Port Phillip Bay net-fishing ban a 'bloody disgrace'

Phil McAdam is a third generation commercial fisherman fishing in Port Phillip Bay.
Phil McAdam is a third generation commercial fisherman fishing in Port Phillip Bay.  Photo: Jason South


My grandfather was a fisherman and so was my dad. I've been fishing Port Phillip Bay since I was 12 years old. It's in my blood. It's in my daughters' blood. Just like farmers on the land, we don't do it for the money. It's our way of life.

Now, thanks to Victorian government legislation, commercial fishermen are banned from netting whitebait, sardines and other larger species in Melbourne's Port Phillip Bay. It's an ill-conceived, poorly researched, politically motivated decision that is a bloody disgrace.

The price of Port Phillip Bay sardines will continue to rise, says Phil McAdam.
The price of Port Phillip Bay sardines will continue to rise, says Phil McAdam.  Photo: Janie Barrett

Other state governments, including NSW and South Australia, are also instigating massive fishing reforms. 

With the Port Phillip Bay commercial netting ban, the government has thrown compensation money at net fishing licence-holders. Thirty-four of these 43 businesses have opted to take it, while eight have accepted longline fishing licences to focus on larger species. It's a profession you can no longer make a living from. How do you maintain a boat, with all the licence fees and maintenance, to longline fish for snapper when the season only goes for eight or nine weeks at its peak?

As of April, I'm the only net fishing-licence holder left who didn't take a longline licence or a package to exit the industry. We are the last fishers in Port Phillip Bay catching whitebait and sardines.

Half of the fresh sardines and whitebait we catch goes to fish shops, restaurants, caterers and markets, while the other half goes to the bait industry for recreational fishing. This ban affects everyone, including people who love to eat these healthy smaller species and recreational fisherman, who overwhelmingly prefer to use local bait.

The impetus to ban all netting aligns with the Victorian government's Target One Million initiative – a campaign to increase recreational fishing participation rates to 1 million anglers by 2020. A small group of recreational anglers have pushed the pollies' buttons to ban netting of larger species to ensure there are more fish in the sea for them. This move also looks environmentally friendly – an image that suits both sides of politics.

Two things will happen. Recreational fishing folk will need to buy imported bait, opening up a potential Pandora's box of issues with threats of disease that could devastate the bay's ecosystem.

The second major impact will be on our consumption of sardines and whitebait. The forced reduction of whitebait being caught means greater demand for what little is available, and our sell price has already more than doubled. In a few years, locally caught whitebait and sardines won't be available commercially at all.

Port Phillip Bay is one of Australia's oldest fisheries, operating for more than 170 years. It's a place where commercial and recreational fishers have peacefully coexisted, with highly regulated catch quotas and exemplary practices. There is virtually no bycatch or impact on the seabed. Our commercial net-fishing practices have proven to be passive, low impact and sustainable by organisations such as the Australian Conservation Foundation.

We are not asking to catch snapper and other species – that ship has passed. Let's leave them to the long-lining hobby farmers and weekend anglers.

I want to see the regulation amended to allow for netting of sardines and whitebait. No one is against it. All sides are supportive. There is not one environmental, commercial or ecological reason not to continue what we have always done.

Phil McAdam is a fisherman at Vancouver Fisheries, Williamstown. He will be a guest speaker at the Slow Fish Festival in Spotswood on April 15. For more details, see slowfoodmelbourne.com.au.