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Opening up opportunities for southwest trout anglers
  |  First Published: September 2016



Last year at a VRFish (Victorian Recreation Fishing Peak Body) state meeting, on behalf of the regions’ freshwater anglers, I proposed to support the removal of the salmonid closed season regulation in four annually stocked South West coastal rivers. This was in an effort to increase the return rates of stocked brown trout to anglers, and to give recreational anglers better access to these fisheries.

I’ll explain some of the rationale for this proposal, and share some perspectives on the background of these fisheries, issues and recent fisheries research. The salmonid closed season regulation, for these South West stocked coastal rivers, is an unnecessary fisheries management tool. The regulation limits opportunities for recreational anglers.

Background

Brown trout fisheries in the South West Victorian coastal rivers, the Hopkins, Mt Emu Creek, Merri and Moyne rivers have relied on annual fish stocking with yearling fish for decades. There is little to no natural recruitment. These same rivers are subject to a three month closed season, implemented to protect vulnerable spawning fish. This raises the question, why stock fish to create angling opportunities, and then limit access for social reasons, unrelated to the sustainability of these fisheries?

These rivers are the only stocked coastal rivers in Victoria. They’re well known, popular with local and visiting anglers, and are stocked annually by Fisheries Victoria with brown trout yearlings. These river catchments exist in close proximity to each other. They flow south into the ocean within 30km of each other, close to the regional centre of Warrnambool, and have extensive public access. Anglers can target brown trout over a wide geographic range. During winter, river flows increase and fish are most active. This is usually during the closed season period, and anglers often miss out on high quality brown trout.

Current Management

These fisheries were stocked as follows for 2015: 4000 in Hopkins River, 3100 in Mt Emu Creek, 11000 Merri River and 1000 Moyne River. The current bag limits are five fish per day, per person, with no more than two over 35cm. Gear is restricted to two rods per angler, and two hooks per line. Add a closed season period from the end of the Queen’s Birthday long weekend in June, to the first week in September.

Fishery characteristics - Past Research

The 2003-2004 Hopkins-Merri salmonid recreational creel survey conducted by Fisheries Victoria identified key characteristics of these fisheries. Stocking contributes significantly to the fishery, as over 70% of fish identified in the survey are fin-clipped. This means natural recruitment is either unlikely or very low. The return rate to anglers is 3.5%, of which only 68% is actually retained. Therefore, the harvest is only 2.4%. Many fish are not caught or utilised. The catch rate is as low as fourteen hours for one trout.

The fisheries produce high quality brown trout – over a third of fish measured in the survey were more than 50cm, or 1.5kg. Overall, the Hopkins and Merri rivers produce low yielding, but are high quality brown trout fisheries for experienced anglers.

Exemptions from the closed season regulation are already are in place for the lower reaches of these coastal streams, with a ‘sea run trout fishery’ classification. This simply funnels the effort into more limited sections of the waters, and results in lower catch rates. Anglers are dissatisfied and face issues with access. They’re also just targeting and catching typical stocked river fish. No significant sea run fishery actually exists.

The closed season management tool for salmonids was reinstated in the late 1990’s by the Victorian Government, state-wide, in response to concerned recreational anglers about wild stocks in rivers. This has been an effective management tool for protecting vulnerable fish in many salmonid river fisheries across the state, particularly where wild fish contribute significantly to the fishery, and where they can be vulnerable to fishing mortality when aggregating to spawn. In this unique situation, it raises questions.

Why have this regulation on stocked waters with low return and catch rates, which are heavily reliant on stocking and have little or no natural recruitment. The fish are not vulnerable to overfishing. Why is a stocked river fishery managed differently to a stocked lake fishery, which has no closed season regulation?

Removing the closed season regulation would allow anglers to capitalise on the investment and value of these fisheries, without jeopardising their sustainability. These rivers are managed by individual catch limits, gear restrictions and are stocked with brown trout to create recreational opportunities for anglers. Currently, they are clearly underutilised. Anglers are not getting the return on their Recreational Fishing Licence investment and revenue. This has been the cause of continual frustration for over a decade.

In the past, anglers continued to fish throughout the closed season period by targeting a range of other species. They’ve often caught and retained trout without consequence. Since the implementation of the closed season, not a single person has been booked for a salmonid related offence. It’s not a high compliance priority. Law-abiding anglers don’t get to target trout, when other anglers don’t even face consequences. Why have regulations that aren’t enforced?

With so little natural recruitment, there’s no clear scientific or sustainability reason for the closed season here, which means they are currently significantly over-regulated. The current sea run exemptions have caused further confusion. The removal of this regulation would enable anglers to reap the full benefits of these unique regional fisheries, resulting in social and economic benefits for anglers and local communities.

Recent research findings

After presenting the proposal to VRFish representatives, angling association delegates were able to share their concerns about potential changes, and in response to the proposal. Fisheries Victoria was asked to facilitate a survey of one or more of these rivers to determine whether there is likely to be a significant level of natural recruitment in these South West streams.

The aim of the research was to not provide comprehensive assessment, as it would take several years and substantial cost, but rather assess any indication of natural recruitment from winter 2015, to provide evidence and assist anglers to take an informed position.

South West river survey sites were selected in close consultation with fishers, based on accessibility and historical monitoring. On 27-28 January this year, Arthur Rylah Institute scientists used boat and backpack electrofishing to survey two sites on the Merri River, Bligh Road and Grasmere, as well as two sites on the Hopkins River, Warrumyea Road and Framlingham.

Recreational anglers from Australian Trout Foundation, VRFish and Warrnambool Fly Fishers attended the sites while they were being surveyed. Over the four sites, 27 brown trout (17-54cm) were surveyed, indicating that the Merri and Hopkins rivers continue to support good numbers of large brown trout. This is consistent with previous years. As the smallest trout caught in the survey was 17cm in length, the survey found no evidence of natural recruitment derived from spawning, as trout spawned in 2015 would be considerably smaller.

This finding is consistent with previous surveys that found these waters were principally maintained by stocking, as demonstrated by a high proportion of fin-clipped trout in angler catches. There is no evidence of overfishing, and there is high compliance with harvest regulations in the Merri and Hopkins rivers.

The Future

A unanimous vote by VRFish representatives, at a state meeting conducted in May, supported trialling the removal of the closed season regulation next year. There is still work to be done with fisheries managers to secure this opportunity. These fisheries are clearly unique and should be recognised by the legislation accordingly. Salmonid fisheries have been successfully micro-managed across Victoria. There’s no reason that an exemption can’t be made for these waters, subsequent to the support seen in recent years from the recreational angling community.

For now, the future looks bright. Hopefully in coming years, both local and visiting recreational anglers will be able to enjoy some of Victoria’s best quality brown trout fishing, on a year round basis.

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Looking out over the Hopkins River to the junction of the Hopkins and Mt Emu Creek

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When the river is flowing in the cooler months the fish are very active.

3

Fish respond to all techniques although flyfishing and lure fishing are very popular.

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Increasing access by removing the closed season on these waters will mean more big fish and big smiles for recreational anglers.

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A fisheries survey in 2003-2004 indicated that fin clipped fish made up a high proportion of the catch indicating the importance of fish stocking annually.

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Researchers from ARI conducting a survey in the electro-fishing boat looking for signs of natural recruitment in the upper Merri River in February 2016.

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The southwest stocked coastal rivers produce quality, well conditioned trout, just like these two fish taken trolling in the Merri River.

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