Tasmanian Fisheries 1880-1990

The following essay written in 1994 summarizes the linked files that cover nine periods up to 1990.

Fisheries Administration, Research and Development in Tasmania



Island communities look outward to the sea with a mixture of awe and hope. The cause of their isolation also offers protection and the prospect of wealth. Tasmanians accept without conscious thought that the sea is "full of fish". Successful catches by neighbours and friends on weekend or holidays, the renowned profitability of abalone diving combined with regular media stories on crayfish and scallop successes reinforce this belief. Visits by large foreign fishing vessels sustain another tenet that is as old as white settlement - our waters are still to yield new riches. Faith in fisheries development as the answer to economic growth in Tasmania has been a recurrent theme in the culture of the state.
The Derwent estuary and adjacent waters provided a valuable supplement to the diet of the first settlers. A large catch of jack mackerel in Sullivans Cove helped to save the pioneers when Collins moved the camp from Risdon Cove. Crayfish, "plentiful and tasty", oysters, trumpeter and cod were readily available in Hobartown in the first quarter of the last century as evidenced in Knopwood and Boyes diaries etc. Whaling and sealing constituted the first important industry for Van Diemans Land. Initially the bays and coastal waters including Bass Strait produced large quantities of the fur seal and several species of whales. Later the southern ocean and Macquarie Island provided the product and Hobart became a major distant water fishing port. In 1837 fisheries contributed £135,000 to the economy - mostly from whaling when the colony had a population between a half and two thirds that of NSW. The reminders of this history can be seen in the architecture around Sullivans Cove particularly Salamanca Place and Battery Point. The economic contributions made by these fisheries are more difficult to see today but was crucial to the viability of the colony. Less well known is the contribution of the oyster industry to the colonial economy. The local (native or mud) oyster Ostrea angasi was found in abundance in places such as Pipe Clay Lagoon, Cloudy Bay, Ralphs Bay, Great Oyster Bay and Port Esperance. The fame of this shellfish soon spread to Sydney and by the 1860's 20 million oysters worth £90,000 were produced in that year, most being exported and this was the colony's most valuable primary industry. Unregulated harvesting prompted legislative action in 1853 - "The Act for the improvement and Regulation of the Oyster fisheries in Van Diemans Land". But these attempts failed resulting in the loss of a valuable industry and calls to investigate oyster culture (Calder Oyster Culture 1868).
The substantial inland waterways of Van Dieman's Land were found to contain limited fish of table quality. Nevertheless fishing in rivers and lakes was sufficiently intensive to require legislation to protect native fish (especially mullet and "herring") within 8 years of the establishment of responsible government. An Act for the Preservation of Fish in the Rivers of This Colony became law in 1859. Almost twenty years earlier some of leading citizens formed a group () that was to become the Royal Society of Tasmania and initiated the first of a long series of discussions on fisheries development projects. Memories of Scottish and Irish salmon prompted a scheme to acclimatise the species 12,000 miles and a hemisphere away from its natural environment. The objective was to produce a commercial fishery and a source of food. Whilst the hoped for "salmon run" failed to eventuate brown trout, (a contemporary introduction), flourished. Although more than a century was to elapse before these introduced fish were legally sold for profit, the direct descendant of the group that began the development became one of the world's longest serving and successful guardians of recreational fishing. The story of this project was best recorded by Morton Allport and P.S.Seager (1889) leading contemporary figures and Nicholls (1875), and by later authors such as Lynch (1970).
By 1880 a pattern that was to be regularly repeated for a century was already in evidence -

The productivity of the adjacent sea combined with individual initiative to satisfy a market opportunity. This "natural" fishing industry provided wealth, employment and stimulated general economic development. But individuals or pressure groups urge government intervention and support to produce "something better". A government decision to invest in fisheries is accompanied by a new administrative structure.

Thus for example although whales (particularly whale oil), fur seals and oysters were the basis of important industries and capable of sustained productivity if prudently and carefully managed. (Whaling contributed £2.25 million to the Tasmanian economy between 1803 and 1870.) Nevertheless scarce resources of skill and money, and government interest were applied to acclimatize salmon, an "artificial" developmental project of doubtful commercial potential. [Although the best available scientific skills were used together with extreme care and considerable money we now know that to establish a self-sustaining salmon run in the Southern Hemisphere is very difficult. Ironically the latest intervention by the Tasmanian Government in fisheries development is to create a commercial salmon industry using the same species but by containing them in cages in farms rather than allowing the fish to run free. In 1987 the first salmon grown in Tasmanian waters were sold - 115 years after the first live specimens arrived in Hobart.]
Unmanaged fisheries rapidly decline and by 1882 a Royal Commission inquiring into Tasmanian Fisheries found major neglect had lead to the destruction of two major industries. The evidence collected described in considerable detail fishing in the colony to that time. R.H.Johnston, one of the Commissioners, produced a comprehensive "Catalogue of Tasmanian Fishes " including information on their biology and behaviour. The Commission recommended placing the management of fisheries under professional guidance, that research commence and the oyster fishery be revived. Australian fisheries were to benefit immeasurably from the consequential appointment of William Saville-Kent as Chief Inspector and Superintendent of Fisheries in 1884. By 1888 he had introduced new fishing techniques and established a substantial research facility at Battery Point in Hobart where he maintained and cultured a range of species including oysters, grayling, real trumpeter as well as trout. He proposed to export cultured trumpeter to restock the waters off the coast of Devon and to import European species such as the true lobster. The story of his appointment, innovations, and resignation after conflict with the Salmon Commissioners is a fascinating episode in public administration. After the departure of Saville-Kent to take up fisheries positions in Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia the government again ignored fisheries management and development leaving it to an unfunded part-time board of Commissioners.
In 1906 the new Commonwealth Government decided to seek the riches of fisheries development by acquiring a research trawler, paying a bounty on locally canned fish and appointing a Commonwealth Director of Fisheries. A year later they the held the first national Fisheries Conference and to obtain broad support for their policy. This Conference lead to the appointment of H.V.Dannevig as Director and the purchase of the research vessel Endeavour. Both were lost in December 1914 off the west coast of Tasmania whilst engaged in a program of surveying potential trawling grounds. The vessel did valuable work and stimulated the development of the NSW fishing industry but the taste was enough to satisfy the Commonwealth appetite for fisheries development for forty years.
Dissatisfaction by some fishermen with the policies of the Fisheries Commissioners particularly related to the use of crayfish pots prompted the Tasmanian House of Assembly to establish a Select Committee in 1913 under the chairmanship of J A Lyons to investigate "Deep Sea Fisheries".
The Report -

"Strongly recommended that a new government department be established ... it cannot be expected that the body of gentlemen who are mostly anglers that in no way connected with fishing can successfully control the fisheries of the State".

Three years later T T Flynn, the first Professor of Biology at the University of Tasmania was appointed Royal Commissioner to examine "Tasmanian Fisheries" and he strongly supported the Lyons Report. Premier Braddon had withdrawn financial support in 1894 and the Government of Tasmania provided no funds for fisheries for more than 35 years. The Commissioners - the lineal successors to the promoters of salmon acclimatisation, operated as best they could with whatever funds could be extracted from reluctant commercial fishermen. Financial difficulties, in part due to the war, prolonged the life of the Commissioners until further agitation for change between 1920 and 1925 and the death of P S Seager lead to a restructuring in 1925. A new Fisheries Act established the Sea Fisheries Board with a mandate to both manage and initiate development.
A series of major private ventures began in 1911 with a proposal initiated by the Tasmanian Agent-General in London with the support of Henry Jones but failed to raise sufficient finance. The Tasmanian Fisheries Development Co Pty Ltd the brainchild of TT Flynn and Robert Nettlefold was promoted in 1924 and backed by the State Development Board. The Board commissioned a feasibility study by Dr G.F.Read who recommended St Helens as the centre of the scheme. Lyons vigorously supported the project and introduced the Fisheries Encouragement Bill in 1925 to grant it concessions and protection in the northeast. Seventeen years later the government backed another major private development project - International Products Pty Ltd. This project was investigated and supported by a Select C'tee of both Houses of the Parliament and lead to The Fisheries Industries Establishment Bill providing for government share-holding in the company. Both these were schemes to transplant an integrated British fishing industry -fishermen, boats and processing factories to Tasmania.

An A class fishing boat of the 1920s
The smaller B Class boat

A second national conference in 1927 largely repeated the recommendations of 20 years earlier and established a pattern that continues to the present. The Tariff Board and the Migration Commission showed some interest in fishing but had little impact in Tasmania. Despite the efforts of Flynn this wave achieved little except to permanently break the grip of anglers from the administration of sea fisheries. The extremely difficult economic conditions were largely to blame however Flynn was excluded from membership of the Board because of his involvement with Tasmanian Fisheries Development CO Pty LTD due to the activities of some Fisheries Commissioners referred to in the Royal Commission. This may have left the Board short of the vigorous committed leadership required to fully grasp the opportunities available in 1925. This wave died with the departure of Flynn to take up the Chair of Biology at Belfast University. In 1930 the Trustees of the Ralston Bequest, that financed his position at the University of Tasmania,"for some reason" asked him "to discontinue work on fisheries". After 1931 the income from the bequest could only afford £400 pa forcing Flynn to seek a position elsewhere when the University could not or would not meet the balance of the professorial salary.


top - The Fisheries Board's patrol vessel Allara with Tom Challenger at the wheel. mid - Traditional unloading of the catch lower - Greg Casimaty's Nelson. The first danish seiner.

Top - Barracouta boat in Victoria Dock mid - New marketing, a fish punt under construction. lower -

The Labour Government in 1934 initiated a further episode of government backed development based on a close relationship with the newly formed CSIR. Premier A.G.Ogilvie and Fisheries Ministers E.J.Ogilvie and T.G.D'Alton actively promoted commercial fishing. A major objective was to utilize the demersal resources discovered by the Endeavour and the pelagic stocks of tuna, sardines and jack mackerel that were known to exist of the east coast. The 1882 Royal Commission referred to them as (off) " our coasts at certain seasons in great numbers, and could be captured if there was inducement to do so; as it is some of these species come and go unmolested and almost unheeded". The potential of these pelagic fish especially tuna for canning attracted H Jones & CO and new companies backed by government funds. A substantial revision of the Act in 1935 included a fishermen's representative on the Board and restructured the administration of inland fisheries. Despite the restructuring the Minister was under constant attack from some sections of the trout fishing community seeking a fully funded fisheries department to include freshwater fisheries.
A conference and Board of Enquiry in 1941 indicated the Government's frustration with continued criticism of the way fish were marketed and the inability of the Sea Fisheries Board to promote development. Another complete revision of the Act in 1941 placed fisheries directly under ministerial control and administered by the Department of Agriculture. Wartime demands for food (particularly in canned form) and vitamin A and post war reconstruction initiatives stimulated further initiatives.

- CSIR promoted another national conference in October 1941 that recommended a Commonwealth Council for Fisheries Development and continued to work on pelagic fish around Tasmania.
- The state government built a modern trawler to stimulate demersal fisheries.
- CSIR imported the Pacific oyster from Japan to restock oyster beds and stimulate oyster farming.
- The state government backed the establishment of fisherman's cooperatives.
- Several private schemes to promote both crayfish and shark fishing were floated.

After the term of D'Alton as Minister government interest waned and the Fisheries Division was neglected by the Department of Agriculture during the 1950's. Industry agitation climaxed in 1962 and a Select Committee the next year lead to a revitalization of the Division and a new development wave. Over the next decade a research section was established, a research vessel and laboratory built and a Development Trust Account established. Aquaculture research began and new management techniques were introduced. Concessional finance through the Agricultural Bank allowed promising fishermen to buy new vessels. The industry responded with substantial investment in crayfishing scalloping and shark fishing for new boats, equipment and techniques allowing export markets to be exploited. An entirely new fishery, based on the large marine snail, abalone, quickly grew to become the industry's most valuable component. Oyster farming resumed utilizing the Pacific oyster that had become established in a number of estuaries particularly the Tamar. The economic conditions that promoted the export based shellfisheries tended to depress demand for local finfish, as imported prepackaged fillets were more convenient cheaper and often of better quality. the pelagic stocks remained unfished.
This wave is unique in that it was not accompanied by an administrative restructure. However when D F Hobbs the Inland Fisheries Commissioner died he was replaced by D D Lynch formerly Deputy Director of Fish and Wildlife in Victoria: his background in marine fisheries was interpreted by trout fishermen as the precursor to an amalgamation of sea an inland fisheries. Hobbs and others had proposed such a move that was logical an attractive to sectors of the government. The vigorous opposition of anglers who feared the loss of the autonomy enjoyed for over a century persuaded the government that the administrative efficiency of the move did not outweigh the electoral risk. (A similar fate befell the same proposal from a report from a Cartland task force and a flirtation by Julian Amos during his term as Minister for Sea Fisheries in 1983). Thus in 1964, instead of an amalgamated fisheries department, the Minister for Fisheries A C Atkins appointed a senior administrative officer of his department R H Scott to head the Sea Fisheries Division. Roy Scott had been the Deputy Controller of Fisheries for Tasmania during World War II when the Department of War Organisation of Industry took national control of fishing inputs such as crews, gear and fuel and prices were regulated. With the support of first, F W Hicks and later A R Mead as Director of Agriculture, Scott set out to modernize fisheries administration.
During this period the Commonwealth effort in fisheries which had been strong lost direction and State Fisheries Departments in NSW, WA and Tasmania expanded to take over much of the research and development work. CSIRO, until then practically the sole fisheries research organization, moved towards oceanography and closed its fisheries laboratory in Hobart that had operated since the late 1930s. This expansion was in part due to the vacuum created by changes in CSIRO and a general expansion of the public service but also to funds collected by licence fee from the newly affluent export fisheries. Later South Australia and recently Queensland and Northern Territory fishery departments have played a much more important role in management, research and development. Despite efforts by K R Allen and R Harden-Jones when in charge of the Fisheries Division, CSIRO was unable to regain their previously pre-eminent position and have recently been faced with the creation of a Bureau of Resources Research to service the fisheries research demands of the Australian Fisheries Service.
Finally in 1972 jack mackerel were landed in quantity for the first time for conversion to fishmeal by an integrated company Fish Protein Concentrate Pty Ltd. The operation was based at Triabunna and financed jointly by interstate funds supplemented by the newly formed Australian Industry Development Corporation and infrastructure supplied by the state government through its Industrial Development agency. Unfortunately the project failed after two years when the processing technique proved to be unworkable. The fishery was revived a decade later with different technology but the resource proved to be volatile. (See for details)
Despite the substantial real growth in fisheries between 1965 and 1975 government sought further development as the general economy began to decline. A visit to Eire by a member of the government prompted the view that the superficial similarity between the marine ecology of Irish coastal waters and the physical geography of both islands justified the adoption of the Irish Fisheries Development plan in Tasmania. Although L A Costello rejected the proposal as Minister for Fisheries, after his resignation in May 1975 his successor Eric Barnard accepted it and invited the Chairman of the Irish Sea Fisheries Board (BIM) to report on ways to stimulate fisheries development in Tasmania. O'Kelly spent less than a month in Tasmania but impressed Premier Nielsen who saw the Irish model being applied throughout the primary industries and wanted O'Kelly to direct it. The O'Kelly report concluded that the position of the Fisheries Division within the Department of Agriculture and precluded Government playing an active role in fisheries development due to the Department's conservative attitude and without that intervention development would not occur. To overcome the problem an autonomous but totally government funded Tasmanian Fisheries Development Authority (TFDA) should be established as "a commercially oriented organisation". The report was accepted and the concept implemented by another major amendment to the Fisheries Act; O'Kelly was appointed Chairman and chief executive.
Despite the superficial similarities a little more detailed comparison would have revealed substantial and, for the TFDA, fatal differences existed between Ireland and Tasmania. Tasmanian coastal waters did not contain large resources of untapped "table fish" and Tasmania was certainly not adjacent to the huge European market and certainly not a member of the EEC. Unlike the situation in Eire Tasmanian fishermen had just experienced almost 20 years of major capital investment (much of which was subsidised by the public purse), substantial growth, record incomes and were technologically advanced, prosperous and in a mood to protect their newly won gains. To achieve the development objectives the TFDA transferred it's resources from the management of established fisheries to finding new fish stocks, demonstrating new techniques, marketing minor species and aquaculture. The government placed much trust in O'Kelly's personal ability to achieve the desired goals and when he resigned after a few months for family reasons difficulties began.
The 8-year life of the TFDA demonstrated that the bureaucratic restraint of the Department of Agriculture was not the crucial factor inhibiting development and repeated the lesson that governments (and their agencies) have great difficulty in forcing the pace of fisheries development. In the face of an industry seeking security not risk they have no chance. The experience of the TFDA in trawl fishing, mussel farming and squid fishing is relevant. Tailored support to sectors of the industry anxious to expand can be of considerable assistance as can be seen from the TFDA's work in oyster culture, abalone management and salmon farming. The goal of becoming a commercially oriented organisation may have been unrealistic as the authority was not a solitary unit but bound to Tasmanian Departments such as the Treasury and Agricultural Bank and the Commonwealth and other state fisheries organisations. In addition it had no product from which to generate revenue and its dominate role (at least in the eyes of its "customers") was regulatory. Fishermen in "non-developmental fisheries" resented the concentration of limited resources of skills and finance on new fisheries and aquaculture. The resentment led to government irritation (c/f 1924 and 1939) and Minister Beswick announced an enquiry into the TFDA. The appointment of the Authority's father Brendan O'Kelly to conduct it was greeted with some surprise. It took O'Kelly even less time to conclude that a Department of Sea Fisheries should now replace the TFDA than he took to recommend its establishment. His diagnosis was that failure resulted from deviation from the original design (even though the legislation, organisational structure and functions were endorsed and implemented by O'Kelly as inaugural Chairman and Chief Executive). The cure was to restore Ministerial control, end direct industry participation in policy development, and transfer fisheries law enforcement to the Police Force.
After the establishment of the new Department the Government has been able to announce two long awaited development successes - the full utilisation of the jack mackerel resource and the first marketing of Tasmanian grown salmon. But no sooner had the Department recovered its poise and rebuilt its staff that a new Government sent the clock backwards, abolished its independence and consigned it back to the subservient position it had held before 1977. The Sea Fisheries Department was absorbed into the Department of Agriculture, now renamed the Department of Primary Industries.

A history of fisheries research in Tasmania to 1985

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