Record Catch

"The monthly fishing excursion took place on Saturday after the usual club breakfast at the Exchange. The wide ground of Long Reef was the scene of operations, and it may be safely stated that such a day’s fishing has rarely taken place so near Sydney Heads. The wind was so strong that the steamer was constantly drifting off the ground, so that the fishing-proper may be confined to about two hours, during which over four hundred schnapper were caught. The fish were so thick that one gentleman, having his line mounted with two hooks, caught eight good sized fish in four consecutive casts."

This description from the Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser in 1875 is one of many references to the increasingly popular contemporary pastime of fishing for snapper (Chrysophrys auratus), known back then as ‘schnapper’. Snapper occur throughout Australia’s sub-tropical and temperate coastal waters, and form part of the sea bream family, Sparidae.

Snapper fishing was not new in the 1870s — archaeological and historical evidence shows that Indigenous people ate snapper prior to the arrival of Europeans. During the late nineteenth century, however, interest in this species surged as steam power enabled offshore fishing grounds to be routinely exploited for the first time. 

Areas where snapper were abundant became known as ‘schnapper grounds’. Many of the earliest fishers to exploit these grounds were recreational rather than commercial fishers, with articles joking about the amateurs’ sea-sickness. In 1900, the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate reported:

The local Schnapper Fishing Club had a very successful outing to Broughton Island the other day in the steamer Swansea and had a splendid haul of fish, some 350 schnapper and about the same quantity of other fish being caught. The members of the club speak highly of Captain Hannell for the attention he paid to excursionists and in finding a good fishing ground for them. It is the intention of the club to make another trip soon.

As a marine biologist with an interest in how fish populations have changed over time, I have been using the Library’s archives to explore these late nineteenth and early twentieth century fishing grounds. Drawing information from government annual reports, royal commission evidence and popular media, including metropolitan and regional newspapers, I am using this historical data to help understand the magnitude of change in our coastal marine environments.

Snapper Fishing Off Sydney Heads, from the Sydney Mail, 26 August 1893

Snapper Fishing Off Sydney Heads, from the Sydney Mail, 26 August 1893, p. 340

These graphs of quantitative data collated from the archives show the number of snapper caught per fisher per trip, and the number of snapper caught per fisher per hour..

These graphs of quantitative data collated from the archives show the number of snapper caught per fisher per trip, and the number of snapper caught per fisher per hour. The trips all recorded the catch of amateur fishing parties from south Queensland and NSW between 1871 and 1954.

Dr Ruth Thurstan is the Alfred Deakin Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Deakin University, Victoria, and was the Library’s 2015 David Scott Mitchell Memorial Fellow.

This article first appeared in SL magazine Summer 2016–17.