COMMERCIAL fisherman Neville Hutchins is fast approaching his 70th birthday, but retirement is not in his sights despite facing the loss of his netting licence in March.
He is so entrenched is his routine of throwing out the nets every evening at dusk and offering his catch for sale at Fisherman’s Beach, Mornington that he couldn’t contemplate taking the six-figure payout – rumoured to be at least $500,000 – offered when the state government began its phase out of commercial net fishing in 2018.
Instead, he stayed on to do what he loves and knows best, well aware that the licence buy-back would be enforced in 2022 and only a portion of the original compensation amount would be available.
“It was never about the money. I just wanted to keep doing what I have always done, and what my family has done before me,” Mr Hutchins said.
He has met thousands of people over the years on the beach and is regarded as something of a local icon, even experiencing a brief moment of international fame when a mural of his image gained more attention than intended (“Mural covered up over ‘copy’ claims” The News 11/1/22).
“Some of my locals came down just before Christmas to tell me there was a mural of me painted in Main Street, and then a bit later people came down and told me it had been mysteriously removed,” he said.
“Apparently a guy overseas saw it online and said it was pretty much a copy of another artist’s painting in Germany but with my face, so the council had to cover it over,” he said.
“Yeah, it was a certainly strange, not what anyone expected – all I knew was someone took a picture of me for a mural and then, as quickly as it appeared on the wall, it was gone.”
Mural controversies aside, Port Phillip and its riches are the topics that Hutchins knows best. He comes from a long line of fishers, with the first Hutchins fishermen navigating the bay in the 1800s.
Like his father Bill, and his grandfather Thomas before that, Hutchins can spot the fish just by looking out from the cliffs and believes sustainability of the industry was never in doubt.
“I’ve been coming here with my parents since I was a baby, when mum would put me in a fish box covered with a blanket on the beach while she helped dad,” he said.
“I grew up here, Port Phillip was our paddock, and I know there are plenty of fish out there.”
In the 1980s Hutchins bought his own licence and for years worked with his brother Dalton, together selling about 20 tonne of fresh fish annually, made up of schnapper, whiting, salmon, garfish and mullet.
But the fate of net fishing was sealed in 2015 when the Labor government introduced legislation for the buy-back of licences as a way to benefit the environment and recreational fishers.
Since then, most of the 43 access licences have been bought back, and this year only about eight will remain with the netting entitlements removed.
While it won’t be the end of the show for Mr Hutchins, who will still have a line fishing licence and will continue to sell from the heritage-listed hut that is now a part of the beach landscape, his months of operation and catch size will be significantly reduced.
“Well, it’s a change, but it’s not the end, I’ll be fishing as long as I can…it might mean I have an eight-month holiday every year, but I’ll still be here in some way,” he said.
Mr Hutchins is pessimistic about what the loss of netting rights will mean for customers who want locally caught, fresh fish, but says he is proud to continue to play a small part in the supply-and-demand equation.
“It’s going to be harder to get fresh fish that’s been caught here in Port Phillip, for sure, there just aren’t many of us left,” he said. ‘’But hopefully I’ll still be here for a few more years.”