[Garry Hera-Singh has been President of the Southern Fishermans’ Association for the past thirteen years. He was at the helm when the Lakes and Coorong Fishery became only the third fishery in Australia and the twenty-seventh in the world to gain Marine Stewardship Council Accreditation for sustainable fisheries. He acknowledges that he had, and still has, a good team of people around him who continue to work hard towards achieving their environmental and sustainable goals. He tells his story to Bill ‘Swampy’ Marsh.]
I guess I was quite blessed in the sense of having had two grandfathers who, between them, had over a hundred years of fishing experience in the lower lakes and Coorong. My grandfather, on my mother’s side, fished the area for about sixty years and my paternal grandfather fished there for about fifty years. How my paternal grandfather – Einda Hera-Singh – got into fishing is quite a story in itself. Seeing that the Hera-Singh side of the family originally came from the Punjabi region of north-west India, my grandfather had inherited the dark skin. He told me that when, he was a teenager, he was employed by the Postmaster-General’s Department (PMG), here in the Meningie Post Office, as a telegraph boy. Then one day one of his bosses made a racist remark along the lines of how he didn’t like ‘black men’ working in the PMG. When I asked how he dealt with that he said, ‘Well I was going to hit him but then I thought I’d probably end up in jail, so I just quit and went fishing.’
Of course, that was in the pre-World War II days when things weren’t as regulated as they are now and a commercial fishing licence only cost about ten bob a year. But even back then the Coorong was well known for its fresh Coorong Mullet. I think he used to supply about 90% of the businesses around the Meningie district and I still don’t think he could catch enough to satisfy his market. So my first recollection of fishing was working for Grandfather Einda Hera-Singh. Just about every weekend and all my school holidays were spent washing fish or stacking fish or helping with the fishing, unrolling nets, preparing nets and so on. He’d pay me two bob for a weekend’s work and on a big weekend sometimes I got five shillings, which was an enormous amount of money for a young kid in those days.
Then it’s kind of funny how I started out pretty much in my grandfather’s footsteps. At sixteen years of age I got a job in the Post Office as an assistant postal officer, sorting letters and being a telegram boy. And like my grandfather I didn’t really get on with my boss and so when an opportunity came up for me to join my grandfather, fishing full time, I took it. So for the next two years I worked like a dog and, though the money was good, it got to the stage where I started thinking how there just might be a bit more to life than working seven days a week. Then during the second year of the floods, which was 1975, the fish really dropped off. Basically it was because the Coorong had became an extension of the lake systems and I remember as, the floodwaters came down, we were catching Carp at The Needles, which is at the southern extremity of the North Lagoon. Up till then we didn’t know what Carp were, and they were horrible things. They’ve got a barb on the top and a barb on the bottom and they used to tangle the nets up and shake all the fish out. What’s more, no one knew what to do with them until one of the fishermen worked out that, because they’re a very bloody fish, they’d make good rock lobster bait.
Anyway the fishing was fairly ordinary so, when a shearing job came up, I did a stint in the sheds, made some money and decided to do some overseas travel. I was twenty when I went to the Montreal Olympics, then on to America, and I had a fantastic time. I then started thinking about going to the 1980 Moscow Olympics. There was a lot of hoo-ha over that but, being naïve, I thought, Well if everyone’s heading off to Moscow there’ll be no one left in Europe. So I went to Europe instead and there were people everywhere. I’d never seen such long queues in all my life. Anyway I ended up staying on for a couple more years then I came home, did some more shearing, saved a few more dollars and went back to Europe. But by 1984 I got to a point where I started to think about settling down. By then I was getting too old for shearing and the only other thing I had any knowledge of was fishing, so I decided to get a fishing licence.
As I said, I was lucky to have had a wealth of knowledge at hand. I remember when Grandfather Hera-Singh and I would have long chats about fishing and he’d talk about the seasons and where to fish at any particular time of the year. My maternal grandfather also had a lot of small detail about fishing that was invaluable. Though mind you, me being me, I’d still try out different things out. They’d say, ‘Don’t do this and don’t do that’, but I’d still give it a go and I’d bugger it up and the nets would get wrapped around rocks or whatever and they’d say, ‘You should’ve been watching the barometer. You should’ve been watching the clouds.’ Still, sometimes you have to learn the hard way, don’t you?
But with fishing, like in life, there’s highs and lows. Speak to any long-term farmer and they’ll tell you there’s good years and there’s bad years. It’s exactly the same with fishing; not one year’s a carbon copy of another. And just like farming, us fishermen rely on weather events. Some years are wet, some years are dry. You’ve got floods, you’ve got drought and it all has an impact. But if you understand the ecology, you do learn how to handle it. Take Black Bream for example: Black Bream have been in the lower lakes and Coorong for tens of thousands of years and so they’ve evolved around that environment. In doing so they rely on having regular fresh water flows coming into the system. That’s not only for breeding purposes but also those flows bring down the nutrients that supply the algal blooms and the plankton and the bugs that not only the fish feed off, but the birds feed on as well. So if you haven’t got those regular flows coming down the river system, you’re in trouble. It’s an ecology that’s all linked and if you take one link out, it will fall apart. And so what we’ve done over the last 100 years is that, we’ve not only regulated the river by putting in weirs and dams and barrages and the like but, due to over allocation and over extraction of water for irrigation and farming, we’ve also started taking huge volumes of water out of the system. So where the fresh water flows were coming down, say, once every couple or three years to replenish the area, now they’re perhaps only a one in seven or a one in ten year event. That’s why the Murray-Darling Basin Authority- Water Management Plan is so important for the lower lakes and the Coorong.
Around this area we’re well aware that a healthy community relies on having a healthy fishing industry and to have a healthy fishing industry you’ve got to have a healthy environment. And that’s what we’re striving for. Take our Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) Accreditation. It’s an acknowledgement of our community group, The Lakes and Coorong Fishery, being a well managed and sustainable fishery. Mind you it was a bloody expensive process, but we knew we were well managed and we were sustainable. That’s because our small fishery has survived and adapted for around 150 years. Over that time there’s been massive changes in the industry along the whole of the Murray-Darling system. So this MSC accreditation basically insures that our fishery will keep going and that any negative criticisms about how we fished would stop. We’re now due for reassessment, but this time it’s more about us trying to capitalise on an eco-label so then we can find niche markets where we can get a higher dollar per kilogram return on our investment.
But we’re not just leaving it at that. There’s lots of other things we’re trying to get implemented, particularly in the Coorong. I can remember as a young boy when South Lagoon was hugely productive. When you counted birds you didn’t count them by the fifties or the hundreds, you counted them by the acre – five acres of ducks. You counted twenty acres of swans. As recent as 1970s, twenty to thirty ton of flounder per month were coming out of South Lagoon. These days, because of the water being too saline, there’s no commercial fishing there at all. What’s more there hasn’t been any fishing there for more than twenty years – because the water’s too saline. It makes me weep in the knowledge that 50% of the Coorong is now non-productive. There’s no fish, there’s no birds. It’s all gone. That’s why we’ve lobbied to get an outlet from the South East region of South Australia into the Coorong. Yes, it might be just a piddling amount of water but it’s better than no water at all.
See, originally most of the South East was under water. Then came the days when the wealth of this country was valued on how many sheep you had, the size of your wool clip and how many cattle you owned. Australia lived off the sheep’s back. So in the late 1860s, in an attempt to open a lot of that country up for grazing, they decided to start digging drains to take the water out to the coast. In doing so they also drained a lot of the ground and surface water away from the Coorong. To make matters worse, there was a hell lot of land clearing going on; so much so that these days only 8% of the native remnant vegetation is left in the whole of the South East of South Australia. The rest has been cleared. Of course, then the watertable started to rise, didn’t it? This brought the salt closer to the surface and the land become saline. So in an attempt to rectify that, they then started building another drainage network to combat the salt. And it’s enormous; over 680 kilometres of new drains have been built in the South East and, with this new drainage network, they’ve now ended up draining quite a few wetlands. Man’s very good at providing engineering solutions but, while you think you’ve solved one problem, you’ve created another one. It’s like a dog chasing it’s tail, and so now they’re caught between a rock and a hard place.
Still, some of the other environmental ideas have been quite ingenious. Take fish-ways for example. Fish-ways are important because between the lake and the Coorong there’s a significant natural migration of fish. The thing is, when you have these steel and concrete barrage structures blocking the way of the fish, they can’t migrate. A classic example is the congolis. When I was a kid the congoli was an abundant fish in the region. It was nothing to catch twenty banana crates of them. But what happens is that, the females live in the more fresh water areas while the males live out in the sea and they need to get together to spawn over the winter months. Now, if the barrages are shut they can’t get in or out, can they? So they’ve started trialled these fish-ways that allow the fish to move through the barrages, and when conditions are favourable they’ve proven quite successful. Why I stress ‘when conditions are favourable’ is because, unfortunately, during the latest mother-of-all-droughts the fish-ways were left high and dry. There was five kilometres of dry land up stream of Tawitchere Barrage and, because fish haven’t got legs, the fish-ways were redundant.
The other strategy is that SA Water is now much more sensitive to the opening and closing of the barrages. One time the barrages were only opened and closed judging by the level of the lake and the flow of the river. So if there was a big flow coming down, they’d open 250 or 300 barrages. By doing that, this new fresh water would enter the brackish down-stream environment within hours. That was much too quick and a lot of the ecology became stressed because it didn’t have the time to adapt to these rapid new fresh water-salt water levels. Nowadays when SA Water knows that there’s water coming down the system, they open the gates slowly and strategically. Then, as the flows back off, they close them slowly, and strategically.
But you’ve got to have the rain. You’ve got to have those flows to replenish the environment and, when you do, you must get the optimal benefit from those few mega-litres of water. That’s where the Murray-Darling Basin Plan comes into action. Mind you, it hasn’t solved the problem, but it’s stopped the rot. As far as the plan is concerned we’ve now got a specific environmental allocation of water. It’s not enough, but I think in time they’ll endeavour to allocate more for the environment. See, even by the time this mother-of-all-droughts hit, the system had already reached the stage where I thought it was near irretrievable. Another year and it would’ve past redemption. We’d never pushed the environment to such a critical point anywhere else before, so the various governments and communities didn’t know how to handle it. The lower lakes were already in poor health. The Coorong was even worse. For decades it had been screaming out for a drink and it wasn’t getting it. That’s why we had such high salinity in the Coorong. In fact it was hyper-saline. There were sections of the Coorong five to six times saltier than seawater. If you fell overboard you couldn’t sink. Throw an egg in and the egg would float. It was like the Dead Sea. When you came out of the water you’re skin was dry and covered in a white salty-crust. It was unbelievable. No wonder nothing could live in it.
The other terrible thing about that drought period was the effect it had on our community. Business turn-over in the main street of Meningie was down 40%. People were depressed, gloomy. A lot of families moved from the district. More than a hundred kids left the school. Almost twenty diaries close down. It was one of those things you couldn’t understand unless you’d experienced it; like going through a traumatic period in you life, say, a divorce or a death. But when the rains came and the high river flows came and they continued for a couple of years, it was amazing just how quick the northern area of the Coorong responded. As soon as the water arrived and the salinities dropped, the fish responded and the birds responded. It’s just unfortunate that our community of Meningie hasn’t responded as rapidly. Whereas everything in the upper-reaches of the Murray-Darling has had a real good flush of water and things have turned around and communities are once more vibrant, here we are, almost two years after the floods and Meningie’s still suffering. We’re still crying out for water. With Lake Albert being a land-locked lake, salinity levels remain so high that people still can’t use that water for irrigation or for stock purposes.
What really drives me mad is that there are still people upstream who believe they’ve got a higher priority over the water than we have. I hate this thing of Us versus Them. I just hate it. Australia’s the one country and, being so, we should work together as one country and not just a mob of squabbling states. All of us should be hell-bent on providing a healthy environment for the next generation and the generations beyond. That’s where I think a lot of the focus has been lost. To me it seems to be more a case of economic rationalism gone mad and it’s like, ‘I’m here to make a buck and so screw the rest of you.’ Only recently I heard that the New South Wales Government has issued another 1000 licences to cotton and rice growers. That’s a extra 1000 licences within the last twelve months! Again, the writing’s on the wall but, to some people, there just seems to be this perception that any water that gets down into the lower lakes and the Coorong is wasted water.