Conservationists, fishers, community leaders and South Australia’s government are all watching this year’s cuttlefish breeding season off the coast of Whyalla very closely.
- Cuttlefish gather off Whyalla’s coast in huge numbers each year
- It appears years of steady population increases have come to an end
- It’s a year since fishing of cuttlefish was re-allowed
Around the middle of each year, tens or hundreds of thousands of the cephalopods gather in the Upper Spencer Gulf to reproduce.
It’s more than a year since the expiry of a ban on commercial fishing of the cuttlefish in the upper gulf, which was introduced when numbers plummeted seven years ago.
Whyalla-based professional diver Tony Bramley was hoping steady year-on-year increases seen since then would continue after the state government let the ban lapse.
“We were hoping for that extrapolated increase,” Mr Bramley said.
Fewer cuttlefish than last year
Mr Bramley made a rough guess that about 200,000 cuttlefish would have turned up by the end of the current breeding season.
“It’s important that we understand the science before we jump to these decisions based, I’m assuming, on commercial grounds.”
Official estimates of the cuttlefish population are yet to be published.
Mixed views on impact of fishing
Fishers are still prohibited from taking cuttlefish in an exclusion zone that covers the immediate aggregation area, where most of the animals gather.
The zone was temporarily expanded earlier this year by about 100 metres around Stony Point, the most popular spot for diving.
Recreational fisherman Nick Kriticos said there were relatively few fishers targeting cuttlefish on an average day.
“You’d probably get a dozen people fishing for cuttlefish,” he said.
“Since that stopped, we’ve seen nothing but increases in the number of cuttlefish each year.”
Aquaculture development looms
Mr Kriticos, who said he was not opposed to aquaculture in general, expressed significant concern about a proposed kingfish farm in Fitzgerald Bay, right around the corner from the breeding area.
Clean Seas Seafood has state government approval to farm more than 4,000 tonnes of kingfish per year — more than double the volume it handled when it last had a local presence a decade ago.
Back then, locals were angry about nets and debris that washed up, kingfish that escaped and fed aggressively on other species, and nitrogen pollution.
A report by the Conservation Council of South Australia has stoked local fears that the new proposal could affect the cuttlefish aggregation.
“And when you get escaped fish, farmed kingfish feed really aggressively and that poses a risk to all species in the gulf, not just the cuttlefish,” he said.
Professional charter fisherman Steve Storic said the development would be good for the town’s economy, but there were more risks than benefits.
“[Last time Clean Seas farmed in Fitzgerald Bay], we had stuff washed up on shore, we had yellowtail kingfish escapes on a regular occurrence, there were fish everywhere,” Mr Storic said.
“From the business perspective it could benefit the town, and from an environmental perspective I think it needs to be looked at a lot closer.”
Cuttlefish crucial to Whyalla’s future
Whyalla has been grappling with uncertainty about the future of its biggest employer, the GFG Alliance steelworks.
Mayor Clare McLaughlin said it was crucial the city found ways of diversifying its economy.
Last year, tourists coming to Whyalla during the aggregation period contributed more than $17 million to the city’s economy.
Government monitoring threats
South Australia’s Primary Industries Minister David Basham said fishing was unlikely to have had any role in the decline in cuttlefish numbers in 2013.
“The science is a bit unclear exactly why the numbers declined,” he said.
“So it’s very much reliant on the breeding cycle of that particular year, and it’s believed there was some significant event in 2013 that may have affected that.”
Mr Basham said the kingfish farm was approved under strict conditions and would be closely monitored.
“Clean Seas themselves are committed to doing beyond what they’ve been asked to make sure that things are not affecting the environment locally.”
Clean Seas has said it will closely monitor nitrogen discharge into the gulf, and had the technology to ensure the correct amount of feed was being dropped into the water.
It insisted there was no evidence the farm would affect the annual cuttlefish aggregation.