Guest post, Stuff we've learnt, Sustainability

Guest interview: Matt Rees from Fishthinkers

Welcome to the first of hopefully many posts where we interview our peers, including fellow anglers, fishery scientists (0ften 0ne and the same) and other personalities involved in fishing about their backgrounds, research and perspectives on recreational fishing. Our first installment is from Matt Rees from I can’t thank Matt enough! Hope you enjoy the read as much as I did.

Tell us a little bit about yourself

My name is Matt Rees, I grew up in a small coastal village on the south coast of NSW, where I developed a passion for fishing, surfing, diving and marine science. My love for fishing also stems from my Dad. Since the day I could walk I was his fishing buddy on most adventures. More recently, I have been studying marine science at the University of Wollongong and working with NSW Fisheries. In late March I submitted my PhD thesis for examination, which investigated the importance of habitat for fishes. My thesis research was supported by the University of Wollongong and NSW Fisheries. I also co-run a blog ( and Instagram account (@fish_thinkers) which aims to promote sustainable fishing and the latest marine science research. With a group of mates, I also organise beach clean ups in the Illawarra region (@beachcleanups).

What is your favourite fish and why?

This is a tough one because I feel like it is always changing. But to pick one I would have to go with Luderick (Girella tricuspidata). This is because Luderick are fun to catch and great eating in my opinion. Also, I think they are an interesting species form an ecological perspective as they have an omnivorous diet, relatively high biomass and live in many different habitats. As a result, the humble Luderick is most likely an important species in our coastal ecosystems.

What is your favourite fishing style and why?

I have two favourite styles. The first is fly fishing for any species and the second, fishing for Luderick with a float and centrepin reel. I like these styles because they both require attention to detail and technique. They are also visual styles of fishing – I can get fixated for hours watching a float swirl in whitewash or a dry fly flow in the current of the river. Finally, there is always something new to learn and I feel as though I’ll never be able to completely master either of these styles, which is addictive.

Tell us about your research

I have three main areas of research. The first investigates the importance of habitat in structuring fish populations along the southern NSW coastline. For example, I have examined how we can use seafloors maps of different habitats (seagrass, low profile reef, complex reef) to predict the distribution of fishes. This work has also enabled me to explore the importance of nearshore nursery habitats like seagrass on adult reef fish populations. The second area of my research has been to quantify the impact of human activities such as shipping and fishing on rocky reef fish populations over time. For most of my research I use baited underwater video systems (BRUVs) to survey fish populations. These systems comprise of an underwater camera which looks out over a bag of bait while positioned on the seafloor. We deploy these systems 100’s of times along the coast to estimate fish diversity, populations size and fish size for particular areas. Once the footage has been collected I then need to watch and count! Although, at times it is tedious, you do see some cool species and interesting interactions. My third area of research has been to adapt BRUVs so that they sit in the mid-water environment and record pelagic fishes. I have used these mid-water cameras off Point Perpendicular, Jervis Bay to test what types of attractants (pilchards, metallic flashers, baitfish sound played through an underwater speaker) best entice pelagic fish to the systems. The ultimate aim of my research is to improve the understanding and management of fishes along the NSW coast.

How is this relevant to fishing?

I think my research is relevant to fishing as improving the understanding and management of our fishes will hopefully result in plenty of fish for us to catch in the future. My work exploring fish-habitat relationships has demonstrated the importance of nursery habitat such as seagrass in maintaining adult populations of recreationally important fishes on adjacent reefs. Specifically, this work has shown that reefs connected to high quality seagrass patches harbor a greater number and diversity of fishes compare to reef isolated from quality seagrass patches. Therefore, this study highlights the importance of protecting and preserving nearshore nursery habitats to ensure healthy populations of fishes that rec fishers like to target. The second area of my research, which examines the effect of human activities on reef fishes over time is extremely relevant to fishing because commercial and recreational fishing is one of the potential impacts we assess. We do this by sampling fish along gradients of fishing pressure on the southern coastline of NSW. To assess potential impacts of fishing we survey areas where commercial and recreational fishing is prohibited (Sanctuary Zones within Marine Parks), areas only open to recreational fishing (Habitat Protection Zones within Marine Parks) and areas where all forms of fishing are allowed (General Use Zones within Marine Parks and the rest of the coastline). This sampling is then completed over many years to determine whether commercial and recreational fishing is impacting the size and number of reef fishes over time. As this project is a long-term study, it will also provide the opportunity to determine the effect of other human disturbances such as climate change on our fish populations. Finally, the experiment I ran testing the effectiveness of different attractants (sight, sound, scent) to entice pelagic fishes to underwater cameras stemmed partly from personal fishing observations and chatting to other fishers who target pelagic fish. This study revealed that cameras with sight, scent and sound attractants recorded a substantially higher number of fishes, which is not overly surprising when you consider how recreational and commercial fishers catch pelagic species. I am hoping in the future underwater cameras positioned in the mid-water may become a tool to monitor pelagic fishes along our coastline to determine long-term trends in their population size. The work outlined above has been for my PhD research as well as consulting to NSW fisheries.

Tell us about your ultimate fishing experience – either experienced or ‘on the bucket list

One on the bucket list would have to be a Bonefish on fly.

What are the big issues facing recreational fishing and fishers?

A changing ocean and inland waterways due to climate change is a huge issue that recreational fishers will have to face in the future. We are seeing the demise of the Great Barrier Reef, kelp forests off Western Australia and Tasmania plus an influx of tropical species in NSW. Increasing water temperatures and habitat loss is going to change regional productivity and alter what species we will catching. Other major issues include population growth and a likely increase in the numbers of anglers. In catchments, increased urbanisation, poor land management and plastic pollution is likely to degrade inland waterways and coastal ecosystems. The control and introduction of invasive species is another serious threat to recreational fishing. Although we generally have good fisheries management in Australia, I think we will need to tread cautiously to not overfish certain species considering these other stressors we expect to witness in the future. In the short term, I think the biggest issues facing recreational fishing is a minority within the recreational fishing community that do not abide by the rules and litter. For example, look at what is happening on the Sydney Harbour wharves at the moment. These individuals give recreational fishers a bad rap and provide ammunition to others in the community who want to restrict recreational fishing.

Do you think recreational fishing has a strong future? What do you think recreational fishing will look like in 10 and 100 years from now?

Despite the rather bleak overview I gave previously I do think recreational fishing does have a strong future. In the past 5 or so years, it feels as though there has been an increase in the number of young fishos which is great. I have noticed this especially in fly fishing. Also, there seems to be a resurgence in people wanting to get out in nature and learn how to catch their own seafood. Blogs such as your own and magazines like CAST are educating and promoting sustainable recreational fishing which is fantastic. In 10 years’ time, I think the composition of fishes we will be catching will be different, especially in regions projected to experience substantial warming of water temperatures. I do hope we can manage our inland waterways in a way to ensure healthy populations of our freshwater natives well into the future. They are tough as nails so I’m optimistic. Plus, there are excellent restocking programs underway. Recreational fishing in 100 years’ time will be substantially different to what it is today. The magnitude of difference, however, will depend on how we tackle the big issues like climate change, population growth and urbanisation so it is hard to say. If there are more recreational fishers in 100 years and ocean productivity has remained stable or declined I suspect recreational fishing will be a more regulated activity.

Do you have any jokes about fishing or funny fishing experiences you can share?

There have been so many failed fishing trips that can be viewed as funny or just plain stupid. For one trip, we planned to hike into a remote Blue Mountains creek in winter to fish for trout. The weather forecast was atrocious but we were too keen so continued as planned. We hiked for hours in relentless rain and fog until we were lost. We then had to camp in a cave covered in coal dust, so all our wet gear got filthy dirty. The next day it was still raining so we decided to hike out. To top it off it started snowing on the walk back to the car.

Do you think that recreational fishing has a ‘social licence’?

Yes, I definitely think it does. Unfortunately, I see two practices by some recreational fishers when I’m out on the water which jeopardises our social license. First, leaving litter, fishing gear and bait. Second, not killing fish immediately after capture in a humane manner. When members of the local community see fishing litter in our waterways and fish suffocating on rock platforms it gives recreational fishing a bad image. If we want to continue fishing in the future I think we need to acknowledge our social license. We need to communicate and educate our fellow recreational fishers about this.

What is your favourite lure colour?

A silvery blue colour for spinning off the rocks. Black and purple for freshwater Aussie natives.

What did you have for dinner last night?

Australian salmon fish cakes and veggies.

Preference: Mid-strength or boutique beer?

Boutique beer.

Back to the fishing. What can we do to improve the management of recreational fisheries?

I think there are a number of things that could be done to improve the management of recreational fisheries. First, collect data on the amount of fish that recreational fishers catch per year and determine whether the number of recreational fishers are changing over time. For many species of fish in NSW, the recreational catch is assumed to be over the commercial catch. Therefore, I think this information is crucial to sustainably manage our fisheries into the future. Second, I think there needs to be more engagement and collaboration across all groups and stakeholders passionate about the state of our marine and freshwater environments. Scientists, environmental activists, recreational fishers, commercial fishers, surfers, swimmers, etc. all want healthy marine and freshwater ecosystems. So, I think in the future there needs to be a more holistic approach to managing our environment and fisheries. Third, more education and communication regarding the latest fisheries research, fisheries management rules and regulations, issues associated with discarded fishing gear and sustainable fishing in general. Education on these topics would hopefully lead to more awareness regarding our social licence, which would hopefully lead to a reduction in illegal fishing and littering for example. Finally, and I’m a little biased here, but more research into the biology and ecology of recreationally important fishes. The more information we know on species life histories and their role in our ecosystems, the better we can manage our fisheries.


Thanks for reading, and a massive thanks to Matt from for the interview.

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