The Yamba fishing fleet makes a stunning picture lined up alongside the Gantry Wall. Each trawler gives the impression of resting in preparation for another hard night’s work. The trawlers steadily making their way out to sea at sunset is a sight not to be missed.
The early commercial fisherman however went to work rowing or sailing, relying on the wind and the tide. It was a tough job, as they would travel up to 24 miles each day or night – to catch and deliver their fish before returning home. In those days the fish were only shipped to Sydney during winter; packed in ice and bracken fern but sometimes it thawed and spoiled in transit. The high cost of freight, meant that only fish fetching the highest price, mainly bream and whiting were shipped.
A fish canning industry was established at Iluka in 1887 but this didn’t prove profitable, due to the irregular supply of fish. By the end of the 1890s only a few fishermen made a seasonal living until faster transport allowed more regular shipments to Sydney.
After the establishment of an ice works at Maclean in 1901, the industry developed rapidly and soon supplied almost half of the fresh fish sold in Sydney. A reduction in the cost of boat and fishermen’s licences also made fishing more profitable. Another ice works was opened at Iluka in 1910.
Regulation of the industry had begun with the issuing of licences in the early 1880s and the appointment of fishing inspectors from 1881. However a furore was created whenever prescribed net and mesh sizes were changed.
Iluka and Palmers Island fishers worked mainly in Lake Wooloweyah while the Maclean fishers worked the Broadwater, all catching and shipping mostly mullet. Profitability continued to be restricted by handling, transporting and marketing issues. Net size changes and periodic closure of certain waters to net fishing also frustrated the industry.
By World War I, fishing was one of the main industries on the Lower Clarence River, despite poor seasons, floods and variable market prices. By the 1930s fish were being shipped to Brisbane as well as Sydney, with steamers taking the fish to the Maclean ice works before lorries took the shipments to Grafton railway station. World War II imposed restrictions on essential items, such as nets, fuel, oilskins while ocean trawlers were re-purposed and fishermen went off to war; however fish prices also rose as less fish reached the Sydney market.
The Clarence River Fishermen’s Cooperative was formed in 1945 but was hit by several bad seasons in the early 1950s due to floods and freshes on the river. Fishermen began to leave the industry frustrated by a lack of refrigerated rail trucks, more changes to net and fish sizes and increasing costs while fish prices stagnated. This period also saw the establishment of the prawn industry.