It’s no secret that Australian native fish provide many benefits to the ecosystems they inhabit and the wider community. However, native fish face various threats to their survival such as habitat degradation, climate change, invasive pests and over-exploitation. Australia’s large geographic area coupled with the vast diversity in fish and fisheries presents a challenge for researchers working to generate relevant information to inform policy writers and decision makers.

In addition, the legislative framework across the different states and territories makes it hard to manage fish on a scale large enough for adequate biological, ecological and social resourcing. With so many diverse challenges, it can be difficult to effectively prioritise research efforts to know what to address first.

Hyrtl's tandan. Source: Michael Hammer

A recent 2023 study aimed to identify the key research areas for fish and fisheries in Australia across 7 different study themes.

The themes included biosecurity, resource management and stewardship, ecosystem and biodiversity, fisheries management, monitoring and assessment, environment and climate, and emerging technologies, tools and approaches.

The study used a horizon scanning approach to identify research questions related to the field of fish and fisheries research in Australia.

Horizon scanning is “seeking and researching signals of change in the present and their potential future impacts. Horizon scanning is the foundation of any strategic foresight process.”

– Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)

The advantage of this approach is that it uses a foresight method that provides a platform for discussion and collaboration amongst policy makers and academics to identify issues that are of growing importance. In recent years, this technique has been used to examine opportunities for furthering recreational fishing, environmental science and conservation initiatives. The study aimed to apply horizon scanning in order to identify and list priority research questions to better inform management decisions in Australian fish and fisheries, with the aim of finding opportunities that can be applied as tangible outcomes.

A large diversity of perspectives were captured in the study, with input sought from people working in the space of fish (biology, ecology) and fisheries (science, assessment, policy, management) in Australia. These included policy makers, teaching and research academics, researchers and members of non-government organisations.

Macquarie Perch. Photo credit: Tarmo A. Raadik

Participants submitted research questions which aligned with the focus statement: ‘informing the future direction of fish and fisheries science or management in Australia to ensure we can adequately conserve and manage our environments and resources’.

The submitted questions also had to meet the following criteria:

  1. be relevant to fishes (all taxa) and fisheries in Australia;
  2. address an important gap in knowledge
  3. be formulated as a research question (rather than general topic or priority area)
  4. be answerable through a realistic research design
  5. be of a spatial and temporal scope that could be addressed by a research team


A total of 284 questions were submitted by 103 respondents from across all Australian states and territories. The occupational groups of study participants consisted of policy makers (17%), researchers (52%), academics/educators (16%) and others (15%). The latter category included advisors for community and indigenous ranger groups, science illustrators and consultants. The questions were well distributed across all the themes, as follows: Biosecurity (n = 18); Resource Management and Stewardship (n = 30); Ecosystem and Biodiversity (n = 28); Fisheries Management (n = 38); Monitoring and Assessment (n = 39); Environment and Climate (n = 49); and Emerging technologies, tools and approaches (n = 26).

A survey for prioritisation of research questions was provided and allowed questions to be scored between zero priority (0), to highest priority (6). The final outcome was then averaged across participants to identify the 10 highest priority questions for each of the seven themes.

Below is the top 3 priority question for each research area.

Theme 1: Biosecurity

1. How do we develop methods to empirically measure the impact of aquatic invasive animals in Australian freshwater ecosystems?
2. How can we improve the detection of important diseases in shipments of fish, crustaceans or mollusc products imported into Australia?
3. What changes to community assemblages are occurring in native and invasive biota, and how do we know without baseline data?

Theme 2: Resource management and stewardship

1. To what extent does habitat loss and degradation affect the productivity of fisheries?
2. How can links between the health of key habitat and fish stock abundance lead to more effective policy and management decisions at a Federal, State and Local Government levels?
3. How can resource management be implemented in a way that adapts to extreme climate events (e.g. heat waves)?

Theme 3: Ecosystems and biodiversity

  1. What level of habitat rehabilitation is necessary to have significant positive impacts on fish populations?
  2. To what extent does habitat loss and degradation affect ecosystem function?
  3. Can recruitment of native freshwater fish species be improved through habitat restoration?

Theme 4: Fisheries management

  1. How do we ensure adequate research funding from the State and Commonwealth to maintain sustainable fisheries?
  2. How do we develop indices of recruitment and abundance to enable sustainable fisheries management in the face of increasing environmental change?
  3. How can resource managers better prioritise species over politics?

Theme 5: Monitoring and assessment

  1. How can recreational fishing harvest best be quantified?
  2. How does the impact of recreational fishing on target species compare to the impact of commercial fishing?
  3. How can impacts of fishing on bycatch species be reduced?

Theme 6: Environment and climate

  1. How will climate change impact on the movements of marine species?
  2. How can we incorporate environmental variables into fisheries stock assessments to predict stock productivity and recovery?
  3. Under a changing climate, which species will be vulnerable to extinction and which species will be able to move and establish in new habitats?

Theme 7: Emerging technologies, tools and approaches

  1. How can we utilise technological advancements to enhance data collection in data-poor fisheries?
  2. Can eDNA technologies be developed, validated and adopted as standard tools for detection of invasive, endemic or protected species?
  3. How can scientists improve communication of their research to the general public?


The study found that for the ‘Ecosystem and Biodiversity’ and ‘Biosecurity’ themes, priorities were more heavily related to freshwater systems. These are findings are not unexpected, and are likely associated with the increasing threat of industrial development and biosecurity breaches in the freshwater
environment. It was also found that themes directly related to ‘fisheries’ such as ‘Fisheries Management’ and ‘Assessment and Monitoring’, there was a greater focus on priorities to address questions related to the recreational sector than other sectors. This outcome is important as it highlights the need to better understand the effects of recreational fisheries on aquatic ecosystems.

The value of this study is in the identification of these crucial research questions. The knowledge gaps found within the study allow researchers to seek investments for research that target specific needs outlined by the fish and fisheries community. The outcomes of this research will inform better policy and have tangible on-ground effects. The method of horizon scanning will become increasingly useful in the face of the evolving threats to native fish. This study has built a basis for applying this framework in Australia which will hopefully be added to in future.

Featured image: Northern river blackfish.

Source: Luke Pearce

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