Rockingham Beach and the Fish Fest
This, our local beach, is an hour’s drive south of Perth, Western Australia and is a swimming beach, rather than a surf beach. It is a small section of Mangles Bay; a gently curving indent on this long coastline. A series of distant reefs and small offshore islands diminish most of the Indian Oceans’ swells, particularly Garden Island, the largest and closest which hosts a significant Australian Naval and Submarine base. It was on this island that the sailing ship Rockingham, one of three sailing vessels carrying settlers to Western Australia in 1830, was blown ashore and foundered; failed attempts to re-float her saw her break up in its shallow waters. It is believed that the city took its name from this wreck.
Our beach, which is central to the old township, has a permanent sand bar sitting fifty metres off from the shore and running along its entire length. This provides swimming pool-like conditions on its inshore side for much of the year. It is pretty as a picture: calm, translucent waters on white sand. We call it ‘our swimming pool’. Throughout the long summer we take full advantage of its pellucid expanse, as do other locals. The southern end, with its central park and jetty, cafés and restaurants is very popular with picnickers and bathers. Come May and June, though, we start to get fast-moving storms and the water temperature drops. For the winter months swimming takes place in the public Swimming Pool complex of nearby Warnbro.
Pic: Catch & Release – Rockingham Beach WA
This time of the year (May – June) is also the time that the Sea Salmon start running up the coast; this large fish appears in schools comprising thousands as they feed and fatten on the run and, consequently, we often get to witness the single-minded voracity of fish species.
‘A small black object flashes, breaking the sea’s calm surface, catching my eye. Was it the dorsal fin of a shark, or perhaps a dolphin’s, or the wing-tip of a big ray, or maybe a cormorant that just surfaced and dived again? Then a large Bottlenose dolphin launches itself skywards and falls with a splash. Then another breaks the surface, and another: suddenly dozens of them are breaching, leaping, twisting and falling and the surface erupts into a maelstrom of activity. Striking from all angles, they chomp and feed on the myriad fatted salmon and other fingerlings. These, in turn, are frantically trying to elude their larger, more efficient hunter enemy, adding to this surface mayhem as they thrash this way and that at the upward limit of their three-dimensional world.’
It would be easy to view the salmon as victims of the dolphins’ superior hunting skills. But the salmon themselves are on the hunt and are also highly efficient killers. They energetically chase and snap at smaller school-fish like mullet, herring, sardines or sprats, each of which will in turn feed on its more diminutive neighbour. And as the sprats break the surface in their panicky attempts to avoid being eaten, a flock of circling gulls knowingly await to snap them up. It’s a graphic example of ‘the food chain’ in action and is oft-repeated. It can be seen up and down this coast and others – if you know when and where to look.
But there is an even larger predator patrolling these waters and it, too, is attracted to the seasonal ‘dog eat dog’ banquet. This one tops the hierarchy – the Great White Shark. This, also, is a prime determinant in our giving up beach swimming around this time. Recently, a little to the north of Rockingham, and a little to the south, two people died in separate shark attacks. Witnesses affirmed they were Great Whites. The victims’ circumstances were different: one was diving and the other surfing but, whether swimming, diving or surfing in the sea we quickly lose our dominance in the food chain – especially while the migratory school-fish run.
Sea Salmon, though not sought by most for eating, has sport fishermen (yes, it is predominantly a male sport) salivating because it is a large and vigorous fish that puts up a great fight. What they call Sea Salmon here is actually a close relation to the New Zealand Kahawai, however it grows much larger and at maturity is closer in size to the Kingfish. When the run is on, staunch fishing folk take over the length of our beach – some solitary, some in small groups, and some with wives or patient partners seated alongside, heavily swaddled on picnic chairs. They cast their lure or sardine-baited lines out into the channel, then place the rod in its holder buried deep in the sand and relax, patiently scanning the sea for any tell-tale action. Occasionally they will look up, somewhat hopefully perhaps, to the top of their rods. Those with the luck (or is it more skill, who knows) will have the thrill of seeing the top of their rod bending to the catch; they’ll quickly retrieve it from its holder and play the fish – a game where they try to tire it, easing it closer to shore, little by little rather than have the weighty salmon snap their gear. Sometimes, along the stretch of our beach we see many rods bending in quick succession as a school cruises within range.
There is a catch limit of four. Some fishermen simply catch and release, fishing for the thrill only. Others give them away. To us it is good eating and we know it’s good for us – fresher than any fish we are able to buy in the shops here in Perth and rich in beneficial oils – but one per season is plenty. We don’t waste much, but some just take the fillets and leave the carcasses or heads on the beach, others smoke them.
Contemporary man, the laid-back hunter
We’re clearly at the top of the food chain – though that situation is sometimes reversed by sharks, bears, lions, tigers, crocodiles or even snakes. We have mechanised, corralled, hybridised and farmed all our food-stock animals. Even commercial fishing can be termed farming by our adoption of sophisticated electronic technology. But, in stark contrast to wild fauna’s methods of sourcing food, we over-produce, over-harvest and over-slaughter; they take only what they need. So, when you next witness the apparently savage and chaotic slaughter-fest of fish, by fish, you may consider it rather benign in that it is not at all wasteful.