Initially labelled a “bloody idiot’’ for commercial carp fishing, Keith Bell has turned a stubborn pest into a lucrative business that has provided major environmental benefits for the Latrobe River. Keith and wife Cate have been selling Gippsland common carp around the world for the past 25 years, helping reduce the damage to the Latrobe River’s banks caused by the burrowing fish. Started in 1984, K&C Fisheries has become the largest common carp harvesting and processing company in the Southern Hemisphere, trading under the motto “Innovatively transforming a pest to a resource”.
“The carp is a pest but if you’re just going to put your head in the sand, it’s always going to be there,’’ Keith says. “You’ve got to try to do something to create a demand for people to want to get it out of the river. The greatest thing I can quite comfortably say is that I’ve removed more common carp out of Australian waterways than any other person or any government activity to date.”
“It’s a great challenge because these fish are thick and there are only small markets and everybody thinks you’re a bloody idiot for doing it. But we’ve built a successful business out of it, and it’s helped me travel the world”.
The 56-year-old says he has lived with carp in the Latrobe River his whole life, having caught them as a child in the first year they were introduced to the waterway.
“I remember catching them when they were only seven or eight inch fish in 1966. I don’t think there’s anybody in Australia that’s been involved with common carp longer than I have”.
Keith says the drought has taken its toll on the Latrobe River and carp stocks. Fishing time on the river has reduced from five days a week during wetter periods to only one or two days now.
“In 2003 we produced over 1000 tonnes of fish and we were the top commercial fishery in Victoria volume-wise, beating any of the ocean licenses. But we don’t have the volume or velocity of water coming down the river like we used to. The problem with that is the concentration of the nasties builds up. In places where there used to be two metres of water there is less than a metre of water now.”
“We used to comfortably traverse from Sale all the way up to Traralgon in a six-metre boat but we haven’t been able to do that for the last 10 years. We can’t even get up to Rosedale in a tinnie’’.
Keith, who has only ever lived in the Gippsland region, agrees carp are partly to blame for the degradation of the Latrobe River but says they are one of many problems that have built up over the past 50 years.
“I don’t stick up for common carp, they are a damaging thing and they shouldn’t be in the waterways. But they’ve been used as the scapegoat for a lot of other human activities. Everybody hates a carp and it can’t answer back so it’s the one to blame.
“People are starting to realise that we’ve been taking our natural resources for granted and that nothing is more powerful on this Earth than Mother Nature’’.