No, they aren’t. The flathead you may have seen being landed in Tasmania by commercial fishing boats, or sold in your local fish shop, are most often tiger (king) flathead, not sand flathead. While commercial fishers do catch some sand flathead, it’s not as much as you might think.
But how do we know this? And how much of an impact is the commercial fishery having on sand flathead stocks?
What does the commercial sand flathead fishery look like?
The state commercial sand flathead fishery is very small. It's made up of a small handline fishery and Danish seine fishery, with a combined catch of just over 3 tonnes in 2021/22.
We know these numbers, because by law commercial vessels must report their catch.
But if commercial fishers aren’t catching sand flathead, what are they catching?
A catch of southern school whiting from a Danish seine vessel
You may have seen a Danish seine vessel landing bins of flathead. But these are not sand flathead. The Danish seiners in Tassie state waters target either tiger flathead or southern school whiting as part of their seasonal operations.
This means that hauls of flathead that you may have seen unloading from commercial boats at the wharf have been caught from a sustainable fishery, not from our depleted sand flathead fishery.
Tiger flathead unloaded from a Danish seiner in St Helens
Where they are fishing
Danish seiners are not allowed to fish within one nautical mile of shore. This means they are fishing in deeper waters preferred by tiger flathead, rather than the shallow habitat sand flathead prefer. This reduces the risk of by-catch.
Commonwealth boats, including Danish seiners and otter board trawlers, are only allowed to operate three nautical miles (or further) offshore. They can target tiger flathead, but sand flathead bycatch by these vessels is very low because they fish deep waters. In fact, in the last five years, the catch of sand flathead by the Commonwealth fishery only averaged 3 tonnes per year– and a lot of that catch came from mainland waters.
Mandatory vessel monitoring systems and onboard camera monitoring on these commonwealth vessels make sure they only fish for their target species in areas where they are allowed.
Regions where Danish seiners aren't allowed to operate (orange)
Would changes to the commercial fishery help re-build sand flathead stocks?
The commercial fishery only takes 2% of the state’s total sand flathead catch. Because of this, reducing the commercial catch would be unlikely to make a significant difference to sand flathead stocks.
However, they do still play a role in the fishery. So, as part of the Scalefish Rules Review, we’re proposing that Tasmanian Danish seine vessels should be required to have vessel monitoring systems and a 25 kg trip limit for all commercial sand flathead fishers in state waters.
Why are we talking about this?
Sand flathead fishing is a foundational part of recreational fishing in Tasmania, but their stocks are facing serious challenges from overfishing. Luckily, there’s something that everyone can do about it.
As part of the Scalefish Rules Review, we're proposing changes to the recreational and commercial rules for sand flathead to reduce fishing pressure and get the fishery back on track to sustainability and better fishing for everyone.
Public consultation on these proposed changes is now open, and anyone can make a submission and have their say before midnight 29 May. There are also public information sessions being held around the state where you can talk to fisheries managers about the proposed changes.
Any recreational rule changes would not come into effect until November 2023.
In the meantime, you can do your bit to help the sand flathead fishery by:
- Reducing your sand flathead catch by targeting other species.
- Fishing responsibly to improve the survival of released fish.
- Reporting illegal sand flathead fishing (like keeping undersized fish or taking excessive fish) to Fishwatch on 0427 655 557.