If you’re across the catch data comparisons in Australia, you’ll be aware that there are some significant target species (mulloway and kingfish, as NSW examples) where our sector accounts for equivalent (if not higher) catch rates, compared to those recorded by commercial sector.

When I first learned this, my thoughts rebelled. “There must be a mistake!” I’ve no anxiety about being alone in that misunderstanding.

Lots of recreational fishers of all types, enjoying an estuary.

 Once I reconciled that I’d been making assumptions about the recreational fishing sector’s extractive impact based upon my own individual behaviour — as opposed to understanding that I was simply one of millions — my incredulity evolved.

Why, if we are responsible for equal or greater impact on some fisheries, are we not considered as important as the commercial sector in the management decisions of those fisheries! Fair question?


As a sitting member on the Recreational Fishing NSW Advisory Council (RFNSW), I am happy to let you know that the revelation of the catch data I’ve alluded to has reverberated all the way to the top, resulting in a new approach to fisheries management in this state.

Harvest Strategies. You’ve probably started hearing the term bandied about. You may have even heard bad things. I’ve personally read conspiracy theories and cynical twists, suggesting they’re a play by government to introduce tighter, unwanted, or unwarranted controls. Don’t you just love fear-mongers?

For my part, I’m a strong believer that this form of fisheries management is our best hope of securing the sustainability of our fish stocks and ensuring a robust fishing future for us all. And given the level of scuttlebutt that is bound to sprout across our social media feeds (nothing generates more eyeballs than inspiring fear against the establishment… just ask D.J. Trump!), I think it’s best to demystify harvest strategies for all anglers. So, please read this layperson’s look at harvest strategies: the intention; the concept and the implications to recreational fishing.

Relevant Points:
  • Harvest strategies are considered current world’s best practice in fisheries management.
  • At the time of writing, Australia’s Commonwealth fisheries plus the state fisheries of Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory and Western Australia already have harvest strategies in place for at least some of their stocks.
  • Traditionally, harvest strategies have been designed for commercial fishing, with no consideration of the recreational fishing sector.
  • In 2020, NSW Fisheries embarked on the development of their suite of harvest strategies.
  • NSW Fisheries has committed to developing state harvest strategies in consultation with all fishing stakeholders: recreational, cultural, and commercial.

^ ^ ^ That last point… YAY! ^ ^ ^

The Intention

Harvest Strategies are pre-agreed, documented fisheries management decision frameworks, created by teams of industry representatives, fisheries managers, scientists, economists and any other advisors required to develop a thorough and effective system.

Think of it as having an agreed set of rules before playing a game. This shifts the perspective from short-term, reactive decision-making to longer-term proactive management towards beneficial objectives.

With the recreational fishing sector gaining recognition as serious stakeholders in the resource (having both positive economic and social influence as well as negative extractive impact), it’s logical that we are finally being included in the management discussions of the fisheries we participate in.

Whilst traditional harvest strategies have been tailored to commercial sector needs, it’s exciting to watch NSW DPI Fisheries honour their promise to bring recreational and cultural fishing representatives to the table!

The intention is to include all fishing resource sharers in management decisions, and to ensure that the individual needs of each sector are recognised, considered, and included in the development of each NSW Harvest Strategy.

Two quality pink snapper in a recreational fishing net... a pretty good indication of a top quality fishing experience!
Well-designed harvest strategies ensure that catches are managed to ensure sustainability and to maximise economic performance, social outcomes and fishing experiences. Snapper are a species in line for a harvest strategy in NSW.

Let’s be frank… this is past due! But it’s also basically impossible to be proactive under the current system. That’s why the implementation of this suite of Harvest Strategies is so exciting!

The intention of harvest strategies in general is to ensure appropriate and proactive management of our fisheries, with the objective of building robust and productive resources long into the future.

So, how do they work?

The Structure

Mulloway numbers in NSW are in scary decline and recreational fishers are calling for urgent action to help recover stock. Having a functioning harvest strategy in place for the species will ensure proactive management of the fishery into the future.

Every Harvest Strategy is bespoke, developed specifically to respond to the unique needs and influences of its fishery. This is pivotal to their success.

All harvest strategies include these basic elements: defined management objectives; a monitoring program; indicators of the fishery’s status and population health, with associated reference points; a method to assess those indicators; and harvest control rules that outline fishing opportunities. 


FRDC (Fisheries Research and Development Corporation) puts it like this… Every harvest strategy needs to include:

  • defined operational objectives for the fishery;
  • indicators of fishery performance related to the objectives;
  • a statement defining acceptable levels of risk to achieving the objectives;
  • reference points for performance indicators;
  • a monitoring strategy to collect relevant data to assess fishery performance;
  • a process for conducting assessment of fishery performance relative to objectives; and
  • decision rules that control the intensity of fishing activities and/or catch.

 It’s important for us to recognise that the entire mechanism is informed and measured by data, so can only deliver on measurable objectives, such as economics, stock levels, etc. This makes it much simpler for the commercial sector to bolt right in than it does for us, as we tend to have more intangible objectives, such as quality of experience.

But fear not! Researchers have been actively working with recreational fishers in NSW to identify what our values are in key fisheries and distil those down to measurable performance indicators, allowing us to engage effectively in these working groups! If you’re in NSW, you’ll start hearing about research surveys soon that will allow you to participate in this important study.

Whilst this might all seem complicated (and perhaps boring?), it’s really very simple to understand when you see it represented graphically…

Using a traffic light colour system, Figure 1 illustrates the underlying principle, where the coloured bars represent the percentage of fish population (biomass as defined by point 2 above, which may be spawning biomass, overall biomass, or another data-based indicator)…

Steve Starling shows off a healthy Australian bass before release. Note the OzFish Unlimited hat... Starlo is a proud ambassador.
Figure 1.

Usually, the objective of the fishery will be to achieve an abundant and resilient stock level (that has economic benefits for the state) by a certain time frame. That stock level will be a percentage of biomass (weight of fish in the water at pre-European levels, for which there are estimates based on some groovy science and algorithms) deemed appropriate by the appointed working group.

Here’s an epiphany… You’ll notice that “sustainable” is NOT “ideal”. Sustainable simply means that fish stocks can sustain themselves (i.e. breed successfully and grow to sexual maturity) within the specified population size range, but this doesn’t mean the fishery is able to achieve its economic or ecological potential. I think it’s very important that we understand that this trendy buzzword is not the harbinger of perfection when it comes to fisheries management, but rather an expression of minimal acceptable practice. Let’s not be seduced by “sustainable fisheries”. We need robust fisheries!

Most often, fisheries will perform in the middle zone, where close monitoring is required to ensure stocks don’t fall to a worrying level. When they do, the harvest strategy is designed to respond with pre-determined interventions that promote stock rehabilitation.

Naturally, if these interventions fail, all fishing is banned until stocks recover. 

So, the individual harvest strategies will need identified biomass levels to respond to. These are known as Target Reference Points, Trigger Reference Points and Limit Reference Points. To illustrate the relevance of each, I’ve overlaid them on our traffic light diagram, here.

Who decides what these “bespoke” Strategies look like?

Success in the development of all harvest strategies really does come down to the quality of insight and deliberation from the get-go. Typically, the agency charged with the management of the fishery in question will pull together a working group of representatives consisting of representatives from user-groups, relevant scientific disciplines, economists, researchers/data analysts and the like.

These working groups will commit to the development of the harvest strategy they’re involved in for the duration (which has proven to be a couple of years, on average).

It is through the suggestions, insights, questions, discussions, debates, mutually developed understanding of all user-groups’ needs and positions, and votes that all components of the draft harvest strategy are hammered out… and there’s a LOT.

These things take time — but they’re extremely important, so it’s worth investing the time to get a working solution that is fit for purpose.

How it works…

Once the working group has decided the various reference points for the fishery, suitable management actions that will bring the appropriate results when triggered, are identified, and documented as the decision rules of the Harvest Strategy.

These are like levers that can be pulled and released to influence a response in the performance of the fishery. They come into play when the monitoring and data indicate that biomass levels have crossed a reference point. As the (fictitious) example in Figure 3 shows, stock levels will bounce around, but the consistent tracking of stock levels allows the fishery to respond proactively and quickly, as the management actions for any situation are pre-determined.

The author, Jo Starling with a lovely 60cm pink snapper from southern NSW.
The author is pretty chuffed with this recent capture. Pink snapper are a species that’s been identified as needing a harvest strategy in NSW.
a red spot whiting
Red Spot (shown) and Stout whiting make up the species in the Trawl Whiting Harvest Strategy, currently being drafted in NSW.

We can see in the Figure 3  illustration that this fishery has hit hard times and stock levels plummet in the early part of the monitored period. In this case, as the Trigger Reference Point was hit, the Harvest Strategy would dictate agreed management actions designed to reverse the trend.

Tuross Head angler, John Suthern prepares to help Steve collect fin clip genetic samples for scientific research into dusky flathead population dynamics.
Figure 3.

Unfortunately, the stock continued to fall over time and hit the Limit Reference Point. This is a crisis point identified as unsustainable and all fishing is banned to allow the fishery to rebound. Clearly, it’s in the interest of all of us to stay away from this point! Whatever it takes, right?!

As the stock rebuilds in time, the pre-determined decision rules will inform when fishing can resume and at what levels. As the stock responds, other more favourable decision rules are triggered. Bounty can be enjoyed! Yeehaw!

Things aren’t always within our control though. With the changes in climate, environment and other such contingencies at play, stocks can suffer despite our best efforts. That’s why it’s imperative that we help with data collection and monitoring, to safeguard our fish stocks against tumbling into threatening territory.

The Implications

So, what does this mean for us? As rec’ fishers, do we need to feel concerned about the development of these Strategies?

In my opinion, No. We should be supportive and participate as passionately as we can. We should communicate with our peers and our representatives to help establish an understanding of what our aspirations are for each fishery. After all, we cannot expect solid rec’ fishing outcomes if those negotiating our cause are ill-informed!

What this means is that our values and the value of the fish stocks to us (which are very different to those of the commercial sector) will be integrated into fisheries management going forward. It means that fisheries management frameworks will include recreational fishing metrics, such as social value and fishing tourism value of the stock in the water, alongside commercial sector and cultural fishing metrics. This is a first!

And it’s a game-changer. Literally… the harvest control (fishing) rules, whilst pre-determined, are always ready to change in response to the latest data. Harvest control rules outline fishing opportunities, which could include things like bag and size limits, open and closed seasons, gear restrictions, for example (basically those ‘levers’ that can be pulled to influence change in the stock levels) and these come in and out of play depending on the data relative to the various reference points.

Global experience suggests that, over time, stock levels start to become more predictable and stable as effective harvest strategies are implemented properly and diligently over time.

It all comes back to that concept of agreeing the rules before we start playing. By being clear about what action will be taken and when, harvest strategies help remove much of the uncertainty around how a fishery will be managed.

Well-designed harvest strategies ensure that catches are managed to ensure sustainability and to maximise economic performance, social outcomes and fishing experiences.


What else do we need to know?

We cannot assume that our personal fishing experience is recreational fishing sector reality. This is VITAL. Our personal experience — our personal skill level; luck; timing; synoptic chart; tackle selection; etc. — will not be the same as another angler in the same spot, let alone in another location. We therefore cannot simply assess fishery health on our own experiences. That’s plain ignorance and/or naivety. Please, help our sport by respecting and working with the science. We need to know the truth.

Every angler ought to know that harvest strategies are not Trojan Horses. They are not used too “sneak in” new restrictions. They are mechanisms for pre-arranged and accepted management actions in response to fish stock and fishery performance. Their objective is to provide optimum fishing for all sectors.

…And we ought to be aware that there will always be haters. In the world of social media, it’s ever more important to seek out our own insights and only invest our energy into effective actions that benefit our sport. Sadly, the status quo is failing us and failing fish… change is required and the time to wield influence is now!

Jo Starling

Jo Starling

Avid Aussie Angler

As an avid rec. angler, I’m proud to represent recreational fishers on various advisory councils, including the Recreational Fishing NSW Advisory Council (RFNSW).