THE Ballina fishing industry is losing an estimated tens of thousands of dollars each year because crabs are being stolen from crab pots and recreational fishers are selling their catch to food outlets.


Manager of the Ballina Fishermen’s Co-op, Phil Hilliard, said the loss was an ongoing problem, with Ken Thurlow, CEO of recreational fishing lobby group ECOfishers, saying the snatching of seafood was the ‘second oldest profession in the world’.


Mr Hilliard said the fishermen’s co-op lost an estimated $10,000 over the Christmas holiday period with some cancelled orders, and an assumption that fish caught by recreational fishers had hit the market.


“The fishermen are not happy,” he said.


He said crab pots were easy targets as it was an Industry and Investment NSW Fisheries requirement that they have buoys with the owner’s name.


The problem is worse, he said, in the holiday periods as the thefts can be blamed on tourists.


“All you do is find it, pull it up and grab what’s in it,” he said. “They’re a very easy target.”


He said many of the thieves damaged the crab pots, which cost about $100 each for the commercial fishers to replace, with the marker buoys.


He said it was regulation that seafood outlets and restaurants could only buy fish from a licensed fisher, and see their licence.


“That’s the evidence that the fish have been treated properly and not just thrown in the back of a truck at 30 degrees Celsius,” he said.


Ballina has five commercial fishers who work the river, and eight trawlers.


Currently, the river fishers are hauling mullet, so there are fewer crab pots out.


But Mr Hilliard said that during the peak times, there could be as many as 60 commercial crab pots in the river.


He said the Ballina Fishermen’s Co-op generates about $6 million annually.


But that is a far cry from the heydays of the 1970s and 1980s when the industry, with 25 trawlers and 30 river fishers, was worth about $20 million.


The industry also is still recovering, along with the Richmond River, from the fish kill of 2008.


Mr Thurlow said his group was opposed to the illegal trade of fish and crabs.


“It’s (seafood) is a finite resource that depends on sustainable use,” he said.


“We don’t support any behaviour of that kind.


“We will report it.”


Mr Hilliard encouraged boaties to keep an eye out for suspicious activity around crab pots, and to report it to either the police, NSW Fisheries or to the co-op.


He also said restaurateurs should know the regulations and not buy fish from unlicensed recreational fishers, and there were heavy penalties for those who did.


And consumers could also do their part by asking where the seafood they are buying comes from.


A spokesperson for Industry and Investment NSW Fisheries said Fisheries officers on the Far North Coast have been actively targeting offenders engaged in the illegal use and interference of commercial crab traps.


“A number of offenders have been detected over the past six months in the Ballina area for a range of offences including taking prohibited-size mud crabs, exceeding bag limits, using excess crab traps and interfering with set fishing gear,” the spokesperson said.


“The maximum penalty for a person being in possession of prohibited fishing gear or use in closed waters is $22,000 and or imprisonment for six months, and $44,000 and or imprisonment for 12 months for a second or subsequent offence.


“Interference with commercial fishing gear carries a maximum penalty of $5500.”


Meanwhile, the spokesperson said if a food outlet, such as a restaurant, purchases seafood from a recreational fisher, the maximum penalty in respect to a corporation is $55,000 or in the case of an individual $11,000 and/or three months imprisonment.


“A person must not take fish for sale from waters in NSW unless the person is authorised to do so by way of a commercial fishing licence,” the spokesperson said.


“Maximum penalties for an individual for a first offence is $110,000 and $220,000 for a second or subsequent offence.”


Reports of illegal or suspect fishing can be made to the Fishers Watch phoneline on 1800 043 536.


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