Reviewed by Richard Tutin
Fishing is a popular past time in Australia. Recreational fishing has really taken off in recent years. Television programmes sponsored by stores selling the right tackle and equipment are big right now as is the sale of boats to enable those fishing to reach their favourite spots.
Through his book, Bob Kearney asks the eternal question about whether fishing in the good old days was really better than going fishing today. Certainly, the modern person has access to a lot more equipment and gadgetry than Kearney had when he began fishing as a youngster growing up in the late 1950s and through the 1960s. Not only is fishing in his blood through his father’s interest in the pastime but his passion for it and willingness to learn from more experienced folk is evident throughout his narrative.
As an academic who has dedicated his professional life to the study of fish and their management over many years, Kearney approaches Fishing in the Good Old Days both as a memoir and a small, focused study on the changes that have occurred over the years since he began his quest to master the art of convincing a fish to take the offered bait and so become a tasty morsel for the dinner table.
The area of focus is around the rocks and beaches Kingscliff in northern New South Wales. It is where Kearney lived and grew up for much of his childhood and teenage life before moving on to tertiary study and academia. His stories and observations demonstrate the way in which he embraced the idea that fishing was more than just turning up, baiting a hook, and casting out with the hope that something may or may not be successfully landed. His stories of trying to catch the biggest and best Mulloway or Jewfish along with other species makes great reading. He also gives credit to those older and more experienced fishermen who gave both encouragement and friendship to him as he slowly but surely gained knowledge and learned better techniques that assisted him in his quest. This includes taking on board local indigenous knowledge honed over thousands of years of human occupation of what is an ever-changing landscape.
Throughout the book Kearney continues to discuss the main question about whether the good old days he knew as a younger person were better than the modern era. He raises some very good points during his exploration. While there were fewer people fishing the beaches and estuaries around Kingscliff when he was growing up, there was little thought given to limiting catch sizes as occurs now under current fish management regulations and guidelines. Even so, he concludes that more fish probably got away than were caught in the days of his youth due to the limitations of the equipment and the lack of modern aids such as echo sounders and GPS to allow people to accurately pinpoint where a catch can be found. More people fishing recreationally has though lessened the ability of many to fish both without hinderance and feeling overcrowded in popular spots. As well, fish stocks suffer because of the rise in the number of people who successfully haul in reasonable catches. Hence the need for better management practices that have been occurring and growing in recent years.
The question of whether there were any good old days at all is worth reading about as Kearney examines what has been happening in the fishing world since he began over sixty years ago.
For one who has hardly wet a line in his life, I found Kearney’s book fascinating and a telling lesson in the need for care and conservation of both fish stocks and the environment in which they live.
Bob Kearney is Emeritus Professor of Fisheries Management at the Institute of Applied Ecology, University of Canberra. Previously he was Professor of Environment Sciences. His international fisheries achievements include being the founder and first director of the world’s biggest and most successful tuna research programme, and past chairman of the board of the World Fish Centre. He served on the boards of numerous prominent fisheries authorities, cooperative research centres and Commonwealth environmental research and advisory committees.
Fishing in the Good Old Days: Was it really better?
Melbourne University Press