Is Tasmania's Trout fishery Slowly disappearing?

In recent times Tasmania has seen some structural changes occurring to the management of its inland fishery. They have been slow coming though - too slow for many anglers.

Both freshwater, and saltwater hold a valuable resource and Tasmania can benefit enormously by promoting recreational fishing, both within Tasmania and nationally.

In marine waters, much has been done to try and repair damage of the past. Netting bans, commercial quotas, gear restrictions and recreational areas have all been used to improve a degrading fishery. Little has been done in freshwater fisheries though.

In the past few years good fisheries have been disappearing. Immediate action must happen.

The following letter from well known angler and angling retailer, Jim Allen, explains some of his concerns.

Dear Mike,

I take this opportunity to give you my thoughts on, what I believe is, a declining Tasmanian Trout fishery. The first time I fished in Tasmania with a fly rod was as a teenage boy on Lake St Clair when I didn't even know that you had to strike a fish when it ate your fly - that was in 1961. I have been regularly fishing Tasmania since the early 70s and there has been, in the last few years, a dramatic change in Tasmania's trout fishery and there are some major problems.

When I regularly came down in the 70's, lakes like Sorell were in great condition. Wood's Lake was a good fishery and Penstock Lagoon was one of the most magnificent trout fisheries of all time and the Lagoon of Islands had legendary mayfly hatches. You could polaroid Penstock's shores in November-December and chase mudeye feeders all day. You could spend hours catching some of the most magnificent brown trout in gin-clear waters. Today Penstock is lost, as is Lake Sorrell, also one of the great trout fisheries of the world. My diary records day after day after day of 10-12-14, sometimes 20 and even 25 or 30 trout caught at daybreak on the midges, sadly no longer.

The water was never gin-clear at Sorell, and no-one would say that it was, but something dramatic changed in 1993 and the water went from slightly milky to a turbid, I suppose stink-hole is what you might call it today.

I hear stories that this might be caused by logging in the catchment, earthworks in the silver plains area or by superphosphate. I'll return to these problems later. 

What disappoints me most though, is that in Tasmania there is a bureaucracy with an absolute lack of vision, lack of determination to find out what is wrong and a lack of determination to fix it or, at least, say that it can't be fixed, but we have a right to know what the reasons are.

Carp came to Tasmania in the early 1990s. We had adopted a containment programme. I think it's a time bomb. Do we have to wait and see carp go down into the Derwent or be transported by cormorants, perhaps, up into the Western Lakes or other trout fisheries, or do we just have this long period of inactivity waiting for something to happen. Then we as anglers will say "Why didn't you do something about it?"  I think the messages we're getting from the bureaucracy, as fishermen, are really, in a word, appalling.

Shannon Lagoon is another water that has been neglected. It's restoration has been a favourite programme of mine and, as President of the Australian Trout Foundation, I am extremely disappointed to see nothing happening to restore it.

To me, I like to think that in business and in life generally the KISS (keep it simple stupid) principle works supremely well. All we need to do to the Shannon, in my view, is to lift its level. I would like to see the water of Shannon Lagoon drained and the sediments baked hard over one summer so there was a firm bottom once again. I believe the problem we have at Shannon Lagoon is water levels that are too low and the wave action on the shallow sediments are creating a turbid mess.

Shannon Lagoon in the 1930s and 40s was clear, as I am told by the older anglers and why can't we have it clear today? It wouldn't take very much - a few red gum sleepers placed at the wall to give it a bit of extra level as a low cost experiment.

It was lowered years ago and I believe restoring the level to it's previous height would do much to remedy the problem. It might sound a simplistic approach, but I believe it is simple to fix. Everyone wants to fix it, but nothing happens.

The biggest worry this year is Little Pine Lagoon. What's happened to Little Pine Lagoon. No-one can answer the questions, but something is dramatically wrong. Years ago it didn't matter what wind blew on Little Pine Lagoon, it took only the fiercest storm to make it dirty. Now with a traditional northerly wind, which we get with nearly every weather pattern, parts of Little Pine end up turbid and filthy dirty in a black tea-coloured mess.

This year it has stayed dirty for the longest periods in thirty years that I have fished it, and I am very concerned. Are we going to lose this water? Perhaps something is the matter with the weed. I have picked out strands of Canadian Pond Weed recently, and the roots are all black and rotten and it's floating all across the lagoon. Is it is disease amongst the weed? We need to know and we need to know urgently.

Now I can go on and on about what's wrong with the trout fishery in Tasmania. It sounds very negative, but I am worried. I am worried because Tasmania spends a lot of money advertising it as the best wild brown trout fishery in the world - and we are rapidly losing it.

In the Western Lakes I see another dramatic change. Years ago, Lake Ada was a clearwater lake, even in a big northerly wind. Now it only needs 20 knots of northerly and it is milky. The same applies for Double Lagoon.

Is that being caused by 10,000 year old sediments being lifted off the bottom by outboard motors? I think so, but I don't know whether I am right or wrong, and probably it doesn't matter what I think, but we do need to find out.

Out in the Western Lakes I believe Double Lagoon, First Lagoon, O'dells, and in particular and more importantly than any of them, Howes Lagoon need wading restrictions.

Once upon a time fly fishing was an elitist, exclusive sport. Today, nine out of ten anglers on the Western Lakes fish with a fly rod and one out of ten fish with bait or spinner. We fly fishers are doing damage to our ancient sediments and as much as Jim Allen loves to wade and polaroid through the Western Lakes, we have to consider wading restrictions and we have to consider them sooner rather than later. Sadly, no-one's listening, no-one knows and no-one cares.

We have enormous potential problems in our western lakes trout fishery and I take this opportunity to just outline a few of them.

The bag limit reduction at Little Pine Lagoon from twelve fish to five fish might be a good step forward. The expansion of the bag limit in Lake King William from twelve fish to twenty fish might also be a good step in the right direction and the Australian Trout Foundation has been very strong in promoting responsible bag limits, but we have to consider our trout fishery in the long-term as a sport fishery, not a meat fishery. Traditionally there has been a meat fishing ethic in Tasmania and there is nothing the matter with some fish being taken to eat.

It would take a lot of fish from Lake King William and Arthurs, and in the old days Sorrell, to need reduction of bag limits, but out in the Western Lakes, I think the answer of increasing the stocking of waters like Lake Botsford is a mistake. Years ago Botsford was full of five, six or seven pound fish and my diary accurately recorded the weights of fish through the seventies. Today if you were to fish Botsford, it is most unlikely that you would catch a fish over four pounds. Most of the fish are between two and three pounds and that is a result, I believe, of overstocking and more trout eating the food supply and the harvesting by tourist anglers isn't occurring because they put their fish back.

I think Jason Garrett at London Lakes Lodge wrote an article in the Australian newspaper recently and commented that Americans put a hundred per cent of their fish back, mainlanders put fifty per cent of their fish back, and Tasmanians keep one hundred per cent of the fish. Well, I think that he may have been a little harsh, but he wasn't far from the truth, but the times are a changing.

There are more and more recreational anglers coming to Tasmania each year. The Highlands are full of Victorians. The lodges, hotels and camp grounds are filling up through January and February, basically New South Wales and Victorian anglers. Now Tasmania needs to keep that economic benefit. Needs to expand it perhaps. It can do so - but it can't do so unless it is prepared to invest some time and serious investigation to evaluate its fishery.

I hear the stories that there is no money - but the licencing system is completely irrational. It is $40 a licence to fish in Tasmania. It is across the board, it's simple, it's what the bureaucrats love. Other countries in the world endorse their licences. They introduced slot limits. They introduced harvest limits. Now we did see the harvest limits reduced from twelve fish to five fish in the Western Lakes of Tasmania just two years ago - but, that's really not changed anything - it needs to go much further.

I haven't seen a member of the Inland Fisheries Commission this season, either in his car or out in uniform on Tasmania's Lakes. In the old days, you always saw one or two inspectors popping around asking questions, doing a survey, research or showing the flag. This year there has been zero presence of the Inland Fisheries Commission up in the highlands of Tasmania.

In Canada and in Alaska, the government fishery managers worked very, very hard towards improving their sport fisheries and, in fact, I think they are the two leaders in the world in treating recreational fishing as a tourism asset to their States.

In both those countries foreign anglers, or out of state anglers, pay a serious premium for the right to fish and I believe there is nothing the matter with that. When you consider an interstate angler spends up to two to three thousand dollars to spend time fishing in Tasmania and many hire a trout guide as well. Perhaps by the time they have brought their boat across; whatever - they have spent a lot of money. I can't see any reason why they shouldn't pay an out of state premium for Tasmania's trout fishery. The Tasmanian tourism authorities will see it as an impediment because of the higher expense, but it is a very small sum of money in regard to the total trip cost.

I fish the Dean River in British Columbia, Canada each year. The licence for a foreigner, like me, is $145 Australian for the priviledge to fish for 7 days on what is arguably the best sea run rainbow stream in the world.

To fish other rivers and lakes in Canada costs $40-60 a week for one week's licence. Now that would be double what an Alaskan or a Canadian would pay and, as tourist, I think we should pay a premium to fish in Tasmania. The other thing we ought to consider is endorsing our fisheries so that if we have, say, a Western Lakes" endorsement on our licence, the money raised can go into research of the Western Lakes. You could have an endorsed licence for Shannon Lagoon, Little Pine Lagoon, or Penstock Lagoon. We could endorse licences to a point where you have an all-encompassing Gold Licence at perhaps double or treble what the licence is today. There are revenue-raising opportunities that have not been looked at by endorsing licences.

Another item that should be considered in our Tasmanian trout fishery is slot limits. Slot limits introduce the ability to look after our best spawning age trout, and looking after the trout at their best time of life. In other words, instead of just having a five fish bag limit, you might perhaps take five fish below two pounds at Little Pine Lagoon, keep your two to five pounders in the lake in catch and release and then allow a bag limit of one trophy fish, over say, six pounds.

I remember when I first fished Little Pine Lagoon, catching a matched pair of six pound trout. I haven't caught a six pound trout at Little Pine Lagoon for fifteen years. But back in the 1970s, a five and a half to six and a half pound trout was not unusual. But today they don't have the opportunity to grow to that size. The introduction of slot limits could rectify that if they were applied intelligently.

The problem we have really, Mike, is the bureaucrats are not interested in making difficult - because some decisions are not going to be popular, and when you make unpopular decisions, bureaucrats get scared politically.

The real question we must consider is - what is best for the future? We don't own Tasmania. We have an obligation to hand over to our children, our grandchildren, a better trout fishery - not a worse trout fishery. We are going to hand over a much worse trout fishery than the one we received - and that's appalling.

Now we have to consider it in its true light and until we get a Commissioner of Inland Fisheries in Tasmania who is prepared to make some difficult decisions, until we have a Government that is prepared to make a commitment to trout fishing, and what we have to equate that is to, what's logging worth, what's trout fishing worth, and what's farming worth. Because there may have to be some very difficult decisions made if we are going to protect our environment. When we lose our trout, we lose a lot more. We lose all the natural invertebrate life. We lose the food supply. We lose clean waters. We are destroying habitat. We are destroying quality of water and that's not our right. We are guardians to this State of Tasmania and there is a future generation that comes after and that's what quirks in my throat more than anything else. We are being teenage hoodlums and totally irresponsible.

Government, our bureaucrats, both in the Department of the Environment, in Fisheries, need to absolutely look at what they are up to. Because they are failing us badly and responsible government is a responsibility of all of us and we have that responsibility for the future. We are just letting our trout fisheries slide into oblivion and no-one is caring and that really hurts me personally.

Mike, this is an entry from my diary from Lake Sorrell, which is dated the 2, 3 and 4 December 1992. It is written by my dear friend Harry Hearn who is a solicitor in Melbourne and explains, in part, why I am concerned - he writes:

Under extreme protest I dragged Jim Allen screaming away from his beloved Little Pine and the one and a half pounders that we had been catching there recently. By application of gifted intuition and a big stick we drove to Sorell where the cloud hung about 20 feet over the Lake and the waves were a foot high hammering the western shoreline. We moved over to the other side of the lake to the Dog's Head, and after fishing for half an hour a prodigious hatch developed lasting just on four hours. After the second four pound trout came to net Jim grudgingly conceded perhaps it was worth coming. We each lost three or four good-looking fish through the periods of pandemonium that highlighted the afternoon. Jim's Red Indian war cry split the mist and startled the innocent wallabies watching from the shore. At day's end we had caught fourteen fish. Jim eight, myself six, ranging from two to five and a quarter pounds. Jim's best a five and a quarter pound rainbow, mine a five pound brown. That was on the 4th. On the 5th we went back and caught another twelve fish and then on the 6th Harry wrote; "The word had well and truly got around by now and for the third day in a row, on returning to Sorrell we found we had lots of company. Tho" the wind was still to the east, the weather was starting to improve. We fished on, again in the dun hatch, they came to net one after another, each slightly under four pounds, and lovely fish, and so ended a trio of challenging, exhilarating dry fly days, our tally of nine fish for the day, with a total of thirty-five fish for the three days. More importantly, perhaps a new door of opportunity has been discovered for dun fishing, which hitherto seems to have been largely restricted to Little Pine Lagoon and Arthurs Lake - a grand note on which to close my trip."

The point is that is what was available at Lake Sorrell and is no longer available today and that's the tragedy.

Here we have one of the great trout fisheries in Tasmania and probably the world lost. Remember, all those Hobart fishermen used to come up on opening, you would see thirty or forty boats trolling in the slightly milky waters of Sorrell, and they caught beautiful trout. Today, there are a few eels along the edge and there is nothing like the quality or quantity of fish that was once there.

What's happened? Is it the logging. Is the nutrient level raised by superphospating or earthworks?

What is Sorrell worth economically to Tasmania? I put it to you it's worth a lot more than it is being valued at by the bureaucrats, not only to looking after a valuable habitat with good quality water, but is is worth more economically than one farm or one catchment of logging.

I know, things can be repaired. Habitats can be improved. Anglers may, at first complain if the rules and regulations are changed, but 99% of anglers will comply if they know it will improve their trout fisheries.

Lets have no more discussion papers, management stratagies, conclaves, meetings, studies, seminars or investigations.

Let's have some decisions. As someone once wrote "It is better to try and fail than to have not tried at all."

If the Thames River in London can be rehabilitated so that salmon can run back up it from the sea, we can certainly fix up Lake Sorrell, Lagoon of Islands, Shannon Lagoon, Woods Lake, Little Pine and Penstock Lagoon. What we need is determination, courage and conviction.

Jim Allen

Tavistock House, Flinders Lane, Melbourne