Before Leigh Phegan finished school, he already had his career lined up.
- The Phegans are some of the last commercial fishing operators in Launceston’s Tamar River, but face an uncertain future
- The licence is in Gary’s name and the primary industries department will not allow it to be transferred to his son
- The department says it is reviewing grandfathered scalefish arrangements to assess the potential impacts on the availability of local seafood
It was obvious to him — he was always going to join his dad out at sea.
“I was fishing with my father when I was at school. I’d get out in the early hours of the morning and go fishing, go to school, and go fishing again after school,” he said.
His father, Gary, has been fishing commercially in Tasmania’s Tamar River for four decades.
And they’re the last ones doing it.
“We’re the only ones that are working the lower reaches of the Tamar — there were another four but they’ve all retired,” Gary Phegan said.
Gary is 74 and preparing to retire but, if he does, his son won’t be able to continue and a local source of fish will disappear.
Licence not transferrable
About 25 years ago, Gary and a handful of others in Tasmania signed what’s called a grandfather endorsement with the state government.
As regulation in the industry changed, the licences allowed the fishers to keep working in areas they relied on for a significant proportion of their income.
But the licence is not transferrable so if Gary retires, or dies, the family business stops.
“The licence gets handed back into the department and that’s it, it’s all over,” Gary said.
“It makes me sad that my son can’t keep working, it’s all he knows.”
Gary and Leigh have been in discussions with the Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment (DPIPWE) for a few years, but are yet to receive any clear answer as to whether the licence can be passed onto his son.
Leigh is now in his 50s, and facing an uncertain future.
“I’m getting to that age where I won’t get any other employment — it’s been my income since I left school,” he said.
Locally sourced fish would disappear
The Phegans mainly fish overnight and on the weekends in a modest boat just under 5 metres long.
Ninety per cent of the fish stays in northern Tasmania and is sold by Launceston’s Kyeema Seafoods.
“There would be options as far as buying off the Sydney market floor, but I don’t see why we should have to when we have this resource so close to our doorstep,” owner Zac Langford said.
The Phegan’s fish is then sold onto restaurants, including Grain of the Silos, which sits next to the Tamar River.
Massimo Mele is the food director and wants to see the Phegans continue fishing.
“It’s so incredibly special because it’s caught 50 kilometres from our doors,” he said.
“It’s the only product [from the Tamar River] that I know of that is available to us.”
Mr Mele said he found it easier to source some Tasmanian seafood when he worked in Sydney.
“I think the logistics in Tasmania make it quite hard for us when there is a problem right on our doorstep,” he said.
“We need to fight hard to make sure we keep it here.”
A DPIPWE spokesperson said the department was currently reviewing the remaining grandfathered scalefish endorsements to assess potential impacts on the availability of local seafood, and the overlap with recreational fishing aspirations.
Many of the fishing areas, including the Tamar, are shark refuge areas, so conservation is also a consideration, the spokesperson said.