Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 24, 2017

The Catch, the Story of Fishing in Australia (2017), by Anna Clark

Ho, ho ho, I know Christmas is a fair way off right now, but if there is a fisherman in your life, then consider the present sorted.  Historian Anna Clark’s The Catch, the Story of Fishing in Australia is the Christmas present for him or her!

Don’t take my word for it.  First, I gave the book to The Spouse for his inspection.  The Spouse developed the Victorian Fisheries Act 1995, and what he doesn’t know about fishing issues isn’t worth bothering about.  He thought it was a really beaut book, and also had this to say:

There are three kinds of fishing:

  • subsistence fishing (including Indigenous fishing), where the fish is caught primarily for food
  • recreational fishing, where the purpose is primarily a leisure activity
  • commercial fishing, which is fishing for sale, to make a profit.

Clark’s books is primarily about the first two, but that’s not a criticism.  Most people are not going to be very interested in reading about commercial fishing, not unless they’re like us, dependent on a viable, sustainable fishing industry as a source of the fish we put on the table three times a week.

One of the ground-breaking aspects of the Victorian Fisheries Act 1995 was that it considered Indigenous fishing rights, so it is pleasing to see that Clark begins her story with the story of Indigenous fishing practice.  And this is where the NLA’s image collection comes into its own, because there are reproductions of sketches and paintings which show how things were done during early settlement.  (There are also many images from other collections such as Melbourne’s own State Library of Victoria). However Clark is careful to say that of course the practices recorded by the colonial artists give us a glimpse into fishing before European colonisation.

While early colonial sketches and paintings give wonderful snapshots of Indigenous fishers, they do so from a distinctly European perspective.  Written accounts are similarly revealing – and we should be grateful for the faithful record of fishing practices and winning catches they’ve produced – but we can’t forget that these early settlers viewed Indigenous society through a distinctly colonial lens.

Sometimes, Indigenous perspectives creep in.  Along the banks and floodplains of the Murray River, scars on the mighty trunks of river red gums, from which canoes have been cut, reveal an Indigenous presence long before any record of European material culture in Australia.  Enormous engravings of whales, fish and sharks etched into sandstone platforms around Sydney and into the rugged iron ore of the Burrup Peninsula in Western Australia have a provenance thousands of years older than any colonial etching or journal entry.  Paintings in smoke-stained caves across northern Australia show equally distinctive Indigenous readings of fish feats and feasts.  And the remnants of millions of Indigenous seafood meals can be seen in middens around the country that cascade through dirt, sand and mud at the water’s edge. (p.17)

But, fascinating as the Indigenous story is, there is much more to this history than this.  The chapter headings (with subtitles in brackets) give some idea:

  • Prologue: Australia’s Love Affair with Fishing (‘the enduring pleasure of throwing in a line’)
  • Indigenous Fishing and Fishers (‘some unerring instinct’)
  • Colonial Encounters (‘procurable in the utmost abundance’)
  • Early Industry (‘ceaseless and often wanton process of netting’)
  • Old Fish in a New World (‘trout will eat anything but the log fences’)
  • The Anglers (subtitled ‘no fish will fight more stubbornly’)
  • Modern Fisheries (‘dead two nights before they got sold’)
  • A Reccie Revolution (‘a day full of thumping fish’)
  • Can We Keep Fishing (‘stillness, quietness and patience’)

The book is full of all kinds of interesting information.  We all know from school history that the fledgling colony nearly starved although the settlers were surrounded by the bounty of the land and sea.  In the early days of the colony they were astounded by colossal hauls from Botany Bay but by April Governor Phillip offered this perplexed assessment of Australian fishing:

Fish affords, in this place, only an uncertain resource; on some days great quantities are caught… but at times it is very scarce.  (p.40)

Well yes, local knowledge of breeding seasons and fish behaviour is crucial… and no luck finding fish was often because Indigenous fishers had preceded them… revealing the vast knowledge imbalance between Traditional Owners and the colonial interlopers.

I was mightily intrigued to learn that Governor Darling – as early as 1827 – established a colonial museum in Sydney.  This made me wish that Anna Clark would next write a history of Australian museums, wouldn’t that be a great book to read?

The chapter called Early Industry has interesting stuff about the challenges of preservation, and it’s got some of the best illustrations in the book.  My favourite is the collage of the journey from catch to table in Victoria’s Westernport region.

… the challenge faced by the early Australian fishing industry was how to process the fish.  The warm climate and the absence of ice manufacturing until the 1850s and 1860s meant that preserving fish was much more difficult than in the fisheries they had left behind in the Northern Hemisphere.  A sultry Sydney December afternoon, or a gritty, dusty north wind descending on the cities of Adelaide and Melbourne, hardly compared to fisheries on the North Sea. (p.49)

This meant that for most people – unless they could fish for themselves – supply came from day-today hawkers.  (Though there were also oyster bars in Sydney!)  Often surplus fish were simply bartered to get rid of it before it spoiled. The Chinese during the Gold Rush cured fish with salt and sun-drying but most other people didn’t care for the taste of it.

This chapter inevitably has segments about the sealing and whaling industries, where the best that can be said of it is that whale stocks which had plummeted in the 20th century have rebounded since protections have been put in place.

The story of ‘Old Fish in a New World’ is yet another example of settlers trying to reproduce what they had in the old world.  The gentry wanted to fish for trout and salmon, and so entrepreneurial types figured out ways to get those species here.  (And the gentry were probably quite discombobulated when fishing became a mass activity and they couldn’t invoke poaching laws to stop it!)   However, especially in the case of trout, these imported species have turned out to be as damaging for native species as rabbits are, but because of the recreational fishing and tourist industries, authorities are complicit in the damage:

Trout species have similarly ravaged the cool inland waters of south-eastern Australia and parts of Western Australia.  Several native fish species, such as galaxia, Macquarie Perch and grayling, all struggle to compete with this ravenous intruder.  But click on the trout pages of government fisheries authorities, and trout is heralded as a great sportfish, while its environment cost doesn’t seem to figure.  Trout hatchlings are still released annually by fishing authorities, and state revenues depend on the availability of trout for recreational anglers. (p.71)

We’ve all seen that bumper sticker: ‘I fish and I vote’.  Well, fishing isn’t an entirely benign activity, but IMO governments all over are spooked by these voters, and decisions about regulating fishing are made (or not made) for the same reasons that duck hunting isn’t banned in rural electorates…

BTW Anna Clark is a keen fisher herself so she’s conscious of the conflicting issues involved, including the tensions between commercial and recreational fishing.

Commercial fishing has come a long way since the days when it was largely a cottage industry undertaken by small communities who harvested locally in boats mostly powered by the wind and the tide, or rowed.

Nets, pots and lines were set and hauled in by hand.  Transport was haphazard and the market for fish nationally was patchy and small.

Fast forward 50 years and the multimillion-dollar fishing outfits, plying the vast offshore fisheries with multimillion-dollar licences from the 1980s, made these early ventures into industrial fishing look practically Palaeolithic.

The ‘Great Fishing Leap Forward’ happened over a relatively short space of time.  Until the 1940s, commercial fishing was pretty rudimentary along the entire logistics chain – from the small boats that worked the inland and coastal waters to the storage, transport and warehousing of their catch.  It wasn’t uncommon for fish to be left out in the open for 24-48 hours before being shipped to the Sydney markets and, in some cases, as many as six days went by before the product was sold in town.  (p.97)


In the end it was government intervention in the form of ‘seaside socialism’ that got commercial fishing under way because governments were keen for primary industries to increase and diversify.  And it was governments that were slow to act when it was realised that fish stocks weren’t inexhaustible.  The boom-and-bust nature of commercial fishing saw some of our favourite fish – tiger flathead, southern blue fin tuna, orange roughy and gemfish – plundered to the brink of oblivion.  Inland, it was the Murray Cod catch which declined.  I’ve dined on this magnificent fish just once in my life and that was a long time ago now…

Today, thanks to intensive lobbying [Yes, again it’s a case of the power of ‘I fish and I vote’] recreational fishing has displaced commercial fishing, with government buyouts of licences, and closures and buyouts of commercial fisheries around the country.  Yet the impact of recreational fishing on fish stocks has also been severe because there are so many people doing it and the equipment that they’re using is so sophisticated.

According to one national survey, ‘recreational fishers harvested approximately 136 million aquatic animals’ in the 12 months leading up to May 2000.

A growing body of research into recreational fishing uncovered that those weekend flotillas were significantly impacting fish numbers, sometimes as much as the commercial industry.  For example, the average size of speared eastern blue groper fell from 12 to 8  kilograms between 1952 and 1969, when it became protected.  Meanwhile, researchers measuring the catch data of snapper using old newspaper records suggest that today’s hauls are roughly one-ninth of those from pre-World War II.  (p.127)


…the gear that enables more fishers to get out on the water has become much more efficient. Reccies have fish finders (instruments that use sound waves to display objects in the water) and GPS on their boats, which pinpoint likely fishing spots and aggregations.  They have access to lightweight tinnies with powerful engines, easily towed to locations near and far, as well as four-wheel drives that extend their range beyond the caravan parks and campgrounds of the 1950s.  And they have new technologies that shift the advantage further away from their prey: chemically sharpened hooks, braided synthetic lines, geared reels and Internet chat forums. (p.128)

The competing interests of commercial and recreational fishers, together with the need for conservation to protect fish stocks and breeding grounds, have forced government intervention again, with some fishing areas designated no-take zones and the creation of marine parks that prohibit all forms of fishing, amid the howls of protest from all and sundry.  People love to eat fish, and people just love to go fishing:


So what are the limits on our right to fish?  The joy of being outdoors, of fishing by ourselves or with our families can’t be measured.  Neither can the lives and livelihoods of those who fish for a living.  But fish stocks can be.  And, as long as we are compelled to fish, these questions will continue to be asked.  (p.140)

Food for thought, if you’ll pardon the pun!

Author: Anna Clark
Title: The Catch, the Story of Fishing in Australia
Foreword by Rob Paxevanos
Publisher: NLA (National Library of Australia) Publishing, 2017
ISBN: 9780642279064
Review copy courtesy of NLA Publishing, with thanks to Scott Eathorne from Quikmark Media.

Available from Fishpond: The Catch: The Story of Fishing in Australia


  1. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


  2. Good morning, Lisa Hill,

    Thank you for your blog. It is most appreciated by this American who has a son living in WA. Geoff married an Aussie, has dual citizenship, and is raising their children in Dunsborough. Thus, we visit your country. It is your blog that has given me titles to read, and it is your blog that, even if I do not read a particular book, has given me a wealth of information about your country. I am grateful. Please do not stop.

    Again, thank you, Judy Bowman

    On Sun, Sep 24, 2017 at 2:28 AM ANZ LitLovers LitBlog wrote:

    > Lisa Hill posted: “Ho, ho ho, I know Christmas is a fair way off right > now, but if there is a fisherman in your life, then consider the present > sorted. Historian Anna Clark’s The Catch, the Story of Fishing in > Australia is the Christmas present for him or her! Don’t tak” >


    • Oh, that’s lovely Judy:) Thank for taking the trouble to tell me this, it’s very encouraging! Lisa


  3. Watkin Tench too comments on the scarcity of fish in Sydney Harbour and it would seem that the most common theft by convicts from indigenous camps was fishing gear – nets and so on.


  4. This blog just covers the same old books as everyone else. Said no one ever. 😂


    • Ha ha! Jack of all Trades and Master of None, that’s me:)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. […] The Catch, the Story of Fishing in Australia, by Anna Clark […]


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