A fishing boat on the slip at Bicheno, 1920 (AOT,
Fishing began early in Van Diemen's Land. Though it is unknown whether the Aborigines ate scale fish, they certainly ate shellfish. When British pioneers found Tasmania's waters contained species which seemed familiar – the local oyster and mussel were indistinguishable from the British varieties. Where species looked familiar, they were often given names that tended to improve their cultural acceptability – the Australian 'salmon' is the classical example.
The Rev Robert Knopwood has a good claim to have been the first determined, and recorded, fisherman in the colony. David Collins' expedition was often fed from his regular fishing trips. Two of the convicts on the Calcutta were said to be fishermen and they and others with some experience of boats were pressed into service to supplement the food of Collins' party, both in Port Phillip and the Derwent. The abundant supplies of oysters in the bays around southern Tasmania were particularly welcome to the settlers. Knopwood collected oysters from Frederick Henry Bay in 1804 and when Hobart was established, commercial collectors supplied the settlers. Knopwood attributed the saving of the colony from a food crisis in March 1806 to a 'huge haul' of jack mackerel taken in a seine 'opposite his cottage'.
A number of attempts have been made to fully utilise mackerel and other pelagic fish. TT Flynn had a grand plan based at St Helens in the 1920s. A fishmeal plant built at Triabunna in the 1970s finally utilised the large jack mackerel resource. However the resource has proved to be volatile and the industry is difficult to sustain. CSIRO led a programme to catch tuna from 1935 to 1965. Driven by the Second World War ban on imports, factories were established to can barracouta and Australian salmon. The war also stimulated a fishery for small sharks that continues today. In recent years the export of premium quality live fish has become economically important.
While fishing for food was vitally important in the early years of settlement, fishing for money began even earlier. The plentiful stocks of whales and seals provided non-perishable products in demand beyond Tasmania. Oyster dredging was so successful that by 1860 exports of the shellfish contributed more to the economy than any other primary industry. None of these fisheries was regulated and the resources were soon exhausted (see Aquaculture).
For the remainder of the nineteenth century the local market sustained the fishing industry. The Tasmanian kingfish was the mainstay of early fishing; in the 1880s a crew of three fishermen might well take up to 500 fish of 12–14 lb each with handlines in a night. However it disappeared around the turn of the century and by 1915 catches were unknown. The fish did not return to importance commercially until the 1960s when catches were made in very deep water. A fish of similar appearance, the barracouta, then supplied much of the demand for fresh fish until about 1975 when it too abruptly vanished. Fishers now turned to deepwater and the deep-sea trevalla or blue eye.
When Alex Morton surveyed the depleted oyster beds around 1900 he discovered scallops in the Derwent estuary. The fishery gradually spread down the estuary into the D'Entrecasteaux Channel and by the 1930s was an important industry. After 1960 fishing extended up the east coast and finally into Bass Strait in the 1970s. Unfortunately managing the fishery sustainably has proved elusive.
Notwithstanding the above, the spiny rock lobster (or crayfish) has been the core of the fishing industry for two centuries. The crustacean was also a regular target of the fishing parson, but was only sold to the local market until the cane pot was introduced around 1880. It allowed fishing to develop in ocean waters and to supply Melbourne and Sydney. Pots were not allowed in southern Tasmania until 1922 after which the industry grew quickly. Technological advances after the Second World War allowed crayfishermen to gain high prices from overseas markets.
Aboriginal women were skilled divers and a few Chinese fished and dried abalone around 1870 for export to Victoria. The aqualung was one of the wartime inventions, and when it became freely available around 1960 amateur skin divers created the state's most important fishery. It began in 1963 and grew quickly. By 1985 the stocks had already yielded 55,000 tonnes of abalone – well over 100 million shellfish. At today's values this represents $2.75 billion. A further 45,000 tonnes has been harvested since.