By Zoe Moffatt
The Territory’s Million Dollar Fish campaign is set to start its sixth season next month, but local fishing tourism operators say the program needs to change after failing to attract the tourists to the Territory it once did.
In an effort to shake things up this year, the NT Government has announced that seven $1 million tagged barramundi will be released this year – increasing the odds of catching the big one.
“Australia’s richest fishing competition is back,” NT Major Events Company proclaimed in a statement kicking off the tourism campaign this week.
“The Million Dollar Fish competition reels in fishing fanatics from all over, and anglers have caught more than 40 tagged fish since the competition began in 2015.”
But the “richest fishing competition” in the country is costing taxpayers roughly $1.1 million a year, with registrations halving over the last five years, declining from a peak of more than 43,000 entrants in 2015 and 2016 to just 21,064 people last year, according to a recent ABC investigation.
Of those figures, interstate participants made up a high of 62 per cent in season one and down to a low of 29 per cent in season four. Last season saw a rise to 36 per cent of 21,064 participants coming from interstate, according to government figures.
Fishing tour operators are mixed on the changes they want to see to the campaign.
“The competition has a good future and is here to stay but needs to be reviewed and tweaked to get the best value,” said Glenn Watt from Barefoot Fishing Safaris.
Mr Watt suggested divvying up the million dollar prize to reach more people and running the event during the dry season.
“If we made [a thousand] $1,000 fish in the dry season you would then have tourists catching it [and] it would create a real buzz,” he said.
Reel Screamin’ Barramundi Fishing charter owner, Jarrod Godson said the competition is a “sleeping giant” and funding should be doubled.
However, Mr Godson thinks the competition should continue to be run in the wet season.
That’s the “right time of year,” he said. “I think they’ve got it right.”
Locals the big winners as only one interstate fisho caught a lucky fish in five years
Mr Watt disagreed about raising the amount of prize money available.
“I don’t necessarily think throwing more funding at the competition is the answer, it would be wiser to view how the money is being spent,” he said.
He added that interstate travellers are “not largely motivated by the competition, in my experience”.
“[The] winners to date have all been local bar one,” he said.
“We have to remember we are competing with Victoria, and other states that are going to their nice season and it would be more well spent if it was in the dry.”
A 2019 report by Deloitte Access Economics estimated the competition produced $7.2 million in induced expenditure in the NT from interstate travellers interested in the program over the first four years of the competition.
The Gunner Government-commissioned report cost taxpayers $255,910 – roughly $200,910 more than all the money given as prizes of the competition.
The report found frustration from fishing businesses, with 45 per cent saying they were “dissatisfied” with the marketing and promotion of the campaign.
Mr Godson said his business went up 300 per cent in the first two seasons, that take place from October to March. It took a dip for about a year or two before bouncing back, he said.
“Tourism (NT) certainty lost its grip [on the campaign],” he said. “It’s good NT Major Events have taken over.”
Pandemic has gutted fishing industry in the NT
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect on operators this year, with an unprecedented dry season for NT fishing businesses which saw their season cut short just a week in.
“Our prime time is March, April, May,” Mr Godson said. “We did seven days of potentially 70”.
Mr Watt agreed, saying coronavirus had “decimated my business this year”.
One change the government made for this year includes a “double tagged barra” which will see a lucky fisho winning $10,000, plus another $5,000 “for a mate who’s been having a tough time this year”.
In an attempt to better publicise the event in the NT, fishos who catch a prize fish while wearing the “official MDF shirt” will land an “extra $1000 of prizes”, the government said.
Season six starts October 1. Nobody has been lucky enough to reel in the big one to date, however several $10,000 fish have been won.
Event partner BetEasy is responsible for promoting the competition and paying out the prize money, which sees the company take home half of the $1.1 million annual cost.