History of Australian fishing

Origins of the fishing industry

Living in an island nation with about 37 000 kilometres of coastline,  Australia’s Indigenous and settler populations have always enjoyed access to a diverse supply of marine resources including fish, crustaceans, molluscs, pearl shells and whales. Yet apart from whaling and pearling, prior to the Second World War (1939-45) commercial fishing was largely ignored and of little economic importance (Tull, 1993; Tull and Polacheck, 2001).

Frederic H  Gray sorting of pearl shell

Sorting pearl shells
Source: Frederick H Gray

(Historical photos)

The limited scale of fishing activity was due to a variety of factors including consumer tastes (a preference for meat rather than fish), the low productivity of the oceans and the greater opportunities for wealth generation in land-based industries. However, it was also due a limited supply of fishing entrepreneurs – a deficiency not rectified until after 1945 with the arrival of large numbers of non-Anglo-Saxon migrants who saw the enormous potential in seafood such as rock lobsters, prawns and tuna. The western rock lobster fishery, for example, was transformed from a minor industry serving local markets to Australia’s most valuable export fishery. The industry created Western Australia’s first millionaire fishers, the Kailis and Lombardo families. In the 1960s the southern bluefin tuna fishery was developed to cater for the Japanese sashimi market.

Today’s fisheries, climate change and management

To this day Australia continues to export lobsters (mainly live), tuna, prawns and other high value seafoods to meet the growing demand from Asia’s burgeoning middle classes. By contrast, many fin fisheries are small-scale, run by individuals and families often more concerned with maintaining their lifestyle than maximising profits (Tull, 1992). Australia’s fishing industry remains small by world standards and in 2011 employed only 13 800 persons or about 1.2% of the workforce of 11.4 million. Fishing is, however, of great significance in some coastal and regional communities such as Port Lincoln, the centre of the tuna industry. This FRDC-funded project has shown that climate change can have significant economic and social impacts on such fishing communities.

The creation of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) in the 1970s enlarged the area under Australia’s management to almost 9 million square kilometres, one of the largest in the world. Fisheries management is divided between state agencies and the Commonwealth Australian Fisheries Management Authority. Australia’s record of fisheries management is good by world standards; our management of our EEZ has been ranked seventh out of 53 countries (Alder and Pauly, 2008).

The development and fortunes of the Australian fishing industry needs to be placed in a global context. By the 1960s, new technologies had helped unleash a world-wide ‘Great Acceleration’ in fishing power and an unprecedented assault on the world’s fish stocks (Holm, 2013).  Figure 1 shows that Australia shared in the ‘Great Acceleration’ as fisheries production took off in the 1960s. Overfishing and other environmental pressures including climate change appear to have caused global catches to peak in the late 1980s. Significantly, Australia also experienced a distinct growth plateau in the 1990s. Since the 1980s, aquaculture production, mainly of prawns, tuna, salmonids, edible and pearl oysters, and salmon, has grown substantially and in 2010-11 it accounted for $948m or 43% of total Australian fisheries production.



Source: Mitchell B R (1998) International historical statistics. Africa, Asia & Oceania 1750-1993, 3rd edition, London, 330; Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences, Australian Fisheries Statistics, various issues.