‘I was gobsmacked’: A Friday afternoon email signalled the end of Damian’s accessible fishing business

‘I was gobsmacked’: A Friday afternoon email signalled the end of Damian’s accessible fishing business

A fishing charter operator says it’s “all over” for his business, after learning he and the vast majority of business like his — from Augusta to Kalbarri in Western Australia — have been forbidden from catching demersal species. 

Key points:

  • Large majority of WA fishing charter businesses face threat of collapse after quota changes.
  • Only 21 operators out of 97 received permission to catch popular demersal species.
  • State government says cuts are needed as the sector was ‘well above’ its catch limit in previous years.

Under state government changes aimed at protecting the “at risk” species in the West Coast Bioregion, 76 out of 97 charter operators have been told they have been allocated zero “tags” to catch demersal fish, such as dhufish and snapper.

It leaves many operators just weeks to consider the future of their businesses, before the changes come into full effect in July.

The decision does not impact commercial fishing companies, who are have been invited into a voluntary licence buy-back scheme.

The West Coast Bioregion, marked in blue, stretches from Kalbarri to Augusta.(Supplied: Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development)

Damian Billi runs a small charter business in Bunbury, aimed at getting people of differing abilities on the water.

He was inspired to launch the business after helping his own daughter — who has autism — drop a line. 

“It’s funny, the kids love getting wet,” he said.

“They love just laying on the floor and feeling the vibrations through the hull, it’s all the sensory stuff that you and I mightn’t get, but they love it.

76 out of 97 fishing charter operators from Augusta to Kalbarri will not be allowed to catch demersal fish.(Supplied: DPIRD)

“We’ve got a young guy who is eight years of age but I think he’s about a 50-year-old fisherman.

“One day he had his foot on the rail, sitting back with an eight-foot tiger Shark reeling it in, and he looked me in the face and he said, ‘There’s just nothing more I live for than the scream of a reel!'”

Mr Billi said he found out he would not be allocated any demersal tags from a Friday afternoon email, which will force his operation to close.

Mr Billi says neurodiverse children struggle to go on boats with lots of people and prefer his smaller boat.(ABC South West: Sam Bold)

“I was gobsmacked — it’s stopped us dead in the water,” he said.

“It’s not worth it, you can’t make any money out of it at all.

“All these kids and people with … disabilities are going to miss it, and that’s the saddest thing.”

A state government spokesperson said the tags were allocated based on a charter operator’s history.

“The 21 operators who received tags met criteria to demonstrate an ongoing and recent reliance on demersal-based fishing activities in the West Coast region,” they said.

Sector ‘well above’ catch limit in past

WA Fisheries Minister Don Punch said he appreciated the difficulties charter operators were going through.

“It’s very tough to make these decisions, it’s tougher when you’re a small business, and you have to be operating in this environment,” he said.

Fisheries Minister Don Punch says people have been fishing “well over” the pre-existing benchmarks.(ABC News: David Weber)

“But my position simply is there are not enough fish to go around.

“If I could manufacture the fish, I would — but I can’t and we have to make sure that we have fish for the next generation.”

A state government spokesperson said the charter sector exceeded its catch limit in previous years. 

“As the charter sector had been catching well above their 40 tonne allocation in recent years, the sector required a reduction of more than 50 per cent to align their catch to the new 20 tonne limit and prevent them from continuing to exceed their share of the available fish.”

The spokesperson said if quota changes were delayed, or the charter industry was granted a larger catch, other sectors would need to reduce their catches by greater than 50 per cent.

But Recfishwest — the peak body representing recreational fishers  — said the commercial fishing industry had only had its catch reduced by 12 per cent and called for the decision to be paused until the buy-back of commercial licences was complete.

Compensation is ‘cold comfort’

Recfishwest chief executive Andrew Rowland said the help offered to those affected by the decision was not good enough.

“To offer $5,000 is cold comfort when licence values have likely just fallen by 10 times that amount,” Dr Rowland said.

Recfishwest is calling on the state government to pause its changes to the charter fishing sector.(Supplied: DPIRD)

“The tag allocation process completely fails to factor in the valuable service provided by the charter sector, getting the most from each fish and doing what’s right and fair.”

Mr Billi agreed and said while he was not eligible for compensation, the support on offer did not stack up.

“$5,000 wouldn’t even pay for the insurance and pen fee,” he said.

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