How a fishermen’s pact 30 years ago to protect this bay is now creating a future for their children

How a fishermen’s pact 30 years ago to protect this bay is now creating a future for their children

By the time the fishermen of Corner Inlet start to haul in their nets, the gulls and terns have arrived to supervise the catch.     

As the nets contract, the vast array of marine life supported by this bay, near the southern-most tip of mainland Australia, is slowly revealed — stingrays, sharks, sardines, crabs and fish. 

Tidal mudflats, swamps, marshes, freshwater coastal lagoons and vast meadows of seagrass make it a rare haven for fish, crustaceans and birds.

But this pristine, shallow inlet in the South Gippsland area of Victoria is rare for another reason — it is the only bay in the state where commercial net fishing is allowed.

three boats line up against a pier at the bottom of a boat ramp.

Corner Inlet fishermen have voluntarily reduced the amount of fish they catch.(ABC News: Clint Jasper)

What started with a gentlemen’s agreement among local fishermen decades ago to limit their hauls as a way of safeguarding the long-term viability of the fishing ground, has now become law — enabling the ongoing use of fishing nets in the bay.

The more gentle approach involves limiting catch loads, using more environmentally sensitive nets and only casting them twice a day.

The 18 commercial fishing licence holders who use the 670-square-kilometre inlet say this practice guarantees their livelihoods into the future while protecting the delicate marine environment for generations to come.

A man in his 20s, wearing a cap, stands on a boat, looking into the water.

Third generation Corner Inlet fisherman Luke Anedda is committed to sustainable fishing practices.(ABC News: Clint Jasper)

Fisherman Luke Anedda says he’ll “die a happy man” watching his grandchildren catching fish from the inlet. 

“Everybody’s got a different idea about sustainable fishing,” Mr Anedda says.

“But to me it is being able to catch fish, making sure that there’s good fish numbers for the next generation, and leaving a really small footprint on the environment.”

a man drives a boat out into calm water while two children sit at his feet.

Ensuring his children have a chance to run the family business is at the core of Luke Anedda’s sustainable fishing practices.(Supplied)

And it’s paying dividends.

The main species Corner Inlet fisherman catch, King George whiting, rock flathead and southern garfish, all attract the Australian Marine Conservation Society’s GoodFish Guide’s top sustainability rating.

Gentle practice minimises harm

Making a living from catching fish in Corner Inlet is a generational affair for Mr Anedda, who follows in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps.

But the practices today look very different from 50 years ago.

Now, fishers cast a ‘haul seine’ net in a large arc and as they manually pull the net tighter, it contracts until the entire catch is right beside the boat.

This method allows the fishers to scoop the fish straight from the water and into an ice slurry, while the bycatch is returned to the sea.

two men's faces fill the frame as they are seen through a salt-covered window on a boat.

Brothers Luke and Brett Anedda are the third generation of their family to fish the Corner Inlet.(ABC News: Clint Jasper)

Then, later in the day, they cast a mesh net in a straight line, which only catches fish of a specific size.

“In my grandfather’s day and in my father’s childhood, they used to row the dinghy out and row the net around and then pull the [net] right ashore into shallow water,” Mr Anedda says.

“When my father was getting towards his 30s, he said, ‘This is not great, we’re pulling fish into really shallow water and warm waters’.”

Luke and Brett Anedda on their father's boat

Luke and Brett Anedda, at rear, working on their father’s fishing boat as boys.(Supplied: Julie Anedda)

So Mr Anedda’s father, Nick, redesigned the nets so the fishermen could not only stay in deeper waters, but also avoid seagrass from becoming tangled in their nets.

“Now we’re able to release juvenile fish and keep them alive, release unwanted species back into the water without any harm done,” Mr Anedda says.

a man in a flannel short with grey hair watches fish being sorted.

Nick Anedda has pioneered better ways to fish in the Corner Inlet, designing nets that protect its seagrass meadows.(ABC News: Clint Jasper)

Corner Inlet fishermen catch between 400 to 500 tonnes of seafood each year, making a conscious effort to limit the catch.

“In the old days it used to be about going out and catching as many fish as possible, just load them on, load them on, you get the money, you’ve just got to load them on,” Mr Anedda says.

“Now it’s about value adding, so selling the lesser species for a little bit more money, finding different markets, so that might be selling to the restaurant trade.”

fish in an ice slurry fill the frame, some have dark coloured backs while others show a bright white belly.

King George whiting caught from the Corner Inlet are one of the most sustainable choices according to the AMCS.(ABC News: Clint Jasper)

‘Gentlemen’s agreement’ now law

For nearly 30 years, the fishermen at Corner Inlet had an informal agreement to only cast their nets twice in one day.

“It was an unwritten law to us all,” Mr Anedda says.

The agreement recognises the sensitivity of the area to overfishing while ensuring local livelihoods can be maintained.

an aerial shot shows a long jetty extending into the shallow waters of a large bay.

The Ramsar-listed Corner Inlet is home to unique flora and fauna.(ABC News: Clint Jasper)

Following an election promise in 2016, the Victorian government shut down net fishing in the Gippsland Lakes in 2020, and in 2022 it bought back the last remaining net-fishing licences in Port Phillip Bay.

But in Corner Inlet, local fishermen worked with the state government to turn their informal “gentlemen’s agreement” into official regulations in June 2020. 

It means Corner Inlet is Victoria’s only remaining bay where net fishing is allowed.

“Port Philip Bay was bought out and then the Gippsland Lakes, so we had some fishermen from those areas come into the bay and inlet, and unfortunately didn’t sign the code of practice, which meant we had to do something about the rules and regulations,” Mr Anedda says.

a man in a backwards cap and blue overalls pulls a thin net in a shed.

Luke Anedda inspects his net after a day of fishing.(ABC News: Clint Jasper)

“As time’s gone on, everybody has adjusted to the rules and regulations, and we’re all making a good living.

“Things are happy and it has kept this bay and inlet viewed in a really sustainable light, and that’s the way we plan on keeping it.”

Much of the push to get the regulations formalised was a desire to maintain their “social licence” to fish.

“I’ll be honest, the last bay and inlets weren’t bought out because they were unsustainable, they were bought out because of social licence issues,” Mr Anedda says.

a man wearing a plastic apron pulls on a net in a shed at night.

Fish from the Corner Inlet are caught, sorted and packed by hand.(ABC News: Clint Jasper)

“So it’s very important for us to stay on the front foot as far as social licence goes.

“In this day and age people want to know what’s happening in their backyards and they want to know how their fish are caught, they want to know how stuff’s done.”

Tracing the catch of the day

In the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne, head chef at O.MY, Blayne Bertoncello, places a premium on knowing exactly where his produce comes from.

a man in a chef's apron looks directly at the camera and grins widely.

Chef Blayne Bertoncello says it’s rare to have the level of supply chain transparency he gets when buying Corner Inlet seafood.(ABC News: Clint Jasper)

“In this restaurant, we grow everything ourselves, we have a three-and-a-half acre farm, we put a lot of time into producing our own product, and we source everything locally,” he says.

“For the last 17 years I’ve been in the industry, there hasn’t been a lot of clarity around where my seafood produce might be coming from.”

The boxes of Mr Anedda’s fish arrive at restaurants with QR codes, that link to information about the fishery, the fisherman and when the produce was caught.

fish is delicately plated in a dish that looks like an upside down wide-brimmed hat.

King George whiting caught by Luke Anedda is served at O.MY restaurant.(ABC News: Clint Jasper)

“Being able to answer a question about how long ago it was caught and who caught it is such a rarity, and so special, and it puts the customer at ease as well,” Mr Bertoncello says.

The Australian Marine Conservation Society says anyone buying King George whiting, rock flathead and southern garfish from the Corner Inlet can be assured it was fished sustainably.

“They are careful stewards of the marine habitat,” the AMCS’ sustainable seafood program manager, Adrian Meder, says.

“Consumers can be really confident that a fish coming from the Corner Inlet is coming from a healthy population that’s being fished carefully, that there’s minimal or sometime no bycatch associated with the special fishing gear they’ve developed.”

a rocky island juts in from one side of the frame as seabirds swarm around it in the sky.

Located at the southern-most tip of the mainland, Corner Inlet is a vital wetland for migratory birds.(ABC News: Clint Jasper)

The bay’s future is everybody’s business

Local fishermen continue to play a vital part in protecting the habitat at Corner Inlet, which is one of 64 Australian wetlands listed on the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of certain wetland areas.

About 25 species of migratory birds listed under the Bonn Convention on Migratory Species have been recorded there. 

The inlet is also used by nationally threatened species including orange-bellied parrots, growling grass frogs, Australian grayling and swift parrots.  

When the meadows of broadleaf seagrass were under attack from a native sea urchin about seven years ago, the fishing community leapt into action.

Underwater photograph showing seagrass which has been eaten by sea urchins.

Seagrass stocks in Corner Inlet have been affected by native sea urchins.(Supplied: Yarram Yarram Landcare Network)

Nearly 60,000 urchins were removed by divers in 2017, but it wasn’t enough to stop the seagrass meadows slowly turning into a marine desert.

However, a collaborative effort from fishers, Yarram Landcare, and universities has helped repair some of the damage.

The fishers planted out seedlings and sandbags to help regrow the seagrass.

“Every fisherman that’s ever been asked to do something for the project has always been really keen,” Mr Anedda says.

“You want to leave it the way you found it, and you want to be able to continue to be catching fish for your whole lifetime, and [ensure there are] fish for the next generation to come.”

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