You are using an outdated browser. Please upgrade your browser to improve your experience.


The future of fishing

There are a staggering 1474 species of fish in Northern Territory waters.

But only one is at the heart of the great debate between the recreational and commercial fishing industries: Lates calcarifer – barramundi, often lauded as the tastiest fish in the world. Both sides – the recs led by the Amateur Fishermen’s Association and the comms by the Seafood Council – say they can co-exist, despite one calling for increasingly stringent restrictions on the other. Recreational anglers have little objection to commercial fishing generally except when it comes to barra.

The commercial barramundi catch is worth $10 million a year; recreational fishing is worth about 27 times that.

Despite popular belief, only 20 percent of recreational fishing, caught and released, is barra.

The NT’s barra stocks are classified as “sustainable”.

Annual catches are estimated at 19 percent of what could be sustainably harvested each year – so, hypothetically, the catch could increase five-fold and still be sustainable – but there is an argument that closure of commercial grounds is concentrating fishing efforts and that creates a danger of localised population declines.

About 80 percent of grounds historically fished by recreational anglers and 90 percent by tourism businesses targeting barramundi are already closed to commercial fishing.

The commercial barramundi fishery is the only source of wild-caught NT barramundi and king threadfin salmon available to the retail seafood and hospitality sector.

Major reforms to the management of fisheries, both by the Territory Government and Traditional Owners, are underway.

One of the most contentious issues is commercial gillnetting.

A gillnet is a wall of nylon netting, often 100 metres long, that hangs in the water, either attached to poles or kept at the most effective depth by weights.

Mesh sizes are designed to allow fish to get only their head through the netting but not their body. The fish’s gills then get caught in the mesh as it tries to back out of the net. As the fish struggles to free itself, it becomes more and more entangled.

Many recreational anglers want a buyout of gillnet operators in the Territory.

Traditional Owners have made it clear that they want the nets banned and have already closed three prime fishing grounds, the Mini Mini/ Murgenella system, and Buckingham Bay and Arnhem Bay, which between them account for about half the commercial barra catch.

One Traditional Owner, Helen Guyula, says bycatch from gillnetting is washing up on shore.

“They throw the little ones or the ones they don’t want back,” she says. “We’ve found heaps of turtle, dolphin, crocodile and small barramundi washed up on the beach.”

And AFANT president Warren de With told the ABC: “When you put a net out it doesn’t say, ‘Only barramundi must swim into this net’.”

The Territory Government has placed an “effort” cap on commercial barramundi operators at the Roper River, Anson Bay and Moyle River to limit the 2024 fishing effort to historical levels of fishing.

Recreational anglers want a catch cap instead, but the counter argument is that an effort cap limits the amount of time nets are in the water but a catch cap would encourage commercial operators to keep nets out until their limit is reached.

Also, setting a catch cap is difficult given the dramatic fluctuation of barramundi stocks – productivity is largely driven by environmental variation, such as the amount of rainfall, rather than fishing.

Since 1983, commercial fishing in Anson Bay has fallen by nearly 90 percent and in the Roper River by 75 percent.

Commercial operators are already banned between the Little Finniss and Wildman rivers, which includes Bynoe Harbour, Darwin Harbour, Shoal Bay and Chambers Bay.


And they can’t fish or anchor within the Dugong Protection Area in the south-western Gulf of Carpentaria.

The Territory’s fishing industries are going through the most tumultuous time of their lives.

Battle lines between the two sides have been drawn for decades.

But there is a new kid on the block – the Indigenous-owned Aboriginal Sea Company – and he is certain to change the face of fishing in the Top End for all time.

Most of the Territory’s coastline is now under the control of Indigenous people and all fishers have to get permission to fish in Aboriginal waters.

NT Fisheries accepts that the closing of commercial fishing grounds risks pushing commercial operators further into popular recreational fishing spots and enticing them to increase their harvest.

A full review of the barramundi fishery this year is likely to be a stormy affair considering the cultural, social and economic factors involved.

The Seafood Council says in 2018-19 the seafood industry contributed $136 million to the NT economy with an additional $22 million generated indirectly to the rest of Australia.

Chief executive Katherine Winchester says: “There is plenty of fish for everyone. Only one fifth of the Territory’s sustainable barramundi stock is used by all fishers – commercial, recreational and traditional fishing combined.

“The NT Government instigated a comprehensive review of the barramundi fishery, which provides an opportunity to set a bright future for all users of the resources. As part of this review, a social and economic assessment of the benefits that the fishery brings to the community will be completed this year so that evidence-based decisions can be made to set the direction for the future.”

The number of barramundi licences has been reduced over the past 50 years from more than 100 to only 14.

“Also gone are the ‘announce a barra buyback’ before an election playbook, with the bipartisan support for the NT Fisheries Resource Sharing Framework in place since 2016,” Ms Winchester says.


“Since that time the fishery has attracted new investment and innovation with investors having confidence in the decision-making processes in place.

“Negotiations for access with Traditional Owners and involvement of the Aboriginal Sea Company within the fishery are opportunities for collaboration and cooperation that the industry embraces.

“Among the industry left today there is an appetite for further innovation and further investment to ensure this generational fishery continues as an important part of the NT fabric.”

She says the number one dish sought by the 800,000 tourists attracted to the Territory by the hospitality industry is barramundi.

“With 90 percent of Territorians relying on commercial fishers for access to seafood, whether that be through retail, off-the-wharf sales or at the pub, we must protect the commercial fishing operations.

“The flip side is that only 6 percent of Territorians have the disposable income or interest in catching wild barramundi or king threadfin through regular recreational fishing activity.

“The commercial fishing sector is an employer of local people – it is not part of a recreational activity or discretionary spend – this sector is an active contributor to the NT economy at all points along the supply chain.

“The success of the contribution of the commercial barramundi fishery to the Territory economy and community wellbeing should not be at the mercy of a short-term political decision.

“Recreational fishing is significant to a small group of very active fishers. We get it – the majority of Territorians do not fish weekly to get their feed of barramundi and king threadfin and they want to see these options in their local pub or at the shops.”

Ms Winchester says some Traditional Owners use gillnet under Aboriginal coastal licences.

Many recreational anglers want gillnetting outlawed – the very word is enough to make many of them angry.

Scientific evidence shows that the nets are highly selective – in terms of fish size – and efficient at catching target species.

The netting dimensions are set to avoid capturing juveniles and reduce the capture of large barramundi, which are the preferred target of the recreational and tourism sector.

Management rules and TEPS, the threatened, endangered and protected species strategy, include trigger points for mandatory attendance of gillnets and maximum soak times to reduce bycatch.

Vessel monitoring systems on mother ships and tenders provide real-time data on fishing location and TEPS has introduced camera coverage on 50 percent of the commercial fleet – well above the 20 percent minimum scientific recommendation of commercial fishing observation.

But AFANT says the 2020 ecological risk assessment for the barramundi fishery found risk ratings of “severe” or “high” for 11 TEPS – and that the observer coverage in the fishery is “seriously lacking”.


TEPS, a strategy that included consultation with AFANT and the NT Guided Fishing Industry Association, is investigating: • Modifying fishing techniques by creating gaps at the base of the net on the seafloor and increasing net tension • Trialling gear technology such as LED lights, which have shown to be effective in overseas trials in reducing bycatch

  • Identifying alternative gear
  • Identifying world-first methods of maximising live release from nets; for example, by using early interaction detectors, such as TEPS vocalisation detectors and mounted net monitors.
  • Improving understanding of the biology, ecology, movement and habitat dependence of key TEPS by using satellite tracking paired with intra-uterine tags to detect place and time of birthing linked to nursery habitats.

The Gulf of Carpentaria remains open to gill netting in Queensland and 30 licences are permitted, using about 100 kilometres of net, on the Queensland side of the Gulf – although the State Government is reducing the size of the harvest this year – compared with 14 licences across all of the NT using a total of 10 kilometres of net at any one time.

The commercial industry and many independent fishery experts argue that the removal of gill netting for barramundi and threadfin salmon in the NT without allowing time for the industry to innovate and adapt – by finding alternative harvest methods – will remove affordable wild-caught fish from the Territory market, to be replaced by imports from Western Australia and Queensland.

The Territory already has Australia’s largest net-free zones, which only allow recreational and Traditional fishing for barramundi.

AFANT chief executive David Ciaravolo says gillnetting of barra has an impact on recreational and traditional fishing catches, as well as the experiences of tourists who come to the NT hoping to enjoy world-class wilderness fishing.

“The gillnet-caught barramundi product falls well short of meeting increasingly sophisticated consumer expectations in terms of consistent quality and provenance, and has well understood but long-unaddressed environmental impacts on threatened, protected and endangered species,” he says.

Mr Ciaravolo says Queensland’s clampdown on gillnetting has “laid down the gauntlet” for the barramundi tourism dollar.

“The NT can’t compete on price and hospitality, so to maintain our competitive advantage, the NT must reform and continue to offer the best wild barramundi fishing in the country.

“I think the writing is on the wall for the commercial barramundi gillnetting in the NT and it should be phased out over the next few years. Policymakers have an opportunity to do something in the NT that will be good for the economy, good for the environment and will be welcomed by most Territorians.

“A wholesale change in the fishery would also allow for the Government to redesign commercial fishing for barramundi, ideally redeveloping it as more boutique, lower volume, but higher quality, line caught or other non-gillnet method, quota controlled, and built from the ground up with the support and direct involvement of Traditional Owners.”

He says the fishing grounds that once provided half the commercial catch are now closed.

“This has led to a situation where there is the same amount of net available to fish much less water, and this gives rise to the problem of displaced effort.

“Displaced effort occurs when the closure of one fishing ground leads to the potential of increased fishing activity in another area. If left unmanaged it will likely also result in increased localised harvest.”

Mr Ciaravolo says the Territory’s barramundi fisheries are not appropriately managed to return optimal economic and social values to the community, nor to adequately protect cultural and environmental values.

“It is regrettable that the long awaited NT barramundi fishery review process did not first focus on allocation and resources sharing, a form of planning and vision setting for the future of the fishery. The guidance for that sort of reform was absent and then it was too late.

“We are now focused on the future, and we are seeking complete reform of the barramundi fishery over the next term of government. This should begin with a commitment to phase out gillnetting.”


Recreational anglers are calling for weight-based commercial quotas.

“It works fine for the NT commercial Spanish mackerel fishery and commercial jewfish fishery, so it’s not reinventing the wheel,” says fishing writer Alex Julius.

Commercial and recreational fishing are important to the Territory economy.

The relatively small commercial industry has 190 registered fishing boats, which harvest an average of 5500 tonnes of fish and other seafood each year from 15 fisheries.

The largest by volume and value are the offshore snapper fisheries, which include the demersal, or bottom feeding, fishery and the Timor Reef fishery.

Commercial fishing contributes about $150 million per year to the Territory economy and supports 111 jobs.

Operators argue that Territory Government regulations governing their industry are too complex and expensive.

Recreational fishing contributes $270 million a year to the NT economy through direct expenditure and indirect flow-on benefits, and supports more than 2500 jobs.

Studies show that 33 percent of the Territory’s population go fishing.

The 2008 Blue Mud Bay High Court decision enshrined the rights of Traditional Owners to control the intertidal zone – the area between high and low tide.

Commercial operators fear that any loss of access to key fishing grounds caused by the decision will affect their business viability.

But Traditional Owners say that a well-managed, sustainable commercial fishing industry will be allowed to continue, but along a different business model.

The Aboriginal Sea Company was set up by the three coastal land councils, Northern, Tiwi and Anindilyakwa.

“The vision is to ensure Aboriginal people own access rights to the resources as well as the coastal waters and use this to have a greater say in how these resources are managed,” says company chair Calvin Deveraux.

Over the past 18 months, the business has acquired 11 commercial mud crab licences, a three-unit barramundi licence and two coastal line licences, which includes a black jewfish quota of about five tonnes.

It has also bought the Darwin Ship Stores and its chandlery, plus Darwin Fish Market, at Fisherman’s Wharf.

This means that the Aboriginal Sea Company is now licence holder, fishing industry business operator and seafood sales business owner-operator.

The aim is for Indigenous people to not only work in the industry – at first as deckhands, but eventually as skippers – but also to have ownership of fishing boats through joint ventures.


It is possible that all inshore commercial fishing licences will soon be owned by Indigenous people.

Eight of the Territory’s 14 commercial licences are owned by West Australian-based Wild Barra.

Company director Cameron Berryman says barramundi are lightly fished – “and their amazing life history provides incredible resilience”

He says his company will this year improve electronic monitoring, including the installation of cameras, to verify the data collected.

“Combined with the vessel monitoring already required in the fishery this will provide great accountability and transparency in our operations.”

Mr Berryman says data from NT Fisheries shows gillnets to be “highly selective” for barra and threadfin.

“We are aware the nets can interact with protected species and we are working cooperatively with Fisheries and Charles Darwin University to reduce these interactions.

A major project is underway to look at bycatch mitigation measures and investigate alternative gears for the fishery.

“The use of gillnets in the Territory has been exceptionally well managed. Despite claims to the contrary, gillnets have not been phased out in other states, except in relation to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

“Territory regulations provide for one tenth of the net used in other states and ensure extensive net-free areas. This includes most Top End rivers, as well as the coastline from the Finniss River to Kakadu, all areas providing exclusive recreational access.”

Mr Berryman says access to fishing grounds should be “balanced”.

“While recreational fishing is a valued part of the Territory lifestyle, commercial access is essential for the continued availability of wild-caught barramundi and threadfin on menus and in homes across the region.”

The annual commercial barramundi fishing season, which runs from 1 February to 30 September, is allowed from the high water mark to three nautical miles seaward of the low water mark.

Commercial operators fish over tidal mudflats and, occasionally, inside rivers that are open to them using gillnets, which are set and retrieved from dinghies.

Fish are processed onboard motherships, although the Seafood Council would like to see a small processing plant set up in Darwin, preferably at Frances Bay.

Barra are generally large enough at three years of age to be caught in a 150mm gill net; operators usually target barramundi that are three to eight years old.

Byproduct species caught include black jewfish, blacktip shark, blue threadfin and queenfish.

A long-term review of the NT’s barramundi fishery is expected to be delivered by next year by a committee made up of recreational anglers, commercial operators, Traditional Owners and environmentalists.