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Whitebait - Compliance and Conservation

Whitebait are small, transparent fishes of around 30 - 70mm in length which migrate into Tasmanian rivers from estuarine and coastal regions each year, typically between August and December. The migratory schools may be composed of six to eight different species of fish, usually dominated by either the Tasmanian whitebait (lovettia sealii) or by juveniles of the common jollytail (Galaxias maculatus). Spotted galaxias (Galaxias tuttaceus), climbing galaxias (Galaxias brevipinnis), Tasmanian mudfish (Galaxias cleaveri) and smelt (Retropinna tasmanica) are also often present in low numbers.

The true Tasmanian whitebait (L. sealii) has at least four distinct stocks centred on the North and West Coasts, the Derwent and Huon rivers. In these areas, L. sealii tends to dominate the whitebait "runs', particularly early in the season. It is this species that was most sought after during the period of the commercial fishery in the 1940's. The commercial fishery was closed in 1974, following a major crash in L. sealli numbers and hence the viability of the fishery. The main reason for the collapse of the commercial fishery was that it targeted spawning adults. This often meant that adult fish were removed before they had a chance to spawn and complete their one-year life cycle. This is a major problem considering that this species has a naturally low reproductive success rate, making the populations recovery after exploitation extremely slow.

Intensive monitoring in the late 1980's, funded by the Federal Fishing Industry Research and Development Corporation (FIRDC), showed that there was potential for a sustainable recreational whitebait fishery, providing fishing effort and timing was tightly controlled. In 1990 the then Inland Fisheries Commission re-introduced a recreational season for anglers to lawfully take whitebait in selected rivers. This season is regulated by virtue of Section 38 of the Inland Fisheries Act 1995 and the Inland Fisheries (Recreational Fishing) Regulations 1999, and is open for a four-week period from late September to mid-October. A catch rate of 1kg of fish per person per day, to a total of 10kg per person per season was set as a sustainable catch rate.

The timing of the season and the selection of certain rivers are designed to target the juvenile common jollytail (G.maculatus) runs rather than the unsustainable Lovettia sealii, whose populations are particularly vulnerable to overfishing. By targeting whitebait species in the latter-part of the whitebait "run" the majority of the Tasmanian whitebait (L. sealii) have an opportunity to spawn, while the anglers keen to target these runs have the chance to lawfully take fish.

Unfortunately the whitebait migrations have been characterised by extensive poaching. This has required significant compliance resources and has slowed the recovery of Lovettia sealii numbers. Although the extent of poaching has decreased since the early 1990's (with a drop of just over 25% in cases from 1992-93 to last season, 2000-2001), fifteen people were convicted through the courts and many more served infringement notices last season. Repeat offenders commit many of these offences. This creates a situation where a few unlawful people significantly damage the fishery for the remaining recreational anglers and in doing so, prevent any future relaxing of regulations.

If at any stage you witness an unlawful act in regard to fisheries practices or have concern about something you have seen or heard, please contact one of our inspectors and discuss the matter further. If this level of poaching is allowed to continue we not only run the risk of decimating one of our endemic species but also remove any hope of a future extension to the season or number of open waters. Inland Fisheries Service inspectors and contact numbers are listed in the new Inland Fisheries handbook (given to all anglers on the purchase of licences), which contains a summary of the regulations.

Rodney Walker