Understanding how natural environments have changed, and what drives these changes, requires years of scientific observation. When it comes to oceans and the animals within them, observing change isn’t straightforward. Even with scuba gear and underwater cameras, we know relatively little about what marine communities look like today, and we know even less about what they looked like in the past.
During the past 120 years or so, our impact on marine environments has increased dramatically. Industrialisation has intensified fishing, agriculture and coastal development, depleting fish populations, and increasing silt loading and pollution.
Today, snapper is fished commercially and is also popular with recreational fishers. Along the east coast, there are concerns about the declining snapper population, but long-term trends are difficult to determine with only a few decades of fisheries data. In the archives, I found a huge amount of information about early fishing trips, snapper abundance and nineteenth century fishing culture. Many accounts include the level of detail reported in the Evening News in 1877:
About forty members of the Nimrod Club went out for a day’s sport on Thursday in the steamer Breadalbane and caught 1,012 fish. The spot at which most of the fish were caught was off Coogee, where the fish bit freely, and were hauled in very rapidly sometimes two and three at a time. A whale was also seen sporting about. The sport lasted till five o’clock, when the Breadalbane steamed for home.
Historical data allows us to track the number of snapper caught per fisher per trip, and the number of snapper caught per fisher per hour, by amateur fishing parties from south Queensland and New South Wales between 1871 and 1954. In the early days, large steamer vessels would carry between eight and 30 people per trip, returning with snapper in the hundreds and occasionally over 1000. Over time, catches per boat got smaller as large steamers were replaced by smaller motorboats, although the catch of snapper per fisher per hour did not change significantly from the 1870s to the 1950s.