‘Not sustainable in the long run’: One in six abalone fishers off Victoria found to be flouting rules

‘Not sustainable in the long run’: One in six abalone fishers off Victoria found to be flouting rules
  • The Victorian Fisheries Authority found one in six inspected abalone fishers were violating the rules.
  • Illegal fishers may face hefty fines or even charges.
  • Regulating illegal fishing remains challenging.

It’s summer and with the open fishing season fast approaching, Port Phillip Bay in Victoria is teaming up with fishers like Yanran Lin.

In 2020, when Ms Lin – a Melbourne resident from Malaysia – says she first heard that abalone fishing was possible in Victoria, she quickly bought all the equipment, practised freediving and started fishing for the prized mollusc to “achieve abalone freedom”.

“I had only ever eaten canned abalone in Malaysia. It was only when I came to Victoria that I realised the freedom [to fish for] fresh abalone,” she said.

Abalone is an expensive delicacy for the Chinese – if you go to Springvale to buy abalone, it can cost you a big money for one kilogram.

Yanran Lin

Ms Lin told SBS Chinese that she had been fishing for abalone almost every weekend since the open day this season, and before each trip, she would make sure makes sure her companions were aware of the regulations on abalone fishing in Victoria.

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Melbourne resident Yanran Lin has been fishing for abalone in the last three years on open fishing days. Credit: Supplied

“[I would ask them] Do you know that the [minimum legal size] for [catching] greenlip abalone is 13cm? Do you know that it’s not yet the fishing season? I would make sure that they [the companion] knew,” she said.

Ms Lin said she had seen a person displaying his ‘trophy’ of abalone fishing, which was clearly out of line in terms of quantity and size, in a WeChat group.

“I noticed that he had caught it from the shore and [the abalones] exceeded the quantity, and the size was extraordinarily small,” she said.

“If I saw someone illegal fishing on site, I would tell him/her to put it back, otherwise I would report to a [fisheries] officer.

If we keep over-fishing, how are we going to fish in the future? There will be nothing left.

Yanran Lin, abalone fisher

A Victorian Fisheries Authority (VFA) spokesperson told SBS Chinese that between July 2018 and June 2022, the authority had conducted an average of 45,919 patrols and detected an average of 4706 offenders per year.

20 pieces Abalone

In Victoria, a maximum of five abalone can be caught per person per day and offenders may face hefty fines. Source: SBS / Tianyuan Qu

This means that one in 10 people inspected fished illegally on average.

Furthermore, the numbers keep increasing. In the 5,715 patrols carried out in January this year, the VFA reported finding 970 offenders, of which 389 were issued with infringement notices while 575 were given verbal or official warnings.

This means that one in every six people inspected broke the rules on average.

“A further six fishers will face charges relating to offences detected by officers, with five of these apprehensions related to significant exceeding of the catch limit of five abalone,” the spokesperson said.

What are the rules for abalone fishing in Victoria?

According to the latest regulations, during the 2022/23 open season, a maximum of five abalone can be caught by one person in one day. Fishers must purchase a permit and fishing is restricted to daylight hours only.

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At Melbourne’s Altona North station, Fisheries Supervisor Todd Bryant (far right) and his colleagues conduct land-based and sea-based patrols to detect illegal fishing. Source: SBS / Tianyuan Qu

In Port Phillip Bay, only black-sided abalone over 10cm can be caught. When diving outside Port Phillip Bay, two green-sided abalone may be caught, provided they are 13cm or larger in size.

In addition, abalone must be caught by diving at least two metres below sea level, using only blunt instruments and shucking only once offshore.

Todd Bryant, Fisheries Supervisor at VFA’s Altona North station, believes that without these regulations, “…we would see a really declining fishery”.

“We might get hundreds of divers out there today, taking out five abalones each, which is great. But you could have 500 or thousands of abalones coming out of that reef every day if we kept that open and didn’t have that rules which is just not sustainable for the long run,” he said.

It was noted that the Victorian 2022/23 recreational fishing open days are every weekend and public holidays from November 16 to April 30, and from December 25 to the second Sunday in January of the following year.

Over-fishing may attract hefty fines

Mr Bryant said illegal fishers may face verbal warnings, official warnings, fines, or lawsuits depending on the severity of the situation.

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In each operation, Todd Bryant explains Victoria’s fishing regulations in detail to illegal fishers. Credit: Tianyuan Qu

“(If) You take one or two extra abalones, it could be up to a $550 fine, which is quite expensive for anyone,” Mr Bryant said.

“In significant cases, when you are (found to have) taken more than twice (the allowed catch of) abalone, generally the fine doubles, that’s almost $960.“

In quite significant cases, (if) you take 20 or 25 abalones and there might be other issues [like] undersized [abalones], you might be end up in court.

Todd Bryant

Mr Bryant said besides land-based patrols, officers also dived underwater to make sure fishers were operating properly when fishing for abalone.

“Some divers [are] taking too many [abalones] while they are out there and just keep the biggest ones,” he said.

“The problem is [if] you take too many like that, nicking their flesh, they [abalone] don’t bleed like us. They end up bleeding to death.”

A number of studies have shown that over-fishing, as well as climate change, has led to a decline in the total number of abalone in the wild over the past 10 years. Along the south-east coast, overpopulation of long-spined sea urchins has also led to massive degradation of abalone habitats.

The decline in abalone numbers has also led to a decline in the gross value of the abalone fishery.

from the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) 2022 show the gross value of the abalone industry has fallen from $151 million in 2017/18, to $140 million in 2019/20, and now $134 million in 2021/22.

Challenges in regulating illegal fishing

Ms Lin said the current regulations against illegal fishing were “not enough”.

“There should be more frequent patrols, heavier penalties and more prominent signage reminding of the general [fishing] rules,” she said.

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Illegally caught abalones will be put back into the sea to seek a chance of survival. Source: SBS / Tianyuan Qu

Mr Bryant says while he has been working to combat illegal fishing throughout his seven-year career, he admits there are many challenges.

“People get better at what they are doing. Once they have been detected as offending before, they come up with another plan, so that makes it harder for us to detect,” Mr Bryant said.

In addition, cultural and language barriers between fishers and regulators are another major challenge for Mr Bryant.

“There’s quite a lot of technical rules around abalone. If you don’t quite understand [the rules], you can get it wrong in a big way very easily,” he said.

To minimise the language barriers and educate people about legal fishing, the VFA has published the Victorian Recreational Fishing Guide, which is updated yearly and available in Mandarin and Vietnamese.

“What we do find is the two significant cultures do utilise a lot of fisheries in Victoria, and particularly around abalone. We want to ensure people (keep) up-to-date with all the rules and regulations before they go out,” Mr Bryant said.

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