What does good recreational fisheries management look like?

What a good recreational fishery looks like. Beautiful.
What a good recreational fishery looks like. Beautiful.

What started out as me looking at fish stockings has slowly mutated into a series of posts rambling on about recreational fisheries and conservation. So, down the rabbit hole we go once again. This time looking at what “good” recreational fisheries management should look like?

To start with, the management of all our fisheries, recreational or commercial or “mixed” should at the very least be sustainable. That is the minimum standard for a well managed fishery, so I’m not going to discuss that further at this stage (what “sustainable” really means, is a topic for another post).

The management of commercial fisheries is a well established field, with a strong theoretical and practical grounding, based on various types of stock assessments and concepts such as maximum sustainable yield. The relatively small number of participants in commercial fisheries and relative ease of quantifying impacts and economic benefits (and thus motivations), make the management of those fisheries relatively simple (at least theoretically). This is not the case for recreational fisheries, which by their very nature are fisheries compromising many many participants, across large areas, all of whom have differing motivations for participating in the fishery. This gives rise to complexities, which make answering the question of what good recreational fisheries management looks like a difficult one to answer.

Given that there are many fisheries in Australia which are now (almost) exclusively recreational fisheries (e.g. freshwater fisheries, Tuross lake fishery) and a rising number where the estimated harvest of recreational angler is larger than of commercial fishers (e.g. NSW mulloway fishery), it is important that the impact of recreational fishers is well understood, so that our recreational fisheries can be managed sustainably and be the best they can be.

However, there is a lot more to managing a recreational fishery than just understanding take and that is where defining “what good recreational fisheries management looks like” it likely to have important management implications.

One of the defining differences between commercial and recreational fisheries is the diverse reasons that recreational fishers fish. These diverse motivations potentially change the way some fisheries are optimally managed. For example, while management for maximum sustainable yield makes perfect sense in commercial fisheries, it does not necessarily make sense in recreational fisheries. This is because the motivations of anglers may not be maximising “take”, but may instead be maximising “enjoyment” or some other metric. Knowing what that metric is may change how a fishery is best managed.

For example in cases where the vast majority of recreational fishing effort is geared towards catch and release, not catch and take, managing for “take” may not be the best way to manage the fishery. That is because, in these fisheries what the majority of recreational fishers are after is not harvest, but instead catching more fish or bigger fish for the purpose of enjoyment. Under these circumstances it may very well be that the “best” management of those fisheries is instead managing for total fish numbers. This insight may well change, the % of spawning biomass that is “ideal” in these fisheries, compared to a similar commercial fishery. Two Australian species where at least a significant percentage of users might benefit from such a change in management objectives are wild Australian bass and Murray cod fisheries, where a strong catch and release culture already exists amongst a significant portion of recreational fishers. These motivations also change over time. Thirty years ago, the catch and release culture that now exists in those fisheries, simply wasn’t a thing. So “good” recreational fisheries management should be adaptable and change when the desires and motivations of fishers change, to reflect the “value” placed on the fishery by recreational fishers.

On the flip side, this sort of management would make absolutely no sense for recreational fisheries such as the King george whiting fisheries in Victoria or the Sand flathead fisheries on the NSW coast, where the motivation of recreational anglers is most often to harvest fish. In these cases, to reflect the needs and desires of recreational fishers, the best management will likely look very similar to that in commercial fisheries, that is fisheries managed for maximum sustainable yield.

This highlights one of the major complications of determining what a “well managed recreational fishery” is, that is, that the answer will change over time and between fisheries depending on the views and objectives of the fishers who fish it. Unlike in commercial fisheries, there is not likely to be one answer to “what a well managed fishery” looks like, but many.

This diverse user base further complicates things, in that the anglers who utilise a fishery will themselves have very different motivations. So while many Murray cod and Australian bass fishers practice 100% catch and release, some do not, and value the food harvested from those fisheries highly. Thus, this will necessarily lead to conflicts about how best to manage those resources, given that the objectives of the participants and users of the common pool of fish are not always aligned. What suits one sub-group will often negatively impact on other sub-groups of users.

This alone is a valuable insight, that allows us to get closer to answering the initial question. That is, that the motivations of recreational fishers vary and that those motivations potentially change how a fishery is “best” managed. That good recreational fisheries management will at least in part be about equitably sharing resources between groups of users with differing objectives. Given that those difference are always likely to be there, conflict is likely to be ever present part of fisheries management and effectively managing the conflict between groups a part of good recreational fisheries management.

A wild Aussie bass. Most recreational fishermen chose to practice catch and release when targeting these great Aussie sportfish.
A wild Aussie bass. Most recreational fishermen chose to practice catch and release when targeting these great Aussie sportfish.

Taking this further, there will always be conflict not only between recreational fishers, but also between recreational fishers and other user groups, be they commercial fishers, conservation groups, dive operations or pleasure boaters. The clearest conflict is likely to be between recreational fishers and commercial fishers given that both groups often rely on the exact same resource (stock). In cases where the objectives of recreational and commercial fishers are aligned, the best management of the fishery is going to be in accordance with traditional fisheries management techniques, with maximum sustainable yield set to include the take of the two groups. In these fisheries, the biggest conflict will be how to equitably share the take of the resource. To equitably “split” the stock you need some way of measuring the social and commercial “value” of each fishery. Coming up with a way “value” can be measured in both fisheries so they can be directly compared is devilishly difficult to do (but more on that later).

In fisheries where most recreational fishers practice catch and release and where commercial operations take significant numbers of fish, the “best” management strategy becomes much harder to pin down. For example, in those situations it may not make sense to set take between the two groups at maximum sustainable yield. This is because, recreational fishers may be releasing most of their fish with a view to catching them again and having a better fishery overall in the future. If that “unused quota” simply goes to commercial operators, there is little “practical” reason for anglers to release fish i.e. it does nothing to achieve the goals and objectives of the recreational fishers. In these situations, the resource is valued very differently between the groups, valued more highly swimming for one group and boated for another. How you go about then equitably managing and sharing that resource becomes even more complicated, now needing to account for the differing overall value of “swimming” vs “boated” fish.

Now, I’m not sure how you go about answering that question, but it at least deserves some more in depth thought and modelling. Having a better theoretical foundation on how best to manage this tension, should help us improve the management of those fisheries in the future to maximise the total benefit of the fishery to local communities, rural areas and society as a whole. This will also help manage purely recreational fisheries, given that this same tension exists between different groups within the recreational fishing community, e.g. catch and release fishers vs kill and grill fishers.

In the long term, better determining “value” (economic and social) of the stock to competing groups will help better allocate the stocks between groups to provide the “maximum” benefit (social, economic, environmental). To do this though, we first need to learn more about the motivations and objectives of recreational anglers, as these could lead to management approaches that are quite different to what have traditional been used in commercial fisheries. The take home, is that people, their motivations and desires have management implications, that we should try to incorporate into recreational fisheries management. Its not just about stock, but about people.

Lastly, it is important to acknowledge that fisheries management doesn’t happen in a vacuum and that there are numerous factors outside the role of traditional fisheries managers that will effect fish stocks and the effectiveness of management plans. While fisheries management as it is (that is managing a stock sustainably through quotas, bag limits and the like) will always have a huge role to play, it is likely that by acknowledging social, cultural and environmental factors, and better integrating these into the umbrella of fisheries management will lead to better outcomes.

For example, in some recreational fisheries (and commercial fisheries), many of the tools necessary to develop sustainable fisheries lie outside the role of fisheries managers. Some of the major threats to sustainable freshwater ecosystems come in the form of environmental degradation, siltation, pollution (farming practices), water use and water regulation by other users (e.g. hydro and farmers). Similarly, many near shore recreational fisheries are threatened by pollution, nutrient rich run off (from farms and urban areas), mining and other factors. When considering what a “well managed recreational fishery” looks like these factors should be taken into account, given that a more holistic view of what recreational fisheries management is, is likely to be beneficial in the long term. After all, ultimately, great fisheries rely on great habitat.

Habitat! Its important too
Habitat! Its important too

Taking this broader focus of what fisheries “management” is, factors such as habitat quality, environmental rehabilitation, conservation, stakeholder engagement and fostering links between stakeholder, community, interest groups and government agencies all become part of “management”. This in part require recreational fishers to take ownership of and play a more active role in how fisheries are managed, in improving fish habitats and in improving “their” fisheries. The work of groups such as the fish habitat network (Ozfish unlimited), recreational fishing lobbies and others, all have an important role to play facilitating these broader aims and engaging recreational fishers in their fisheries in order to achieve better outcomes, both socially, environmentally and for fish populations.

In the end, recreational fisheries management, is, in a sense, as much about managing people as it is about managing stocks of fish. People matter. Their motivations and desires matter. Their level of ownership and stewardship they feel towards their fisheries matter. If we want great fisheries, its up to us.

I’d love your feedback. What do you think good recreational fisheries management looks like? What are your ideas?




Hamish Webb, Dan Firth, Graham Fifield and Lee Georgeson have been fishing the south-east Australian region since 1987. Since then they’ve become avid sportfishermen who are constantly looking for new ways to challenge themselves. They are all scientists and conservationists who are passionate about the long-term sustainability of the ecosystem in which they live. They promote understanding and appreciation of the complex socio-political, economic and environmental issues surrounding fish, fishing and fisheries, while never losing sight of the various motivations that keep them coming back. In English, that means they love all things fishing and have a damn good time on the water, and that’s all that really counts in the end!

2 thoughts on “What does good recreational fisheries management look like?

  • August 20, 2015 at 1:05 pm

    Top article Hamish. Really gets you thinking. I’d certainly like to see some waterways become “blue ribbon” for certain species and that designation means catch and release only. For example, Macleay River, upstream of Georges Junction should be blue ribbon bass fishery. Maybe Port Stephens a blue ribbon Mulloway fishery etc etc. This already happens with some trout streams in NSW (are they only catch and released though?) and certainly happens with many streams in the US. This would also enable some “sanctuary areas” of Marine Parks to be opened up for rec fishing, if there is still zero take. Cheers Mathew.

    • August 20, 2015 at 1:58 pm

      Thanks Mathew.

      Yeah I definitely think there is room to adjust management of numerous recreational fisheries to better reflect the goals of anglers and to manage fisheries to maximise whatever the “objective” of most anglers fishing those waters is (Macleay is a great example of a fishery like that)… In some senses, anglers already do this, bass fishermen being a prime example. Most really successful ones I know are catch and release junkies who are notoriously protective of their fish and their spots, which all seems to stem from highly valuing the resource and wanting to do as much as possible to protect it. So in a sense, fishing culture already does some of this, which I thin is interesting in itself… On a personal note, I’d be all for all wild bass fisheries being catch and release, but thats not really realistic 🙂

      The blue ribbon stream regs in NSW were changed a while back. I don’t think they were ever catch and release only though (there might have been a few examples I’m not 100% sure), but it used to be a bag limit of 1 fish over 50cms. This was changed to 2 fish over 25 a few years ago… Again, on many of those streams, the vast majority of fishers self police anyway, with cultural norms limiting most anglers take to zero…

      Anyway, thanks heaps for the positive feedback 🙂



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