Reviewing the State-wide FADs trial program – two years on

There’s just one year left in the three-year State-wide fish aggregating devices (FADs) trial program, which has unlocked new sportfishing opportunities across WA from Broome to Albany.

Funded by licence fees through the Recreational Fishing Initiatives Fund (RFIF), the trial began in late 2019 and has provided a popular new addition to the fishing landscape for thousands of fishers and spearfishers.

This map shows just how expansive the State-wide FADs trial’s network of devices is.

Although the trial has produced plenty of awesome fishing, its first two years have not been without hurdles – including FAD breakaways – and has proven to be an ongoing learning experience.

In the opening 12 months, the FADs off Cape Naturaliste and Albany broke free on multiple occasions.

As both of these locations were previously untested, Recfishwest originally opted to trial a cost-effective FAD design currently used in New South Wales.

While this design proved to aggregate fish and provide the fishing experiences that fishers were seeking, it was clear a more robust design was required.

As a result, Recfishwest opted to change designs and use the Perth Game Fishing Club’s (PGFC) proven FAD model in these locations.

“The PGFC design has a heavier rigging set up making it more robust and capable of withstanding rough seas, big swells and storm events,” Recfishwest Operations Officer Mike Minutillo said.

“This was borne out by breakaways being halved in the second season, with just one FAD break away off Cape Naturaliste and two in Albany.”

Mike noted there were 16 breakaways in the trial’s first season but only five in the second year after the design change.

And, in each instance of a FAD breakaway, the devices were recovered quickly.

The FAD design in the third image is the most robust when it comes to withstanding strong weather events.

A fishing experience like no other

For metropolitan-based sportfisher Joel Borgers, nothing beats the thrill of a big dolphinfish smashing his stickbait while casting at the FADs off Perth.

The anticipation. The visual surface strike. The thrill of line peeling from the reel. FADs fishing is action-packed fishing, Joel says.

“I’m a passionate topwater angler, so to be able to catch dolphinfish in the metro is unreal,” Joel told Recfishwest.

“They are a very visual fish, are super energetic and taste good – it’s the perfect combo if you ask me.”

FAD-natic Joel Borgers noticed bigger dolphinfish were caught at the metro FADs this season.

Scintillating sportfishing

This season also broke new territory as FADs were deployed off Geraldton, behind the Abrolhos Islands, and off Rockingham – in partnership with Mangles Bay Fishing Club – for the first time.

It came as FADs were redeployed off Perth, Cape Naturaliste and Albany.

The latest season in the southern half of the State produced many memorable catches.

Mike said the recent La Niña weather event resulted in an awesome summer of sportfishing at the Geraldton, metro, Rockingham, Cape Naturaliste and Albany locations.

Young gun Tom Corrie showing off one of the bigger model dolphinfish caught at the metro FADs this season.

“The La Niña strengthened the Leeuwin Current and led to more dolphinfish, wahoo and marlin following the warmer water temperatures,” Mike said.

“There were so many good-sized dolphinfish caught at the southern FADs this season, particularly at the metro devices, including a few prized bull dolphinfish measuring up to 135cm.

“It was great to see that some of these big bulls were caught not long after the FADs were deployed, too – Joel Borgers caught one only a matter of weeks after the metro FADs were put in the drink.

“And, it wasn’t just line fishers making the most of the FADs, there were plenty of spearfishers who speared 15kg-plus wahoo too.”

Luke Ryan, of Tackle West, was among those who made the most of the sportfishing at the metro FADs this season.

Big bulls – no bull

Joel, who has fished the metro FADs regularly the past two season, found the size of the dolphinfish he was catching increased this year compared to the previous.

“There seemed to be a lot more bigger fish caught than the trial’s first season,” Joel said.

“The most memorable catch of mine at the FADs would be the 129cm bull I got on topwater earlier this year. It was on a Jackfin 240 Stylo lure – it was simply incredible.

“It would be interesting to see another FAD out super-wide off Perth to see if it held any bigger bulls and more pelagics, such as marlin, wahoo and bigger yellowfin tuna.”

Joel definitely made the most of what the FADs have to offer this summer.

Ducking beneath the surface

Spearfisher Jack Gillis is among fishers keen to put a snorkel and mask on and spear at the FADs, saying the trial provided scope to target quality species off Perth.

“I love spearing at the FADs because it enables you to target fast growing pelagics in metro waters,” he said.

“I speared a couple of dolphinfish this season but by far my most memorable was the wahoo I took.

“The wahoo was just over 12kg and fed a lot of people. We had most of sashimi and smoked some too.

“I’d love to see more FADs up and down the coast. I think it’s a great program.”

Spearo Jack Gillis won’t be forgetting this wahoo from the FADs. What a beauty!

What we’ve learnt from the trial thus far

Before the program got underway, it was unknown if FADs deployed as far south as Albany and Cape Naturaliste would hold fish.

“But now we know they definitely do – plenty of dolphinfish aggregate around the FADs off these two locations,” Mike said.

“Another major learning is that FADs don’t necessarily have to be based in deep water – the shallowest FAD deployed off Broome is only in 10m of water and produces species like cobia.

“In terms of the manufacturing, stainless steel shackles cannot withstand a season, so we moved to steel shackles for the second year.

“Also, if you arrive at the coordinates and can’t find the FAD, be sure to have a look around because the swing radius can be significant.”

FADs can have a significant swing radius, depending on conditions, as shown by RFW5 off Perth and Exmouth FAD1.

Mike also noted there had been multiple obstacles over the course of the project’s first two years, including:

  • Contractors willing and able to deploy and retrieve FADs are thin on the ground in some locations;
  • Finding vessels capable of rescuing a FAD on the loose before they drift out of range; and,
  • There continues to be a need for more photographic and video evidence from fishers showing what they caught at the FADs to help secure future-funding.

A big plus for the program has been the fantastic support from the community when problems like FAD-breakaways have arisen with many people eager and willing to assist in FAD retrieval operations.

Recfishwest’s Mike Minutillo and Aaron Moses help Port Bouvard Charters’ Marty Paull readying the FADs at Hillarys before deployment.

FADs for the future

Mike said the quality of fish caught and speared at the FADs was great to see.

He said it was further proof positive of how funds generated from WA fishers’ recfishing licence fees can and should be spent to unlock exciting new fishing opportunities.

“But, unfortunately, all good things must come to an end – this is a three-year trial with the program concluding 12 months,” Mike said.

How’s this dolphinfish that William Evans caught at one of the Albany FADs!?

“We are exploring options and different funding models in a bid to keep providing the network of FADs across WA.

“And, for this we need fishers’ help in supplying us with photos and videos showing the quality of their fishing experiences on the FADs.

“From what many FADs fishers tell us and from what we’ve seen on social media, the popularity of the trial certainly shows there is a healthy appetite for sportfishing opportunities off our coast provided by this innovative program.”

Photo evidence of you fishing at the FADs, like this awesome snap of Toby Dight with a wahoo at the metro FADs, are important in showing the great fishing experiences the trial produces.

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