Looking out over the Tuross estuary the scene looks picture perfect as always. It is not until you go out into the estuary that the reality strikes home. The estuary is a shadow of the once vibrant and dynamic estuary that it was 4 years ago. The lower estuary tidal flats no longer have abundant live bait stocks. The life blood of any estuary is live bait [nippers and worms] and live bait is the cog that makes the estuary productive. The Tuross estuary once boasted abundant live bait tidal flats that many species relied on to survive. Most importantly fish rely on live bait and so do many bird species. Once live bait stocks collapse then the estuary becomes species poor. Fish coming into the estuary to breed may either leave the estuary or breed and leave soon after. Many of the larger fish will go elsewhere to feed and their young will stay in the estuary. As live bait stocks fall so do the fish numbers in the estuary.
The impact on other species was very evident this year. Tuross estuary had 12 Pied Oystercatcher breeding pairs and 11 of the 16 endangered chicks starved because adults could not access enough food from the live bait tidal flats to feed their young. In three breeding seasons there have been 69 eggs and only 3 fledged juveniles.
You may be wondering what has happened to the lower estuary live bait stocks.
The Tuross estuary has been marketed as a fishing “Hot Spot” for more than 4 years. It has been used as a commercial asset to support Tuross tourism without any regard to the many responsible resident fishers; or regard of impacts on non fish species. This has caused 4 years of unsustainable overcrowding. Each year saw the overcrowding increase along with the harvest of live bait. Live bait harvesting peaked this year leaving the tidal flats damaged and reducing live bait levels to near extinction in the lower estuary.
In 45 years out in the estuary I have never seen damage like the damage in the lower estuary. Every tidal flat had been targeted from the high tide mark out across whole tidal flats, and out to the deep water drop offs. Whole tidal flats were covered in nipper pump holes. I’ve fished in Queensland, Victoria, Tasmania and much of the NSW coast and I’ve never seen damage to compare with the damage to Tuross tidal flats anywhere.
Changes in the estuary didn’t happen overnight and are hard to detect if you are unfamiliar how the estuary works. Many species rely on other species. Live bait relies on birds. In Spring the larger Terns arrive and join Cormorants and Pelicans to roost on the tidal flats. Their droppings are left on the tidal flat and soak into the surface feeding live bait stocks. Waders feeding on the tidal flats also leave droppings. When live bait stocks diminish bird numbers reduce which in turn reduces feed for nippers and worms. The situation spirals and birds leave the estuary. In an uncrowded estuary the balance is manageable but in a crowded estuary the balance spirals out of balance. As harvesting continues it gets harder and harder for the live bait to recover.
The evidence in the estuary indicates that live bait in the lower estuary is diminished. Firstly there is the visual evidence of how much effort is going into harvesting live bait. Whole tidal flats almost completely pockmarked with nipper pump holes. Fishers complaining that the nippers are small, just 2 to 2.5cms.Fishers catching mainly undersize fish and going home with a zero catch. Recent reports of very thin legal length Dusky Flathead. Starving Pied Oystercatcher chicks. Reports from resident Luderick fishers are that the Luderick fishing was only good for about 1 month this season.
There can be no doubt that live bait stocks are critically low in the lower estuary.
Evidence in the lower estuary indicates that recovery of live bait in the estuary is being hampered by visitors constantly trying to harvest nippers and worms from the lower tidal flats. Tidal flats reorganize and are then redamaged with even worse damage.
Since Christmas there have been fishing clubs running comps almost every 2nd weekend. Some tidal flats have 3 to 4 nipper pump holes every square meter. It is now 22nd of April and attempts to access live bait in the lower estuary are continuing. Fresh deep nipper pump holes are all along Lavender bay shoreline and tidal flat.
Unless the Department of Primary Industries intervenes the once abundant live bait tidal flats will not recover any time soon.
The lower estuary is not the only problem. Further up the estuary there is similar damage starting at the upper and lower entrances to Cambathin Creek and a Whiting feeding flat could be ruined if harvesting continues. Opposite Cambathin Island there is obvious bank erosion with areas of bank falling into the river. This is in a 4 knot, no wave, clearly sign posted area of the river. While I was there boats were roaring up the river. There is also bank erosion in Berrimans and Brices creeks.
Many Tuross fisherman are worried that there is no ribbon weed left in the estuary. Are the ribbon weed beds in the four ways being impacted by silt from the bank erosion occurring not far away up the river? Talking to many local fishers they are expressing concerns about the impact of overcrowding in the estuary. Some say the estuary is “wrecked “and I agree. Others say fishing in the estuary is like being in a washing machine with boats speeding in the estuary. Overcrowding and unethical promotion of the estuary is having significant impact on the health of the estuary.
Commercial promotion of the estuary needs to stop. It is not okay to single out just one small estuary and market it as a fishing “Hot Spot”. The Tuross estuary is far from being a fishing “Hot Spot “at present. Overcrowding is killing the estuary. Somehow the overcrowding has to be reversed. Fish reports need to be honest and not commercial fairy floss. There are lessons to be learnt about promoting and overcrowding a small estuary. Common sense should have told the promoters that more than 4 years of overcrowding would damage the estuary.
When people go on a fishing holiday they are going to target multiple species including Bream and Whiting. They are going to harvest live bait. The fishers are not to blame for the damage to live bait; the promoters are. Live bait was collected legally but uncontrolled because fisheries bag limits in an overcrowded estuary could not protect stocks.
Some of the people promoting the estuary are representing recreational fishers with the Department of Primary Industries and were instrumental in the recent classification of Tuross estuary as a Trophy Flathead Fishery. The DPI promoted the Fishery as a Trophy Flathead Fishery “Hot Spot” and free booklets were made available to recreational fishers in NSW. This promotion of an already stressed estuary increased the overcrowding to an even bigger level than ever.
How could those representing the Tuross estuary not consider that overcrowding in the estuary was already at a critical level? There has already been too many large breeding Flathead removed from the estuary during the previous 4 years of overcrowding. Even though the fishery was promoted as catch and release, it is still legal for fishers to keep one over 70cm Flathead per person per day. Not surprisingly recently a man was seen cleaning a 1 meter large breeding Flathead at the boat ramp. When challenged and shown the catch and release sign by a local his response was that it is legal to take 1 large Flathead over 70cm per day.
Tuross estuary is a small estuary; only 1/3 the size of Georges Basin. Live bait stocks have been damaged and there are valid concerns that large breeding Flathead numbers are down. Well known catch and release Flathead fishers who have been promoting the release of all large breeding Flathead for 18 years have given me their stats for the last 2 years. Fishing November to March 2016/2017 they caught and released 55 Flathead 70cms and over. This season fishing from November to March 2017/2018 they caught just 10.
The reclassification and promotion of the estuary as a Trophy Flathead Fishery may well be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The Tuross estuary needs the DPI to intervene ASAP to address problems in the estuary. If nothing is done soon there will be lean times for fishers, lower fish stocks, the likelihood next season’s Pied Oystercatcher young will starve again and businesses will be impacted. If I thought the estuary could recover without intervention I wouldn’t be writing this report.
Life member of Tuross Country Club Fishing club,
NPWS Shorebird Recovery Program Volunteer.