How to build Australia's recreational fishing picture

A clearer picture of recreational fishing is expected to improve fishing management and the sharing of marine resources

ABARES’s Lee Georgeson with a Barramundi caught on the Daly River, Northern Territory. “I go all over the place to fish,” he says. “And this is a magic spot.”
Photo: Graham Fifield

By Melissa Marino

National recreational fishing survey objectives

  • To determine the participation rate in recreational fishing and profile the demographic characteristics of recreational fishers.
  • To identify key species and quantify catch and effort of the recreational fishing sector.
  • To assess economic activity by the recreational fishing sector.
  • To assess the social contribution of recreational fishing and fishers’ attitudes to and awareness of issues relevant to fishing.

For fisheries researcher Lee Georgeson the value of recreational fishing is personal. He uses the time spent on some 30 fishing trips each year as an opportunity to “get back to basics” and connect with the natural environment.

“When you are moving carefully through an environment, say when fly fishing, you get in the zone and notice things that you wouldn’t otherwise,” he says. “It can be a very meditative way to escape and is also a good excuse to hang out with your mates.”

The value for communities visited by people such as Lee Georgeson is also significant  – and just one reason to establish some clear national figures around recreational fishing in Australia. This includes the number of people participating, the economic and social value they contribute, and the types and number of species they are catching.

The need to gather such information has been recognised with a recommendation from the Australian Government’s Policy for a More Competitive and Sustainable Fisheries Sector to conduct a national recreational fishing survey every five years.

In response, the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) has assessed how best to conduct regular national surveys to capture this data. The result is the report A framework for regular national recreational fishing surveys.

Led by Lee Georgeson, the report recommends the most accurate and efficient way to collect this vital national recreational fishing data is to align the timing of surveys across state and territory jurisdictions, using a telephone survey and diary (phone-diary) approach. Coordinated, credible information will be crucial for future policy and planning.

Survey techniques

The phone-diary method is a proven technique that is used for many state-based surveys and was also used for the National Recreational and Indigenous Fishing Survey 15 years ago.

Using the same technique is expected to build on the work of these previous surveys to assess trends over time, providing consistent data to build a national picture of recreational fishing, Lee Georgeson says.

The method involves using the White Pages and recreational fishing licence databases to conduct telephone surveys to get an idea of who is fishing and how often. From these respondents, a subset of fishers is then asked to complete a 12-month diary, providing more detailed information on the species and quantity caught, and money spent on fishing-related expenses. The surveys may also include questions about people’s awareness of and attitudes to issues affecting fisheries.

Fishers would also be surveyed at boat ramps to compare and validate actual catch and effort data with survey responses. For an accurate national picture ABARES estimates 70,000 initial phone interviews and more than 8000 diarists would be required across Australia’s states and territories.

“What we are proposing is very comprehensive,” Lee Georgeson says. “All those different components collect information on catch, fishing effort, participation rates, money spent, the benefits of fishing to individuals and communities and attitudes to fisheries issues and management.”

Data for decision makers

As well as considering social and economic aspects of recreational fishing, consistent national data are also essential to sustainably managing fish stocks and fisheries, many of which cross regional and jurisdictional boundaries. This is particularly important as the recreational catch for species exceeds the commercial catch, Lee Georgeson says.

“At cross-jurisdictional and national scales, we often don’t have enough information to know how many people are fishing and what they are catching,” he says. “It’s really important to have a good understanding of total mortality of a fishing stock and how this is changing over time so that you can manage it sustainably.”

Lee Georgeson says the national survey framework developed aims to satisfy the needs of various stakeholders, from managers and scientists who want catch and effort information to aid fishery assessment and management, to the recreational sector interested in what the industry is worth and what its social contribution is.

“There’s the old adage that you can’t manage what you can’t measure. We have tried to develop a framework that will satisfy everyone’s needs,” he says.

Matt Barwick, program manager with Recfishing Research, says quantifying the economic value recreational fishing brings to communities is one reason the sector supports an updated national survey.

This is because its economic value should be considered by policymakers from all levels of government when decisions are made around tourism, access and other issues affecting fisheries, he says.

As well, he says, consistent, coordinated national data on catch size, quantity and release rates is “absolutely fundamental” in underpinning sound fisheries management, healthy fisheries and continuing access to the resource.

“It helps to maintain social licence when the non-fishing community understands robust data is being collected and used to inform sustainable management practices,” Matt Barwick says.
Lee Georgeson says support from the recreational sector for a national survey and for the ABARES report has been important. “We worked with many collaborators and that was necessary to get agreement on the national survey objectives and the preferred approach.”  

Funded by the Australian Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, collaborators included the Australian Recreational Fishing Foundation, the FRDC, Recfishing Research, CSIRO, the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, all states and the Northern Territory and various Australian and New Zealand experts in recreational fishing survey design and implementation.

Lee Georgeson says the enduring legacy of that first national survey, which is still used as the baseline for recreational fishing data in Australia, is evidence a similar approach would be effective today. It will also provide practical benefits, allowing comparisons with the original results to reveal changes over time.

Securing funding and support to implement the ABARES report’s recommendations are the next steps, Lee Georgeson says. This will start with the report being presented to state fisheries management at the Australian Fisheries Management Forum later this year.

“We have a fantastic opportunity to get another national picture of recreational fishing and to establish a long-term time series of data,” he says. “And this report provides the recipe for how the information will be collected."

More information

Lee Georgeson, 02 6272 5845,

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