A joint investigation by WWF-Australia and the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) reveals the real cost of gill net fishing on Queensland’s east coast with estimates 60 dolphins and 60 dugongs are caught per year, compared to official reporting of just one to ten caught annually.
On 21 October last year, a fisher near Bowen caught and killed two snubfin dolphins in a gillnet with a Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) officer on board. In September and October in Bowling Green Bay, four dead dugongs were found with at least two linked to gill nets.
GBRMPA refused to release photographs of the dead snubfin, which is a unique Australian dolphin that is listed as vulnerable to extinction and was only discovered in 2005. AMCS has just obtained the autopsy reports (including pictures) under freedom of information laws.
“The two male dolphins died from ‘dry drowning’, according to autopsy reports. The dolphins inhaled water causing a spasm and closing off their airways. This is a horrific way to die,” said Tooni Mahto, Campaigns Manager at AMCS said.
“These shocking images show the true cost of gill net fishing in Reef waters. Gill nets can and do kill threatened species like snubfin dolphins and dugongs. Our vulnerable species need sanctuary. We must permanently remove gill nets from their habitats,” she said.
While the fisher correctly reported the snubfin deaths, a WWF-Australia analysis of bycatch figures suggests fishers are massively under-reporting protected species deaths.
Between 2006 and 2012, before the observer program was scrapped, there were periods when independent observers recorded bycatch interactions on commercial vessels in the East Coast Inshore Finfish Fishery.
When the observer figures are projected to the entire fishery over the whole 7-year period there is a huge discrepancy between those estimates and what was officially reported by fishers.
It’s estimated 422 dolphins were caught when only 5 were reported, 422 dugongs (estimated) against 19 reported, 14,700 turtles (estimated) against 1,043 reported, and 26,000 sawfish (estimated) against 7 reported.
“These bycatch estimates are shocking and suggest the real story of carnage is being covered up to avoid bad publicity,” said WWF-Australia fisheries expert Jim Higgs who did the analysis.
Since 2016, WWF-Australia has bought and retired three Great Barrier Reef gill net licences to help protect endangered species and is campaigning for a Net-Free North – an 85,000 sq km haven from just north of Cooktown through to the Torres Strait.
Both WWF-Australia and AMCS are calling for urgent fishery reform.
The Queensland Government’s own fisheries expert panel, in a 31 July 2018 communique, called for “additional focus to measures that would reduce fishery interactions with protected species.”
“Cameras should be installed on vessels to reveal the real numbers of protected marine life being caught and gill nets kept out of high risk areas for these species,” Mr Higgs said.
The Federal Environment Department is assessing the sustainability of the fishery in which the snubfin dolphins were caught.
Federal Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg can stop a fishery exporting its catch if it does not meet appropriate standards of ecological sustainability.
“Urgent, drastic changes are needed in this fishery to protect the future of one of Australia’s most charismatic and threatened dolphin species, including removing high risk fishing methods from snubfin dolphin habitat,” said Ms Mahto.