In a bold conservation approach, WWF-Australia wants people to chip in to buy and “retire” a commercial fishing licence in the northern Great Barrier Reef as a first step towards creating one of the world's largest dugong havens.
Internationally renowned dugong expert Professor Helene Marsh said: “By far this is the most important part of the Great Barrier Reef for dugongs. They are very important feeding grounds, we must do everything we can in that area to conserve dugongs,” she said.
Dugongs can drown in gill nets so WWF-Australia is seeking donations to help purchase and remove the last commercial gill net still operating full-time in the Far North.
“Fishermen don’t want to catch dugongs, but they can do accidentally. The dugong doesn’t see the net and gets tangled. Unless the fishermen are sitting right on the net and cut it out quickly, the dugong drowns,” said Professor Marsh, from James Cook University.
Once the 600-metre net is retired, WWF-Australia says the Queensland government should declare a ‘Net-Free North’ by banning commercial gill netting from just north of Cooktown through to the Torres Strait.
Ending commercial gill netting in the Far North would create one of the largest safe havens for dugongs in the world. It would cover 85,000-square kilometers, an area bigger than Tasmania.
A Net-Free North would also help protect other threatened species such as snubfin dolphins, marine turtles, sawfish, hammerhead sharks and the critically endangered Bizant River shark.
“Dugongs and other species that perish in gill nets suffer a horrible death, held underwater until they drown,” said WWF-Australia fisheries spokesperson Jim Higgs.
Based on a very limited fisheries observer program (which ended in 2012), WWF conservatively estimates that each year 19500 hammerhead sharks, 2984 sawfish, 1684 turtles, 48 dolphins, and 48 dugongs are entangled in commercial gill nets on Queensland’s east coast.
Because they are slow to breed the loss of a single dugong can be devastating to a population.
It’s thought that in the early 1960s there were 72,000 dugongs on Queensland’s east coast but following decades of human pressures, especially along the urban coast between Cairns and Brisbane, numbers fell to fewer than 10,000.
Of these, 6500 were north of Cooktown – a vital reserve for the rest of the state
“By buying this licence, WWF would make it easier for the government to achieve a Net Free North because taxpayers wouldn’t have to fund a payout to the fisher,” said Mr Higgs.
Mr Higgs said WWF had begun negotiations with the licence holder who operates in the Princess Charlotte Bay area. After more than 30 years he wants to stop fishing.
“Once WWF retires the licence, it’s crucial the government ends gill netting in the Far North because there’s nothing currently to stop other licence holders from moving in.
With no local knowledge they may struggle to minimize interactions with protected species,” Mr Higgs said.
“There’s no place for gill netting in the last stronghold for these vulnerable and important species,” he said.
It will cost a sum of at least six figures to purchase the gill net licence. To show support for a Net Free North, please visit https://donate.wwf.org.au/campaigns/buythenet/