How Effective is the Inland Fisheries Service?
For some time now a number of people involved with our recreational fisheries have been asking me my opinion of the IFS. I get the feeling that many of these people are after moral support in their opposition to current management methods and strategies.
Why I am a strong supporter the IFS and its staff
One of the things I value highly about our IFS is that the staff are accessible, approachable, professional, honest and always willing to supply data. (Certainly I have never had to resort to extracting vital information via Freedom of Information laws, which is much more than I can say for other government departments, such as the
We should never underestimate the value of this openness and honesty. It is vital to integrity, and assists in the smooth running of clubs and interest groups, not to mention the implementation of the IFS's management programmes. Without this approach it would be virtually impossible for me to have produced the latest edition of Tasmanian Trout Waters. This accessibility comes from being a small department full of dedicated staff who feel accountable to their constituency. I think that having an independent management authority with a likeable and instantly recognisable identity is something that we must fight tooth and nail to preserve. And we owe it to the staff to offer respect and support whenever appropriate.
Why, then, the apparent disquiet among many leading anglers?
I suspect that a big part of the problem is that the IFS has been too modest about its considerable successes. The spectacular rehabilitation of Penstock Lagoon is a good case in point, as is the ongoing work at Lagoon of Islands, not to mention the success in managing the carp problem at lakes Sorell and Crescent. Each of these waters has recently received bad PR. Some people complain that Penstock is too crowded - but this is simply a reflection of how good the fishery has become, and how good it remains despite increasing pressure. Some complain about the terribly low, muddy water of Sorell and Crescent - but these days this is the result of ongoing drought (it has nothing to do with carp), and there is very little the IFS can do about climate change. Others complain about the increasing number of small trout in Lagoon of Islands - but this has been possible only because of improvements in water quality, and if we want bigger fish all we have to do is lobby the IFS for a less zealous stocking programme. (For the full history of management success in these waters, you may want to consult the latest edition of Tasmanian Trout Waters.) My only criticism in regard to these and many other management strategies is that the IFS has failed to wave its own flag loudly enough.
The main shortcomings with the IFS are to do with conflicts of interest in the department's legislative responsibilities. These have nothing to do the shortcomings of staff (whose integrity is, I believe, beyond question), and can only be addressed if the State Government is prepared to implement certain structural changes. If these changes do not occur, anglers will lose out badly.
Fundamental role of IFS
Along with most other prominent anglers, I firmly believe that the primary role of the IFS should be to coordinate, oversee and/or engage in activities which promote and foster Tasmania's trout fishery. These include stocking, consultation with users, control over all exotic fish, and the setting of appropriate laws and management strategies. It is also vital that the IFS retains an ability to respond quickly to threats to the aquatic environment. Responsibilities which conflict with this vision, or which would be more efficiently carried out by other government departments, should be off-loaded. This will help ensure that anglers" funds are not siphoned off to help buttress peripheral issues. It will also help prevent a culture-shift away from promoting the trout fishery towards demonising it.
Conflicts of interest
I see a number of serious conflicts of interest which threaten the effectiveness of the IFS as a angler-friendly agency. First of these is the new focus on the management of native (non-sport) fish. Also of concern is the current trend towards certain conservation objectives which presume to revert some inland waters to a pre-European condition - free of all feral pests, including trout and in some cases people.I also think that some of the current primary tasks of the IFS channel too much funding away from serious research (into protection of aquatic environment, anglers" needs and education) into areas of dubious value. Primary amongst these is law enforcement.
WHAT THE IFS SHOULD BE ENCOURAGED TO DO
Responsibility for water quality
It is absolutely vital that the IFS maintains its ability to respond quickly to threats to water quality and aquatic habitats. These things are integral to the future of our trout fishery, and are much more likely to impact upon our fishing than minor infringements of angling regulations or even poaching.I have already mentioned problems at Penstock Lagoon, lakes Sorell and Crescent, and Lagoon of Islands, but other major trout waters on the eastern portion of the Central Plateau remain precarious, notably Woods Lake, and even Arthurs Lake. The maintenance of solid environmental flows in river systems such as the South Esk and North Esk is also too important to be wholly entrusted to other government departments.
I was once a great supporter of the concept of management plans for fisheries and national parks, but not any more. The Tasmanian experience, as well as that in America, demonstrates that management plans usually consume huge resources and distract bureaucracies from real-life problems. Often they inhibit an agency's ability to respond quickly to unforeseen incidents, and rarely (if ever) do they achieve stated objectives. They are usually quite inflexible, and have a tendency to lock governments and managers into pre-conceived ideological responses while precluding less-bureaucratic solutions. (I have written about some of these problems in detail in FlyLife, # 25 and # 26).
These days it is apparent that there are much simpler options for managers than drawing up management plans. Basically it involves looking at a perceived broad-scale problem, developing a strategy to address it, trialling the strategy in small pilot areas, assessing successes and/or failures, and then asking users if they are satisfied with results and would like to see the system expanded to other areas. Such schemes sound too much like trial-and-error to appeal to bureaucrats, who tend to presume that the process of addressing a large-scale problem bit-by-bit will be too protracted, thereby irreparably compromising environment standards. The reality is that when undertaken by clever managers, such systems are more trial-and-success, and the bit-by-bit approach delivers objectives far quicker than any attempt to railroad lots of big changes all at once to a skeptical public.
I will expand on this concept in more detail in another article examining the outcomes of the new Western Lakes Management Plan.
Sensible stocking is definitely trial-and-error stuff, and need not become too bureaucratic. Successful outcomes depend on having management staff who understand the biological potential of each water and where that potential fits with respect to what is already available. They must also know the history of local waters, have a feel for optimum carrying capacities, and a thorough understanding of anglers" expectations. It most definitely is not rocket science, and should be done on a water by water basis, as need arises.
If you look at Lake Crescent in the late 1980s and early 1990s, an unprecedented programme of intensive stocking with fingerlings resulted in the average weight of fish caught slipping marginally from 3-4 kg to 2-3 kg, but with no significant drop in the rate of 5-10 kg fish caught and a much higher overall catch rate. Anglers were happier than ever before, and this was reflected in a huge increase in angling pressure. It is important to understand that no expensive consultation or management plan was necessary to achieve this outcome. If fish size had dropped too much or angler satisfaction had been compromised, the situation could have been quickly rectified by responding with less zealous stocking in future, tweaking the number of fish until average size and catch rate reached perfect balance.
The secret to successful stocking involves monitoring the effects of various stocking regimes. This includes catch rates and average sizes. Most importantly, though, you need to monitor anglers" perceptions of the fishery. Much of this data must be collected via questionnaires and is quite 'soft'. However, hard data can be gathered too - generally speaking, any significant increase in angling pressure means you are getting things right.
Effective monitoring requires significant resources being channelled into research and PR, but surely that's what being a fisheries officer should be about. Such work is certainly more important and much less expensive than financing an independent police force.
Integral to the long term preservation of our trout fishery is that anglers always represent a big enough percentage of the community to wield political force. This can only be achieved by recruiting new anglers and making trout fishing an integral part of the Tasmanian economy. By emphasising economics, I don't meant that Tasmanian's should forego sovereignty of their fishery to big business or "foreigners'. Tackle shops etc. cater primarily for locals and enhance rather than undermine our angling experiences. Casting tuition, guiding and accommodation are all used by locals, and all these services improve our enjoyment of fishing. These things are good for our economy and our lifestyle.
Many people are afraid that increasing the number of anglers will result in crowded waterways and fewer fish - but these concerns are largely unfounded. By way of example, the pressure at Little Pine Lagoon has increased dramatically over the past few decades but this has not resulted in reduced catches. Indeed, the big harvest prevents the water from becoming overpopulated with tiny trout. Similarly, the great increase in usage at Arthurs Lake following the collapse of Lake Sorell has coincided with a dramatic increase in not just catch rates but also the average size of the fish and (most importantly) angler satisfaction. Even in the delicate Nineteen Lagoons the fishing remains extraordinarily good despite pressure that 20 years ago I would have presumed to be unsustainable. Sure, the nature of the angling experience changes with increased use - but there are many ways we can preserve the best of what we have without having to forcibly restrict numbers or access. (Expect a thorough examination of this topic in a future article.)
In order to counter growing anti-trout sentiment from some elements of the green movement, and to ensure that the government will supply sufficient funds to ensure adequate water quality and environmental standards, the IFS must be in business of promoting our fishery. I see its role as providing inspiration, knowledge and direction, though Tourism Tasmania might be the most appropriate vehicle for producing and distributing promotional material.
RESPONSIBILITIES THE IFS SHOUD PASS ON TO OTHER DEPARTMENTS
When big-picture issues are discussed behind closed doors, the interests of anglers can easily be subverted. Anglers and the rest of community are best served by robust discussion, and this is not achieved in a department which has to internally manage conflicts of interest.
These days IFS spends big money on issues not pertaining to the recreational fishery, including the management of native fish and angler-unfriendly conservation programmes. Consequently the relative importance of recreational fishing is dwindling. This is not the fault of staff or management - the IFS is legally obliged to manage all of freshwater biota and aquatic habitats. In future, funding from conservation interests will be eagerly sought, and the chase to secure as big a proportion of the available funding as possible will further diminish the profile of the recreational fishing component of the IFS's responsibilities.
Also, while ever the IFS is significantly distracted from recreational fishing by its legislative responsibility for native fish, the funding of the department's overheads will be an area of contention. My experience in the PWS and IFC suggests that anglers" licence fees are not quarantined from investment in these programmes. We should insist that it is so - native fish are not primarily managed for the benefit of anglers, so anglers should not be required to invest more than other members of the community.
Recently at least one IFS staff member publicly expressed the view that trout are vermin - foxes of the waterways - and should be eradicated. Of course individuals have the right to hold extraordinary views, and I abhor censorship, but the angling community is entitled to ask whether this an appropriate viewpoint to be promoted by the IFS.
I believe that as a matter of urgency the IFS should pass on responsibility for the conservation of native fish to the PWS, which is the more logical body to handle conservation issues. This won't make the issues any less contentious, but it will free up the IFS to put in a solid effort defending and promoting the recreational fishery, as opposed to being forced into ill-considered acts of appeasement.
Another example: Recently Johnsons Lagoon was illegally stocked with rainbow trout, purportedly threatening a population of Clarence galaxias, and the IFS is now engaged in a passionate eradication programme. Regardless of the morality of this action (it may well be justified), I am concerned that the IFS's public profile is changing - it has now set itself up as the department responsible for the eradication of trout. There is already talk of taking trout out of the upper Swan catchment. How should we expect the IFS to feel to about the trout populations in Lake Bill, Wurragarra Creek and February Plains (stocked in the 1980s); Lake Skinner(1970s); Clarence Lagoon (1960s); Lake Meston(1950s); or indeed any water stocked since the introduction of salmonids in the 1860s?
I am not suggesting that conservation of native fish should be abandoned - in fact I consider myself to be a diehard greenie - but I do not believe that this is a role that should be undertaken by a body primarily set up to promote the interests of recreational anglers. The conflicts of interest are too great. Also the issues represent a philosophical minefield. For example, while the policy of the IFS is to condemn the translocation of any fish species to waters where they do not exist, the IFS has recently translocated the Pedder galaxias to a fish-free wilderness location (Lake Oberon) and the Swan galaxias to fish-free tributaries in the headwaters of the Swan catchment.
This may help protect the rare fish involved, but is potentially disastrous for unique invertebrates which have evolved in the absence of any fish predators whatsoever. Whether or not the action is good or bad is moot, but it certainly has nothing to do with fostering the preservation of natural environments. More importantly it has nothing to do with recreational fishing. I say, let the PWS fund the bun-fights and bear the consequences of its actions.
Another issue in coming years will be the pressure on management authorities to embrace the creation of river and lake reserves where the primary interest is to maintain a pre-European environment, free of introduced species (including trout and recreational anglers) - the inland equivalent of marine parks. Funding incentives mean that this will be an area State Governments will be reluctant to ignore. Currently the IFS would be obliged to undertake this objective. Is that what anglers want of their IFS? Or do we want a body that is primarily there to defend our interests? Surely this is another role better undertaken by the PWS.
I have a big problem with the money and resources that the IFS puts into law enforcement. First, I don't think that the outlay is justified in terms of return to the angler. My experience is that at lakes where there is minimal investment in specialist law-enforcement, the fishing is as good as it is in places where the use of IFS-enforcement has a high profile. Second, I believe that the most important conservation initiatives are largely unenforceable, and that the IFS needs to be structured so that more attention is given to research, education and environmental improvement. Really, nothing else matters. Essentially what I am saying is that policing is a job that is best done by Police Tasmania, whose officers are better trained for dealing with criminal activity. If the IFS feels it needs extra help at, say, spawning time, it would make more sense to come up with special arrangements with the police force. This would free up IFS officers for more important work on research and education. Staff might be given the capacity to issue on-the-spot fines for minor infringements of IFS regulations, but they should leave the nasty stuff (confronting drunken and armed poachers etc.) for the experts.
Okay, I've played devil's advocate, and expect some legitimate flak for my efforts. But I really do think that we should thinking long and hard about what our IFS should look like in the years to come. Surely our fishery depends on it. What do you think?