THE friendliest fish in the sea could be making a comeback in Victorian waters.
Sightings of the blue groper have been reported from Barwon Bluff, near Geelong, to waters off East Gippsland and even in Port Phillip Bay, where they have not been recorded before.
The blue groper, which grows up to one metre long, was common in Victorian waters in the 1960s and '70s. But the fearless fish was an easy target for spear fishermen and numbers declined rapidly. Although not protected in Victoria, the fish is considered vulnerable.
In NSW, where the groper is a state emblem, they are still able to be caught by line, as long as the fishermen stick to the quotas. But they cannot be caught by spearfishermen.
Reef Watch Victoria program co-ordinator Wendy Roberts, of the Victorian National Parks Association, said four juvenile fish had been reported this summer in the southern part of Port Phillip Bay.
''The fact that we're seeing them now is very exciting,'' she said. ''It's like a rare bird reappearing in the forest; it's very unusual.''
Museum Victoria ichthyology senior curator Martin Gomon believes the blue groper's presence in Port Phillip Bay has not been documented before.
''For them to have reached Victorian waters, the populations are increasing to the point that the larvae are able to reach us [by the wind and tides],'' he said. ''It's indicative that the population is increasing.''
The blue gropers live for up to 35 years and the females often change sex when the dominant male in a group dies. A divers' favourite, the blue groper is territorial but considered a gentle giant of the sea.
There are two types of blue groper in southern Australian waters, the eastern and western. Which type has been seen in Port Phillip Bay is unclear, but Dr Gomon, a noted authority on the identification and distribution of fish, said it was most likely to be the eastern blue groper.
''We have no specimen records in the collection that the western blue groper actually gets here …
''However the eastern blue groper is well documented all the way around to Wilsons Promontory and eastern Bass Strait.''