License article

NSW government divided over allowing anglers to fish in marine parks

The O'Farrell government remains divided over to whether to make permanent a so-called amnesty allowing anglers to fish in marine parks, delaying a decision possibly until after the elections next March.

It is understood Treasurer Mike Baird last Friday told opponents of on-shore fishing on beaches and headlands in six marine parks a verdict was "12 to 18 months" away after the failure of two cabinet meetings on the issue to settle on a decision.

Mr Baird, the MP for Manly, told the small gathering the delay was a "victory" for those opposed to the fishing.

However, a spokeswoman for Mr Baird said he "did not recall" giving any timeframe for the decision and declined to detail the meeting.

"There's more work to do and the Minister [for Primary Industries Katrina Hodgkinson] will make a decision in due course," the spokeswoman said.

Opponents say the plan to allow angling in previously no-take zones was introduced without consultation in March 2013 initially for a six-month period, and without scientific baselines in place to gauge its impact.


The move was widely seen as an effort to secure support in the upper house from the Shooters and Fishers Party. Most National MPs are understood to be backers of the plan while many Liberals, including Mr Baird, are opposed.

Charlotte Richardson, a NSW campaigner for The Wilderness Society who attended Friday's meeting with Mr Baird, said the amnesty should be halted to allow scientists to determine the impacts so far – and make the findings public.

"By now the biodiversity has been seriously impacted and it looks as though there is no decision to lift the amnesty," Ms Richardson said.

Ms Hodgkinson, a Nationals MP, declined to confirm the decision had been delayed.

"The NSW government is considering the advice of the [Marine Estate Management] Authority relating to the assessment."

This year, more than 220 marine scientists from Australia and overseas called for a full restoration of the protected marine parks – amounting to about 7 per cent of the state's coast. More than 350 businesses stretching from the south coast to Byron Bay have also signed a petition calling for the end of the amnesty.

Kevin Rowling, formerly a principal research scientist at Cronulla Fisheries Research Centre who recently briefed a group of about eight Coalition MPs on the issue, said the government did little to determine the health of the fisheries before allowing in recreational fishing.

The results of the Marine Estate Expert Knowledge Panel – led by economist Andrew Stoeckel and including only one fisheries expert – should make its six-month study public, he said.

"The [expert] report is rubbish and they know it," Dr Rowling said. "They truth is they don't know [what the impact is].'

"It's all been behind closed doors. That's not how science is supposed to work," he said.

Species potentially at risk include the eastern red scorpion fish, known to be fully fished, and others such as the eastern blue groper and rock blackfish whose stocks are undefined. The headlands in particular are most in need of protection, Dr Rowling said.

It is an "absolute disaster" to allow fishing in half the areas previously protected, said Richard Nicholls, president of the Dive Association of Australia. "It was poor politics. It's got nothing to do with the science."

Some indigenous leaders say they have been ignored even though the trial is taking place in areas previously permitting only traditional harvesting to occur.

"We feel we're potentially being shut out of things that could affect us for generations. For us that's unacceptable," said Chris Spencer, chief executive of the Coffs Harbour Land Council.

A letter requesting consultation sent to Aboriginal Affairs Minister Victor Dominello on behalf of the council, Garby Elders, the Gumbaynggirr people and others did not even get an acknowledgment of receipt, he said.

"The NSW government highly values the contribution of indigenous groups in regard to all fishing reforms, and is constantly seeking to understand their concerns," Ms Hodgkinson said.