Mel Brown – A true gentleman and custodian

Spearfishing’s greatest historical custodian and true gentleman, Mel Brown, has been honoured and humbled by his inclusion on this year’s Australia Day Honours List.

Mel was made a member of the Order of Australia for his service to recreational fishing through an extensive range of representative and advisory roles.

Mel Brown with a Yellow-tail Kingfish in 1975
Mel Brown with a Yellow-tail Kingfish in 1975

The purpose of the Order of Australia is to recognise, by national honour, those who have made outstanding contributions that benefit their communities, and ultimately our country.

The second purpose of the Order of Australia is that it serves to define, encourage and reinforce community standards, national aspirations and ideals by acknowledging actions and achievements and thereby identifying role models at all levels and in all spheres of the community.

The Underwater Skindivers and Fisherman’s Association (USFA) are extremely excited and proud of Mel’s exceptional achievement.

USFA President, Peter Saunders, was especially proud saying, “There is no one more deserving of this national recognition than Mel.  The things he has done for spearfishing and the hours he has put into this sport are just phenomenal.  He is a true gentleman and legend.”

Mel first began spearfishing in 1962 at 18 years of age.  Over the last 53 years he has held numerous vital roles within spearfishing and government bodies.

His first ever dive was on the south coast of NSW at Bulli Point, just off the rock pools.  He affectionately remembers shooting his first fish, a Rock Cale, with his trusty 2-piece brass hand spear.  He then upgraded a few years later to a telescopic model with which he was able to secure fish up to 10kg.  “After losing a few 20kg Kingfish,” he chuckles, “I thought it was time to upgrade.  My first gun was and Undersea Bantam.  I am still using a gun almost as old as that now.”

Mel began his representative duties as USFA Minutes Secretary in 1971, before moving on to other roles such as Treasurer.  He was there when the USFA changed to the NSW Underwater Federation and then again to the AUF NSW Branch.  Mel is now USFA Historian and is Australia’s greatest custodian of spearfishing history.  He has all of the original minutes, magazines, photos, t-shirts, equipment catalogues and documents dating back to April 1948 when Australian Spearfishing first took shape and the USFA was formed.  His records continue on to include the formation of the AUF in the following years up until present day, making for a rich collection of our spearfishing history in Australia.  He also owns what could easily be described as the largest collection of spearguns and early diving equipment ever seen in Australia, which he often takes to displays and events around the country.

In recent years Mel has begun the arduous process of digitising these records for future generations and uploading them to the USFA website.

Mel has been holding positions and helping spearfishing for 44 years and would be one of our longest serving workers.

“Things have changed a lot since those first days”, Mel recalls, “back then everything was written out by hand and then later transferred onto a typewriter.  We then used a Gestetner machine, which was a manual printing press of sorts, using paper stencils.”  “You might run off 50 copies and then they would have to be mailed out to the clubs and executives.  It is much easier today.  I can just send an email.”

When asked how he found the time to get all this done Mel confessed, “I was fortunate to work nightshift a the mines where I was an Electrician.  I’d get on top of my work then duck off to a quiet corner to attend to spearfishing matters.”

It is not practical to list all of the positions that Mel has held over the years and the representative and advisory bodies that he has been a part of.  However, of important significance some of his roles included:  the Advisory Council on Recreational Fishing, NSW DPI (1991 – 2006); Jervis Bay Marine Park Advisory Committee (1998 – 2003); Abalone Management Task Force (1994 – 2002); Grey Nurse Shark Recovery Team.

It was, however, his role on the Rock Lobster Management Advisory Committee (1995 – 2001) that Mel feels he did his proudest work.  Today’s Rock Lobster fishery is thriving and is in the best condition seen for decades.  Mel explained that back when he first joined the committee “the fishery was not doing very well at all.”

“There was no maximum size limit and the minimum size was far too small.  Even today it is still a little small.  They don’t really breed until they are about 2kg in size.  I’d like to see the minimum size increased. However, by us introducing the maximum size limit to protect the breeders and through the success of other management strategies we have seen a positive result.”

Mel Brown with a Cobia in 1975
Mel Brown with a Cobia in 1975

Further to this Mel recounted that “back then the ‘black market’ was out of control and the commercial fisherman had no real controls in place.  Through the committee we established protocols on the minimum/maximum size limits and introduced tagging and quota systems for the commercial lobster fishermen.”  “There was a lot of politics involved back then”, “They were going to close the recreational catch altogether”.   “It is definitely a pleasing and positive outcome that I am proud to have been a part of, especially considering I was the first ever person from a recreational fishing background to be appointed to a Commercial Fisheries Management Committee.”

When asked what he saw as the most critical issue facing today’s spearfishers, Mel indicated that “access issues and Marine Parks were probably our biggest threats” and that “education and the club systems” were our best defences available.

Over the next 5 – 10 years Mel would like to see “strong leadership in both, working with government departments and in running the USFA”.

“I am very pleased to have received this recognition.  To have spearfishing as a whole recognised nationally in such a positive light is just fantastic.  There are a lot of hard working and well deserving candidates.  It is very overwhelming yet satisfying in a humbling way.”

This level of commitment and effort for so many years comes at a personal and family sacrifice at times.  The USFA would also like to acknowledge and thank Mel’s ever supportive wife, Roslyn, for her enduring support throughout the years.

Mel is currently working towards gaining some federal support to realise his dream of truly documenting Australia’s spearfishing and diving history.  He would like to setup a diving museum and have all of his records professionally digitised and catalogued along with all his early spearfishing and scuba diving equipment displayed for all to see and enjoy.  “It would be a terrific thing.  It is important to know your sport.  To know where we have come from and how it progressed.”

“It was not that long ago that spearfishers were wearing jumpers to keep warm and making masks out of truck inner tube tyres and glass.”

“There has been such a dramatic technological development in materials and manufacturing.  It really is marvellous”.

On behalf of all spearfishers, the USFA would again like to congratulate Mel on his national recognition.  It is truly exciting and satisfying to see his dedication rewarded.

He is indeed a true gentleman and legend of this sport

Peter Walsh

USFA Vice President