The recent announcement by the Victorian Fisheries Authority (VFA) that “fresh fish for sale from the boat has been made possible thanks to an exciting new wild harvest trial”, glosses over its systematic alienation of consumers from fresh, locally and sustainably caught seafood. For one thing, commercial fishers have always been allowed to sell their catch directly to the public, and those who met the requirements for food safety did so. However, the real furphy here is that the VFA has granted Victorians access to seafood, when in reality, it has been whittling away consumer rights for years.
As part of its Target One Million policy, the Andrews government has closed all but one of Victoria’s remaining bay and inlet commercial fisheries in order to make way for anglers (one million of them). The most recent closure, the Gippsland Lakes fishery, was announced by the Premier on a popular recreational fishing program (which does not screen in the effected fishing community of Lakes Entrance). Like the previous closure of the Port Phillip Bay seine fishery, the closure of Gippsland Lakes was justified on economic and social (not environmental) grounds. The government says fewer commercial fishers would somehow translate into more anglers, tourism, and wholesome, screen-free parent-and-child bonding opportunities. What the policy doesn’t account for is how most Victorians, 87 per cent of whom never catch their own seafood, are going to get access to this public resource without the intermediary efforts of commercial fishers.
The VFA has certainly invested a huge amount of money into the recreational sector, promising a $7 million dollar fish hatchery in central Victoria, aiming to restock 10 million fish each year by 2022, abolishing ramp, boat and parking fees, building new boat infrastructure and committing programs to encourage more children and women into fishing. The VFA is even offering angler-themed licence plates, for those whose identity is so defined by their hobby that they want to “show it off”.
The invitation to “style your ride” is likely to be a hit, because the emotional connection that many recreational fishers have to the practice is powerful. Research from the US suggests angling is key to life-narratives for many, representing a chance to get away from the drudgery of their obligations, and to get back to a more authentic, natural version of themselves. Not defined by their day-jobs, many who fish for leisure invest significant money in their identity as “fishermen” (and most are male). While there are fewer than 300 angling clubs in Victoria, they are powerful in their capacity to mobilise passionate members and to gain political attention. Part of the argument put forward by powerful recreational lobby groups who oppose commercial fishing is that their members spend billions of dollars on boats, tackle, camping and fishing gear, clothing and apparel, while professional fishers have little personal impact on the economy.