bank’ because recruitment levels in 2014 and 2015 have been the lowest since 1999. As things currently stand, the exceptional 2013 class will begin leaving our bays as four year-olds next year, with very few younger whiting coming along behind them. So, what can we hope for?
Based on previous research on climate influence as to how many whiting larvae make it into the bay, if we have a lot of winter/early spring westerlies this year we should see improved recruitment of post-larval whiting entering the bays.
If so, expect the 2016 class to enter the fishery as just-size fish in the summer of 2018/19. That’s two big ‘ifs.’ Fingers crossed!
One thing we can be confident about is that we will continue to be well informed by Fisheries Victoria on what’s happening with whiting and snapper recruitment and what that means for our fisheries.
Yearly monitoring of snapper and whiting recruitment, stocks and fisheries is funded by commercial fishing levies and recreational fishing licence fees. With the Port Phillip Bay commercial fishery to be phased out by 2022, anglers can expect these costs to be met, increasingly, from the RFL Trust Account.
Fisheries Victoria’s October/November surveys of juvenile King George whiting target the early stages (20-30mm) that have just settled into the bay’s seagrass beds after a long journey (80-100 days) on the ocean currents from coastal spawning grounds in far western Victoria and South Australia. These tiny fish take about two years to grow to legal size and then leave the bay by four years of age, never to return. They live out their lives in coastal waters and can reach up to twenty years.
The annual March surveys of juvenile snapper target small 3-5 month old fish, less than 12cm long. The babies are spawned in Port Phillip Bay during spring/summer. They disperse with age to populate the snapper stock from Wilson’s Promontory to southeast South Australia and many will eventually undertake migrations in and out of the Bay each year to spawn. They take about 3-4 years to reach the legal minimum length and about seven years to reach the over-40cm adult fishery.