Travelling Australia - Journal 2009
22-27 May 2009 - Port Lincoln
Port Lincoln's main caravan park is on a slope overlooking the ocean with a view of the boats plying between the Marina and the tuna holding pens.

The weather for our stay in Port Lincoln was changeable. The nights were fairly cool, with temperatures down to seven degrees sometimes recorded. Days were variable; some were so wet and miserable that we stayed in the caravan. Other days were bright and sunny and it was a pleasure to be out and about seeing the sights. Fortunately the days we booked for boat trips had better weather. One boat trip was out to look at the tuna holding pens (and at seals on a nearby islet); the other was along canals in the marina looking at residential and commercial (fishing industry) developments and at the variety of fishing vessels moored in the Marina.

Our visit to the lookout on Winter Hill overlooking the town was also during good weather. This is an unusual local lookout in that the view is worthwhile. Many local lookouts are a triumph of optimism over reality because many are not high enough to see anything; to make matters worse, too often those lookouts which had a view when they were established now have trees screening that view. Winter Hill at Port Lincoln was different; a good view of Port Lincoln and no vegetation intruding into the view.

Port Lincoln has a long history as a port handling grain grown on the Eyre Peninsula and the town is visually dominated by very tall, very white, cylindrical grain silos on the waterfront. There is storage for about 360,000 tonnes of grain there. Grain is delivered by road and rail and taken away by ships berthing at gantries extended into the bay.

The other major industry in Port Lincoln is fishing, with different boat types pursuing different fish. The tuna industry is the one most talked about; this is one of those industries which keep fish in pens moored in the ocean off Port Lincoln. Several other species, notably kingfish, are also raised in netted enclosures. There are also special-purpose boats fishing for abalone, rock-lobsters, shark and prawns. Different segments of the industry are having different levels of success; abalone divers have a reputation for being extremely wealthy but also of having a very dangerous occupation with a high death and injury rate. Rock-lobster (crayfish) boats have difficulty catching their annual quota, supposedly because they have taken too many crayfish in the past and have destroyed their own industry.

But the tuna industry attracts most attention and keeps boats shuttling to and from the holding pens all day, every day.

This tuna industry is a far cry from the idea of hardy fishermen going out to sea in all weathers to make their catch and returning with tonnes of fish for the fish-market. Nor is tuna-farming like Tasmanian trout-farming where fish are raised from eggs to marketable size then harvested in an operation which reduces the demand on wild stocks. At Port Lincoln, the fish in the holding pens are wild stock netted in the Great Australian Bight and kept in net enclosures while they are fed thousands of tonnes of imported pilchards (sardines) to fatten them up. Most of the activity in the very busy marina, and most of the boat movements in and out of the Marina area, are related to the feeding and care of thousands of wild tuna held in fattening pens.

Although Port Lincoln relies heavily on the fishing industry and claims to have the largest fishing fleet in Australia, the town is certainly not a sea-food centre. There are few obvious signs of local fish-selling activity; searching the Yellow Pages came up with a couple of seafood restaurants and one rock-lobster shop. For a town of 14,000 people that's not much. Driving through the light-industrial estates we passed rock-lobster and abalone processing plants and one place advertising tuna for sale but these were not prominent. A comparison can be drawn with Lakes Entrance in Victoria, also the home of a substantial fishing fleet. In Lakes Entrance the traveller is greeted with several fish restaurants in the main street and a prominent take-away fish stall near the wharves. The difference is that the tuna mainstay of Port Lincoln is not suited to being converted into fish and chips; before the Japanese raw fish market opened up, tuna caught by Port Lincoln boats went into cans. As well, the value of tuna as raw fish in Japan is so high (prices of $1000 to $2000 per fish in Japan are commonly quoted) that diverting those fish to an Australian market would be commercial nonsense. So Port Lincoln is a fishing industry port but not a sea-food centre.

The Port Lincoln Marina is an interesting combination of residential and industry uses. There are many houses and town-houses lining the canals while all of the fishing boats based in Port Lincoln have moorings in the marina and operate from there. Water canals in the marina are wide and naturally flushed by the tide so they are remarkably clean (as is all sea-water in and around Port Lincoln). Some canals serve residential areas with expensive houses lining the water, many with even more expensive boats tied up nearby. In the same complex there are moorings for a wide range of fishing boats. There appears to be reluctance to scrap boats and the marina moorings contain the history of the industry in a collection of the boats used to pioneer and develop different industries.

But the marina is also the centre for present-day activity. Near the Marina Hotel is a short wharf where boats load and unload using the folding crane every working boat carries. In half an hour we saw freshly killed tuna from the holding pens being off-loaded on their way to Japanese plates, the same boat then took on tonnes of frozen pilchards to be carried to the holding pens to feed tuna. A dive boat working around the pens on routine maintenance came in for fuel and a working boat from a mussel farm unloaded bags of green-lip mussels. The main activity is feeding tuna; they eat incessantly and a steady stream of boats carries frozen pilchards from the marina out to the 150 holding pens moored off Port Lincoln - each pen contains 1500 to 2000 tuna.

Our visit to Port Lincoln was too short to see everything of interest. Poor weather hindered sightseeing, especially in the National Park south of the town; we also didn't get to a variety of other interesting places for lack of time or because of restricted opening hours. Looks like we will be back some day.