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Part II: Target One Million – can we get there?
  |  First Published: February 2017



Part one of this story examined the starting point that launched the Victorian Government's Target One Million program in 2014: the economic study that put the number of adults who fished in 2007/08 at 721,000. It raised questions about the 2007/08 study and a second study in 2013/14 that estimated that the number of adult fishers had reached 838,000. Part one outlined several aspects of those economic studies' participation estimates that in my opinion appear to be quite implausible.

In this second part of the story we look at what ‘Target One Million’ actually means, who wants it, is it feasible, how could we get there and is it what really matters?

WHO WANTS ONE MILLION FISHERS?

Let's be clear on what we're talking about here – it's a target of one million Victorians fishing in Victoria each year.

The first question is whose target is it: is this what fishers want? In all of Fisheries Victoria's regional forums and online surveys not one of thousands of fishers has been reported as saying "I want to see a whole lot more of us - preferably one million of us". There's no evidence that fishers want this.

It is clearly a political goal, supported by the recreational fishing industry and VRFish. Should their interests come first or should the fishery be managed for recreational fishers? The former may be okay as long as the program is based on sound information, communicated honestly and - importantly - paid for by government and industry, not from RFL funds.

Setting that issue aside, there's the all-important question: in aiming for one million adult recreational fishers, is the starting point around 500,000 or is it 838,000? If you believe we had 838,000 adult fishers in 2013/14 there's no need to do anything special to reach the target. Since 2000, the government believes that the number had risen by 115% in 14 years; that's an average rate of increase of 6% per year. At that rate we should hit the target during 2016/17. In fact, the 2000/01 National Recreational Fishing Survey showed that, among all age groups of Victorian fishers, the highest participation rate and numbers were those under 18 years. So, if Ernst & Young had included under-18s in their 2013/14 study they'd quite likely have come up with a total of one million fishers. Job done - tick! And, all resulting from programs of previous Victorian governments. No need to spend a further $38 million of public funds to get there.

WHAT'S THE MOST CREDIBLE STARTING POINT?

The participation results in Ernst & Young's two reports were really intended to inform the main objective of their studies: "to assess the economic contribution of recreational fishing in Victoria to the state's economy". Adults are responsible for most of the expenditure, so those economic studies excluded fishers under 18 years of age. If the aim had been to estimate total fisher numbers they would have included kids, as the 2000/01 national survey and recent inter-state surveys have done.

These Victorian economic studies were not put forward as the last word on fisher numbers. In fact, Ernst & Young cautioned against the use of their reports beyond their intended purpose. So, it's not surprising that part one of this story found a number of anomalies showing that the 721,000 and 838,000 estimates of fisher numbers are quite implausible (see Fig.1).

Conclusions that can be drawn are that, while these studies delivered results that VRFish and the government have been able to use to the advantage of Victoria's recreational fishers - as intended - the participation estimates should never have been taken literally.

So, as outlined in part one, the most realistic estimate of adult recreational fisher numbers in 2013/14 is around 435,000 at a participation rate of 10%. Allowing for any ‘rubberiness’ around that estimate, it's safe to work on 500,000 as the number of resident adults fishing in Victoria today.

WHAT'S A REALISTIC TARGET?

From the long-term declines in both numbers and percentages of fishers, dating back to the 1970s, these estimates of 500,000 fishers and 10% participation are credible starting points for launching a turnaround in 2016. Despite the continuous 40-year downward trend towards single-digit levels, we know that participation is never going to hit zero; it will bottom out and rebound at some point. After long-term declines, WA's participation rates seem to have stabilised and SA fisher numbers have recently increased slightly.

Right now, one million Victorians fishing each year might be a purely aspirational goal but it's not totally fanciful; Fisheries Victoria's 1977 study estimated that there were 994,000 Victorians over 15 years of age fishing.

WHERE'S ‘THE PLAN’?

During its current four-year term, on top of Fisheries Victoria's annual recreational fisheries program, the government is spending $38 million of public funds and $9 million of recreational licence funds towards achieving its political goal of one million adult fishers by 2020. By any measure of responsible and accountable administration, this demands a detailed six-year plan that sets out performance measures, key milestones and targets and specifies the desired outcomes - including tracking the growth of fisher numbers. How will the drop-out rates by older fishers and by young adults be assessed and counter-acted? How will what's being offered differ from long-standing programs and initiatives in a way that attracts, not tens of thousands, but hundreds of thousands of new rusted-on fishers? What steps are in place to measure this progress? Is there such a plan?

To date, we're seeing a lot of action and regular reports of highly popular and successful developments in the 14 or so elements that make up the Target One Million program. However, there's no sign of substantial progress measured in terms of fisher numbers as part of a clearly defined plan. In fact, annual RFL sales in the two full years of the government's program averaged 13% fewer than in the last two years of the previous Coalition Government.

No fisheries research project today would be considered for public funding at a level of $100,000 without clearly defined targets, timelines, outcomes, milestones and details on accountability to fishers and the public. What makes this $47 million program so different?

WHO'S NEEDED TO MAKE UP THE NUMBERS?

Let's look at what we've got to work with to build towards a target. For starters, Victoria may already have two million or so recreational fishers. It's just that they don't all fish all the time.

A 2015 study in the USA has put some statistics around the numbers of regular fishers and occasional fishers there. Each year the US Fish and Wildlife Service compiles annual recreational fishing licensing data from all the states. Southwick Associates are a market research firm specialising in fishing, hunting and outdoor activities research. They take the licensing data and analyse it along with information on demographics, incomes, values and lifestyle choices across a range of urban and rural settings.

Among their study of individuals' licence-buying (a proxy for fishing) over a 10-year period they found that:

• only 4% fished in 10 out of 10 years;

• 49% fished in just one of 10 years;

• fishers typically fished in 2.4 out of five years;

• ‘new’ fishers planned to stay fishing for five years but only 32% did so;

• fishing competes with hunting, hiking, boating, cycling, golf, etc

• women and children ‘lapse’ from fishing most often.

While the fishing pattern of Victorian fishers will be different, this US ‘profiling’ illustrates the point that we have many more fishers than are ever active in a given year. It also points to the competing outdoor recreational and domestic activities that draw some fishers away. As an aside, the US study also illustrates what a powerful research tool a fishing licence scheme can be when every fisher is licensed and identified individually.

To be really effective, a program aimed at increasing the number of Victorians fishing each year must identify and tailor a range of attractions to match the range of occasional fishers and non-fishers who aspire to fish but face barriers preventing them from making a start.

A number of the current Target One Million and Fisheries Victoria programs have the potential to attract occasional fishers to become more active. After asking fishers what they want and how they'd prefer to see their RFL funds invested, Fisheries Victoria has responded with a variety of attractive programs. These include an increased range of stocked species and improved access and facilities, information products, recreational fishing reefs and restrictions on commercial fishing. Coupled with the recent recovery of many inland waters, these initiatives are increasing the opportunities for those fishers who already have fishing gear and knowledge. The question is, are these the game-changers - the initiatives that will persuade hundreds of thousands of once or twice-a-decade fishers to become every-year fishers?

What about the battlers, the single parents with kids, people with disabilities, elderly, non-English speaking and other people who'd like to fish but can't take that first step? What's been stopping them is not the fact that, until now, we haven't had:

• a minimum size for trout;

• trout cod fisheries at Beechworth;

• barra fishing in Hazelwood Pondage;

• unrestricted boating on Blue Rock Lake;

• net-free fishing in the bay;

• mulloway and estuary perch stocked in Lake Tyers.

Programs like the Come 'N' Try Days, Gone Fishing Days, Family Fishing Lakes and Premier Lakes, fishing clinics and angling club outreach days - these are some of the sorts of events that offer would-be fishers the chance to take the first step. But again, will these attractions release hundreds of thousands of new fishers from what's been holding them back and turn them into every-year fishers? Most of these opportunities have been on offer for years and yet overall participation has been falling.

WE NEED MUCH BETTER INFORMATION

Most recreational fishers will agree that we'd like it to be as easy as possible for kids to get into fishing; we should be removing barriers that are holding back people of all ages and personal situations. But, from the most likely starting point of around 500,000 adult fishers, do we really want to see a 100% increase in fisher numbers, pressure on fish stocks, environmental impacts, boat ramp congestion, etc?

Let's forget arbitrary targets and, instead, focus on helping all Victorians to realise their recreational fishing ambitions. To do that we need much different information than any previous recreational fishing study has ever provided. We need a survey sampling across the whole Victorian population, asking:

• whether they ever fish, fish as often as they'd like or haven't fished but would like to;

• what's stopping them from fishing as often as they'd like or from starting to fish;

• what are the other activities they turn to and what's more attractive about those things.

With this information we'll have a basis for developing programs targeted at helping everyone to maximise their enjoyment of fishing, based on an understanding of what's been holding the various groups back. Then the key question will be: is this a job for the government or for recreational fishing interests?

And, of course, as the Victorian Auditor-General's Office and the Productivity Commission have reminded us, if we're going to ‘grow’ fisher numbers and fishing pressure, we need far better programs to measure the impacts on fish stocks and the environment.

HOW ABOUT WORKING WITH OTHER STATES

While the Victorian Government is unique in working so actively to increase fisher numbers, it shares the challenge of declining participation with other states and territories. The authors of a 2013/14 survey of recreational fishing in NSW compared the rate of decrease in NSW's participation rates with those seen in other state-wide surveys around Australia. They concluded that all the evidence points to a clear national trend - 'the pattern of overall declining participation that is emerging appears to be linked to both the ageing of the population and a decline in retention of younger fishers, noting that the highest participation rates have consistently been amongst children'.

How can the trend in Victoria possibly be different?

The nationwide decline in recreational fishing participation is reflected in declining fishing charter and boating industry statistics. Take one example from the 2016 Productivity Commission draft report on marine fisheries and aquaculture. The following graph shows the clear downward trends in charter boat numbers and catches in Queensland. The numbers of registered recreational vessels and recreational fishers have also been declining there (see Graph. 1).

The Commission's report also shows gradual declines in the numbers of active South Australian charter vessels, clients and trips and a pronounced decline in retained fish.

While Victoria lacks charter industry statistics, Transport Safety Victoria data show that the number of current recreational marine boat licences is experiencing a steady decline. In addition, the annual increase in recreational vessel numbers in Victoria has fallen to almost zero; in other words, the number of registered boats has reached a plateau (see Graph. 2).

What all this tells us is that, around Australia, we're all in the same boat. The overwhelming message from recreational fishing, charter and boating information points to declining participation. While the Victorian Government may be working the hardest to boost recreational fishing participation, you can bet that some other states share this objective to some degree.

The third objective of Victoria's Fisheries Act is "to promote ... quality recreational fishing opportunities for the benefit of present and future generations". Other states will have similar objectives. Perhaps more importantly, the fishing tackle, boating, tourism and other allied industries have a large vested interest in the growth of recreational fishing.

The next step towards a better understanding of what's behind the trends in recreational fishing participation around Australia may be a national survey currently under development. In April, following a national meeting of Fisheries Ministers from around Australia, Senator Anne Ruston's media release stated, "The Australian Government will progress implementation of a national recreational fishing survey focussing on socio-economic data". In an ideal world, this study should be more than a descriptive snapshot of our fisheries at a particular point in time; it should be designed, conducted and analysed in a way that enables a much better interpretation and understanding of what's behind the trends we're seeing. At the same time it should provide the first credible estimate of fishing participation in Victoria since 2000/01. Fingers-crossed!

In the end, it shouldn't matter how many of us fish in a given year are fishing; just as long as there's nothing stopping us from doing so if we wish.

Fig.1 List of anomalous observations and resulting conclusions arising from Ernst & Young 2007/08 and 2013/14 participation estimates.

Study

Estimate

Conclusion

not believable without explanation

highly unlikely

not believable

not believable without explanation

highly unlikely

clearly an anomaly

not believable

Boat ownership rose from 21% to 48% in 7 years

Registered recreational boat numbers rose by 4% in those 7 years. National survey showed ownership at 16%.

not believable

Graph 1

Licences and catch, Queensland charter boats

Source: Productivity Commission "Draft report on marine fisheries and aquaculture", based on information provided by the Queensland Government.

Graph 2

Annual Victorian Recreational Marine vessel licences

How can you spend $47 million without any way of measuring progress towards your target of one million fishers?

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