A telephone call I received recently confirmed something I had believed for some time: when man’s greed is involved, the fish don’t stand a chance.
The call came from Colin, a keen sportfisherman from Port Augusta in South Australia. Colin was in New Zealand for a couple of weeks’ holiday, and a bit of fishing. But he was also on a mission, a mission he explained in the first few seconds of the call.
“Has there been any research done in New Zealand on kingfish, and if so, where can I get hold of it?” he asked. I replied that considerable work had been done on kingfish and he would easily be able to get hold of it, but why did he want it?
His reply left me shaking my head in disbelief.
South Australia, like many parts of Australia and New Zealand, had suffered from considerable over-fishing in the past. This had taken a severe toll on many fish species, but the one Colin was interested in was kingfish.
Kingfish had been fished to such an extent that only one colony remained in the entire coastal waters of the state. This colony made their summer home around the pylons and other supporting structures of a large, coal-fired power station in Port Augusta. The total area the kingfish inhabited was about the size of half a football field.
Obviously, the pylons in this small area provided cover for a variety of baitfish, on which the kingfish would prey.
These kingfish, Colin said, would inhabit the pylons for about three months and then disappear. Where they went to was anyone’s guess because, unlike New Zealand, South Australia has no cooperative game fish tagging programme in place. As he spoke, I began to imagine the fantastic fishing the summer influx of kingfish would provide, particularly when he mentioned that the heaviest fish recorded there last summer was over 35 kilos. He spoke of a never-miss fishery once the kings moved in. A livebait drifted around the pylons, or a popper or jig cast just about anywhere, would generally result in a strike.
I began to feel envious of this fishery. It sounded like the way Astrolabe Reef, in the western Bay of Plenty, used to be around a decade ago, with ever-present schools of kahawai and hordes of huge, marauding kingfish. But gill nets and purse-seiners spelt the end of that in the late 1980s.
Colin’s story then took a dramatic turn.
While the Port Augusta kingfish did provide a fabulous fishing opportunity, the population of kingfish, he believed, was seriously threatened by man’s greed. The Port Augusta kingfish literally had a bounty on their heads.
A Port Augusta tackle shop owner, greedy to promote his business, had started a kingfish competition, to be run over 60 days. Weekly and overall prizes were offered for not only the heaviest kingfish caught weekly and overall, but also the nearest to average weight both for the week and overall. The major prize at the end of the 60 days was $1,000 cash for the winners of both sections.
When Colin told me this, I instantly replied that the Port Augusta kingfish would be quickly wiped out, as no fairly slow-growing fish living virtually in a colony in a confined area could sustain that pressure. And pressure it was.
Every weekend, Colin said, would see hundreds of anglers travelling from the cities of Adelaide and Whyalla to enter the lottery. Cause that’s what it is.
An average-weight prize ensures that every fish caught is weighed in.
“What about catch limits?” I asked him. “Doesn’t that restrict the number of fish caught?” No, it doesn’t. No catch limits are in place for kingfish in South Australia. A 60-centimetre minimum size exists, but there is no limit to the number of fish allowed to be taken. And this is in a state where the fishing public are allowed three snapper per day with a minimum length of 35 centimetres!
Colin went on to explain that, as the Port Augusta amateur fishing representative to the state fisheries authority, he had pleaded for a limit of one or two fish to be put on kingfish for he feared the Port Augusta colony would be wiped out. Each time he has put this proposal, the authorities have come back with a demand that he show proof of this possible demise of kingfish. Colin’s mission in New Zealand is seeking this proof.
As he spoke, I began flicking through various papers published about kingfish research in this country, trying to find something he could use. I did not take very long to find it!
White Island was the ideal example. Over the past 10 years or so, thousands of kingfish had been tagged and released around this active volcano. The recapture rate of tagged kingfish around White Island exceeds 20%, which has provided some incredibly valuable data for fisheries researchers.
Kingfish around White Island seldom migrate. They are resident fish, possibly much like those in Port Augusta. Over 90% of the tagged kingfish recaptured were caught within five nautical miles of where they were originally tagged.
Tagging records have shown that some of this fish had been tagged four years earlier, yet still they had not ventured far.
Hopefully, the contact I gave Colin in the Ministry of Fisheries in New Zealand will comply with his requests for this documented evidence. If not, for once a public (not commercial) greed will see the total demise of a fish population.
A Blast from the Past! This article originally appeared in NZ Fisherman magazine - May 1997
May 1997 - by Steve Sneddon