The Tasmanian Abalone Fishery

A Personal History


A J Harrison

6. A Chance to Put Things in Perspective

In 1971 I was appointed Secretary for Fisheries when Roy Scott retired. After nearly seven years in the Fisheries Division I had gradually assumed more and more responsibility for the management of Tasmanian fisheries. Limited entry had been smoothly introduced for abalone and rock lobsters and the two big fisheries were running smoothly. My research team had grown, we now had a dedicated research vessel and a new laboratory was nearing completion at Taroona. The monitoring of these fisheries had substantially improved with new returns, computer collation through the Bureau of Statistics and a comprehensive program of market measuring of catches. In preparation for taking overall responsibility for managing Tasmanian fisheries the Director of Agriculture deemed it was time for me to see how things were done overseas.

Today we are swamped with information and the internet allows instant communication with all those engaged in similar work no matter how far they are away. Hobart is now a major centre of marine research; things were so very different thirty years ago. There were two important books on fisheries management. Australia had one marine research journal that published little on fisheries management. Foreign experts rarely ever visited Tasmania. The only real source of practical advice was the CSIRO Division in Sydney and a very small number of co-workers in the Fisheries Departments of New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia.

In planning my trip I was keen to see how abalone, scallops and lobster fisheries were managed and to meet some of the authors of the research papers I had collected from scientific journals in Europe, Japan and America. I was fully prepared to be overawed by the sophistication of management schemes and drool with envy at the research facilities. I was hopeful that I would receive snippets of information and advice that would allow me to quickly unravel the remaining mysteries of the Tasmanian scallop, abalone and rock lobster. What I found was surprising. I was welcomed as an equal everywhere. Everyone I met was very interested in what we were doing. I was very keen to learn as much as I could about shellfish culture and in Japan exceeded all my expectations. I was fortunate in having spent some time on a research vessel of the Tokyo University of Fisheries in 1969 and had established a good relationship with the Japan Tuna Fisheries Co-operative through the visits of long liners to Hobart. These very useful contacts gained me access to the important scientists and top laboratories. Abalone, scallops and oysters were being produced on a mammoth scale to replenish stocks depleted by heavy fishing. With the knowledge gained and the assistance given we were able to begin aquaculture at Taroona as soon as I returned. The program, and the facilities, grew continuously from that time.

Whilst the overseas facilities were very impressive, particularly the research vessels I found the management of fisheries disappointing. In Japan the abalone fishery was managed by the most draconian limits on fishing gear, in some prefectures the abalone had to be caught without swimming. In others diving was allowed but no compressed air. Whereas we had moved on to limiting entry the great fishing nation of England did not even know how many vessels they had. Estimating catch and effort rested on interviews with a sample of vessels when they returned to port and extrapolating the results. Yet the acknowledged concern about overfishing had resulted in no action. One leading figure rather embarrassingly admitted that although the North Atlantic boasted most of world’s fisheries scientists their work seemed to have little impact on the well being of the fisheries.

Two lessons were quickly learnt — in far away Tasmania we were near the head of the field, secondly scientific knowledge was only one pre-requisite for effectively managing fisheries. Fisheries can be quite well managed with just a basic understanding of the biology and behaviour of the target species. They cannot be managed at all without the political will to make appropriate laws and a culture that accepts the rule of law and is prepared to act accordingly. In 1970 I saw little evidence of the Parliaments in Europe and America being prepared to regulate fishing effort that was already acknowledged as being excessive. I returned much wiser but comforted that at least so far as abalone was concerned we had made most of the right moves so far. A key role of the Director of Fisheries was to strengthen that political will and to ensure that when it is exercised the management measures are effectively applied.

My promotion came at a difficult time for the Division for after 24 years of Labor Government we were faced with a new and very inexperienced Minister. The last months of Scott’s tenure and the first few of mine were very difficult. Nevertheless I knew where we should go and that was to improve the professionalism of our management. A key ingredient of that was the reform of our field force of inspectors. New inspectors now undertook formal training with police recruits. Higher recruiting standards, the training, uniforms and better salaries gradually produced a highly professional specialised enforcement team. Cadet inspectors were appointed to recruit a steady stream of well educated young men and provide them with a combination of practical and theoretical training before graduating as inspectors. Part of their training was spent on selected fishing boats gaining an appreciation of the fishermen's problems and part with the research teams learning about the biology and behaviour of fish and fish stocks. The inspectors welcomed the changes and we soon had a much better skilled and integrated management structure.

I found little trouble in looking after the staff. Perhaps all that time spent in cricket, basketball and football teams had taught me something about man management. Being a public figure was a new and somewhat stressful experience. The new laboratory was a source of pride for both the Division and the Department. When I started sketching out the plans it seemed quite straightforward and the Government architects took my drawings and ideas and came up with a wonderful design. Building had begun before the election and the Director, Arch Mead rather jokingly suggested to the Minister Alec Atkins that we better get a foundation stone laid just in case! It was just as well for Doug Clark got to open the finished building in February 1970. For a while it seemed that every VIP visiting Hobart was taken to Taroona to walk through the labs and gaze at the abalone, scallops and lobster in their tanks. One afternoon I was showing a group around and a very elegant woman in the party was very interested in abalone.

‘Is it true that they are an aphrodisiac?’ she enquired.

‘It is said to be so’ I replied fearing the next question.

When I began working with abalone I soon learnt the population at large knew virtually nothing about this shellfish. Some did, but their knowledge seemed limited to this Asian myth.

‘Why is that?’ asked my charming interrogator.

Perhaps I blushed as I replied,

‘They are said to resemble the appearance of the female genitalia.’

Had I noticed what an assistant was doing I may have dodged the question, for in front of us appeared a very lively abalone upside down on the bench. It then naturally attempted to right itself by twisting its foot and in the process demonstrating the origin of the myth.

‘My. God! You’re right.’ She said, with a small smile.