GOLDEN DAYS OF TUNA ARE OVER
By CRAIG McTEAR
CHARLIE Saunders remembers a time when he could make a reasonable living out of fishing and there were plenty of tuna out in the deep blue.
But now, the good times seem to have vanished, along with the tuna.
Mr Saunders, a director at the Coffs Harbour Fishermen's Co-operative, owns one of six tuna long-liners based permanently here, but numbers used to be much higher years ago.
"I used to have a yearly gross turnover in the good years of $600,000, but these days it's more like $250,000," Mr Saunders said.
"This is the worst I've ever seen it in terms of fishing and income.
"There used to be good fishing two to three years ago but last financial year it dropped off, while this financial year it's dropped off dramatically.
"There's no tuna and very little bycatch.
"We need rain and we need a good current to bring the fish in.
"Three months ago we had an excellent month when we caught $50,000 worth of fish, but the summer months are traditionally not good for long-line fishing.
"I think it's a seasonal thing. It's traditionally bad at this time of year."
Mr Saunders used to have a skipper and three deckhands on his boat, but he's had to cut back and now employs only three.
Fishers were also doing it tough with increased fuel costs and increased insurance premiums, while cheap imports and burdensome State Government regulations took a toll.
He said the Australian Fisheries Management Authority had recognised the low tuna catches up and down the coast by reducing tuna licence fees.
Mr Saunders rejected suggestions tuna fishers had fallen on hard-times because they had plundered the seas.
"It's hard to over-fish a fishery with a hook. Even though we have lots of hooks, we don't get fish on every one," he said.
"Our catch rates per hook are actually very low."
Tuna fishers had also been accused of over-fishing for live bait, but he said recent industry figures had exploded that 'myth'.
"A survey showed 72 per cent of hooks had frozen bait on them, with only 28 per cent live bait," Mr Saunders said.
He also did not believe the keeping of under-sized fish was widespread throughout the industry.
"Any live fish deemed by the skipper to be small is released," he said.