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The fishing community enjoys arguing about everything to do with one of the healthiest of obsessions – from the best bait to the luckiest lure, from the right reel to the tastiest species. But they are all agreed on one thing: there’s no better place on the planet to fish than the Northern Territory.

It is, in many ways, the ultimate in fishing, whether far up remote rivers, off a local beach, or out at sea. In an age when overfishing is an environmental crisis in many parts of the world, most of the Territory’s fish stocks – from barramundi to tuna, from threadfin salmon to Spanish mackerel – are still abundant, and the Territory Government and the army of fishers want to keep it that way.

The Territory is geared up for fishing: there are boat ramps around Darwin and in many regional and remote areas. Fishing lodges and live-aboard charters provide those trip-of-a lifetime experiences, and the Top End boasts some of Australia’s most well stocked tackle stores. Fishers respect what the Territory has to offer, and maintain a strong sense of stewardship and responsibility for healthy fish stocks and safety on the water.

The Government has partnered with fishers to develop the NT Recreational Fishing Development Plan 2023-33, a 10-year vision to ensure the Territory’s recreational fishing sector continues to thrive, successfully navigate changes, overcome challenges and create opportunities to deliver a strong and sustainable recreational fishing future.

The comprehensive plan was drawn up in partnership with the Amateur Fishermen’s Association of the NT (AFANT), the NT Guided Fishing Industry Association, the Recreational Fishing Advisory Committee, as well as recreational fishers and stakeholders from around the Territory. Stakeholders were invited to have their say at each step of the innovative 12-month planning process. With interviews, workshops, and submissions capturing the input of hundreds of people and key organisations – the process has ensured a genuinely grassroots plan “for fishers, by fishers”.

Recreational fishing is enormously popular in the Territory, among Territorians and visitors. In 2019-20, $144 million was directly generated by recreational fishing, and $126 million by further indirect activity generated in other parts of the economy, and supported more than 2500 full-time jobs.

Studies show that 33 percent of the Territory’s population go fishing – many every weekend. The participation rate is highest among Aboriginal Territorians and adults aged under 35. The Territory is also the only place in Australia where the proportion of women that go fishing is higher than the men – with a recent study showing women’s participation edging out the men for the first time. Territorians spend about 500,000 days fishing each year. “The participation is not matched anywhere else in Australia,” says AFANT Chief Executive David Ciaravolo. “The average participation rate in other jurisdictions is only 18 percent.”

Fishers are split fairly evenly between Territorians and visitors. Fishing in the Territory is unique. For example, many prime fishing rivers and coastal fishing spots are owned by indigenous people, and other areas by pastoralists or Defence.

The Territory Government and fishers are working out access agreements with Traditional Owners. Mr Ciaravolo says investing in relationships, exploring common values, and working with Traditional Owners is essential to the future of recreational fishing in the Territory.

The 10-year plan also addresses the need for strategic investment in infrastructure, everything from boat ramps, roads leading to fishing spots and artificial reefs. “A lot of fishing is concentrated around greater Darwin,” Mr Ciaravolo says. “Smart investment in infrastructure will help balance effort in popular locations and enhance fishing experiences in regional and remote areas.”

“The fishing community is committed to healthy environments and responsible resource use, so it will also be essential to invest in programs to support community stewardship and education,” said Mr Ciaravolo.

Kane Dysart, Executive Officer of the NT Guided Fishing Industry Association, highlights the pivotal role of fishing tourism in the Northern Territory. “Our region, though small in population, boasts around 150 active fishing guides. This not only emphasises the economic value, but also reflects the high demand for the unparalleled fishing experiences we offer – experiences that are becoming increasingly scarce in today’s world.”

Territory waters have some of the few remaining unspoiled wilderness regions globally. Mr Dysart adds, “With mindful and strategic planning and management, the potential to amplify both its economic and social returns is boundless.”

With a large proportion of the Territory’s coastline and intertidal waters owned by Traditional Owners, fishing tourism provides a wealth of opportunities for Aboriginal people and communities to engage in and benefit from the Territory’s recreational fishing industry.

“It’s a partnership that promises mutual growth, economic development, and a reinforced commitment to our environment and people’s wellbeing.”

The 10-year plan lists four “desired outcomes”:

1. Recognition of rights, responsibilities and values of everyone involved in recreational fishing, with a focus on the need to build strong relationships and partnerships between fishers, Traditional Owners and other land managers.

This includes educating fishers about Aboriginal ownership rights unique to the Northern Territory and cross-cultural awareness of expected behaviours.

2. Increase understanding and protection of fish diversity and abundance to maintain the Territory’s high-quality fishing experiences.

This includes promoting the importance of responsible fishing behaviours to protect fish habitats, such as fish handling and reducing the impacts of barotrauma on fish populations, as well as developing a recreational fishing data, monitoring and research plan to fill in gaps in knowledge.

3. Focus on making recreational fishing more accessible and attractive for people of all backgrounds, cultures, skills and abilities.

This includes essential boat ramp upgrades, such as providing all-abilities access at key locations, and the exploration of new, safe land-based fishing opportunities in Darwin.

4. Maintain the recreational sector’s skills, leadership, knowledge, behaviour, communication, engagement, relationships, partnerships, transparency and capacity to change.

This includes promoting the significant health, wellbeing, social, cultural and economic benefits of recreational fishing to ensure appropriate investment is directed back into the sector.

The desired outcomes are the essence of a vision to maintain and even enhance the world-class fishing offered in the Territory while protecting fish stocks and the environment.

There is incontrovertible proof that fishing is physically and mentally beneficial.

“Fishing is something that can be enjoyed by people of all ages and all abilities,” says Mr Ciaravolo. “Grandparents can fish alongside their grandchildren. It’s a way to better connect with family and friends.”

“Studies have shown that fishers are healthier, happier and even better able to overcome challenges in life.”

In other words, fishing is good for the soul.

By Nigel Adlam


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