Farming, My system for sustainable fishing as a charter operator.
By Adam Cottrell, 5/10/2021
Some people after coming past the filleting tables in the afternoon and seeing our tubs full of fish every day. Make the assumption that we don’t care about the sustainability or future of fishing. Some even pipe up with a “how much fish do you need” or “so much for fishing for the future”. But I’m not sorry to say, I don’t care about how much you think you know or care about the ocean or sustainable fishing. I care more. This is my life. After all, if the last fish in the ocean was caught yesterday, how is it going to affect their life? I’m sure they will go have a cry about it. But will they need to worry about working out how to feed the family or paying the mortgage? No. But I will. Sure you could argue that if I did really care, I would not be in this line of work. True. But if I wasn’t doing it, someone else would be, and at least I actually give a crap. Nothing against all the other rec fishos out there, but in my option. Charter fishing at least has the most potential to be the most sustainable type of recreational fishing. I have a lot of reasons for this including the fact that we are the only recreational fishers that have to record and report all our catch to fisheries. But will save the rest for another time. But like in most situations the biggest difference we can make is how you go about your fishing, and this article covers just one aspect of what we do to minimise our impact and make it more sustainable.
So the ocean is full of life right? 50-80% of all life on earth is in the ocean. But a lot of that life is tiny such as zooplankton or phytoplankton. Also, you have things like baitfish, jellyfish and then there is the big stuff like whales and sharks. So only a tiny percentage is of all that life is actually fish, and in comparison, there are only a few types of them that we want to catch. On top of that would you believe it, the ocean is quite big. Not only is the more ocean than land. But taking into account that on average its 3.7km deep and most land animals can only live on the surface. It makes up over 99% of the earth’s habitable area. So all of a sudden it’s not all that full of life. Well, it still might be, but it's not actually that full of fish. Or more specifically, demersal fish (the ones we are after). But they do make our job easier. They like to bunch up in particular spots and stay there (most of the time). Usually because of structure or elevation changes creating a collection point for a food source. So what I’m getting at, is when you think of an ocean with fish everywhere. In reality, there is a whole lot of nothing, or desert out there with little pockets of life here and there. These ate what we look for and where we fish. Our fishing spots or marks.
As a fishing charter operator, I get asked (and answer) a lot of the same questions every single day. This might sound annoying, but on the positive side of this, I also get to use the same jokes every single day. One of the main line of questions relates to my “fishing spots”. A lot of people assuming that I fish the same handful of spots every day. Or that if the fishing is slow (or if I wanted to) I can just take them to my secret red spot and bag out. So when someone asks me “when’s the last time you fished this spot” They are usually surprised to hear that the majority of the time that answer is, at least a year ago.
So this is all starting to bring me back to the title of this article. Farming. What do I mean by that? Well, I am limited to how far I can practically travel each day. People pay to go fishing not to steam all day. So I have a limited amount of area I can fish in. That's my farm. And the way I look at it all, I have a whole bunch of fish I need to find and catch in this area (my farm) every year. A simple way to go about it (and what some assume we do) would be to just keep fishing the same spots until the fish run out, and move on to the next one. But at some point, I will run out of spots, and not be able to find any new ones. And I know I called it my farm, but I can not just plant new fish to grow for later, on the old spots can I.
So this is how I actually go about it. The basic idea is, in theory, the more fish you leave on a spot the faster they can reproduce and the population will recover. So essentially take the minimal amount of fish from the maximum amount of spots to catch the fish we need. How do I go about this? Well, say I find a new spot and pull a few fish off it. Ideally, I don’t fish that spot again for at least a year or so, then I can go back there, pull a similar number of fish off it. I have found I can do this year after year and as long as I give it time to recover relative to the amount of fish we take, it still produces good numbers every time. Isn’t this the meaning of sustainability? The majority of my marks I manage like this, and year after year they produce fish. Now on the other hand let’s say I fish a mark and pull a good number of fish off it. Then the next day or a few days later I fish it again and pull a bunch more fish off it. Then say a few weeks later I get desperate and knowing this spot will produce I give it a couple more cracks. Still getting fish but each time, but less and less, until it gets to the point where it’s not worth me fishing anymore. Now the problem is after putting this much pressure on one spot I have found from experience I can now leave it alone for several years even and it never seems to recover and produce fish like it once did.
So this all makes sense in theory, there is a bit more to it as not every mark is the same and there are a lot more variables when it comes to fishing. Just because you don’t catch fish off a spot one day, doesn't mean the fish are not any there. And at the same time, just because you get a whole bunch of fish off a spot one day, doesn't mean there are lots more there. Fish come on and off the bite for many reasons (lots more articles there). So managing my farm just got a lot harder. And one more thing, get this. There are lots and lots of other random people (and a couple of other farmers) taking fish from my farm all the time that I can not control, and I don’t even know how many they are taking and where they are taking them from. So with all the unknowns and things I can not control. Why even bother worrying about any of this. Well, the fact is we do take a lot of fish every year, and like I mentioned I do actually care. But mainly because it seems to work, and any little thing that makes my job easier and at the while being more sustainable, I’m all in for it.
At this point, a lot of you might be thinking why don’t you just look for new ground and fish new marks. Well I do, I’m constantly looking for and fishing new ground, a lot of the stuff we fish is brand new (new to me at least). As we all know a new mark, will always fish better than an old one. But we have to find a lot of fish every year and I’ve been doing this for a few years now. I’m lucky to have access to fishing marks from well before my time. So we have covered a lot of ground, a lot of times over. So unless we travel that bit further (like we seem to be every year) we have it all mapped out pretty well, and new good marks are not always popping up.
Don’t get me wrong. If the fish are firing on a mark it’s not like I go that’s enough and leave them bitting. Don’t leave fish to find fish. Or if it's a hard day, I’m getting desperate and that new spot that produced well last week is just there. Of course, I’m gonna give it another crack. But we do have to have some self-restraint. To me, it’s all about working that bit harder this year to make next year easier. It’s very tempting when you find that new spot that produces well, and with dozen rec boats marking you with their radar’s, I cart help but think. If I don’t catch all these fish someone else will. But I can not control how other people fish, only myself. But by writing this article maybe I might make a few people think about things a bit more. Obviously, my farming theory doesn’t apply to the average rec fisho, and especially not to the one on their yearly fishing trip. But a bit of food for thought and keeping this stuff in the back of your mind can help you make more sustainable fishing choices. I might cover a few things anyone can do another time, but at least I tried to get the conversation started, and now you know we do actually give a crap.