Freshwater Sawfish with rostrum removed - Supplied to WWF-Australia

Freshwater Sawfish with rostrum removed - Supplied to WWF-Australia

Barbaric act of cruelty puts the spotlight on gill nets

29 Jun 2019

  • bycatch
  • dugongs
  • ecosystem
  • fisheries
  • great barrier reef
  • marine species
  • marine turtles
  • queensland
  • threatened species

The World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia recently obtained photographs depicting barbaric cruelty associated with the operation of gill nets.

A Largetooth sawfish had its saw hacked off while it was still alive and was thrown back into the water to die a slow painful death from starvation and blood loss.

A Good Samaritan found the sawfish barely alive in Queensland’s Wenlock River last year, photographed the injury, and euthanised the fish to end its suffering.

Commercial fishers were operating a gill net nearby and the photographer believed it highly likely they were responsible for this illegal, inhumane treatment after the sawfish became stuck in their net.

The species is listed as critically endangered by the IUCN and sawfish are completely protected in Australia.

Their saw, also known as a rostrum, is used to hunt prey but is easily entangled in nets. While some operators release sawfish alive, there is mounting evidence the barbaric practice of cutting off the rostrum is still happening.

“Sawfish feel pain. Instead of spending time to free this vulnerable species from a net, someone hacked the rostrum off a live fish in an horrific act of cruelty,” said WWF-Australia Head of Oceans Richard Leck.

Mr Leck said this brutality put the spotlight firmly on gill net fishing and re-enforced WWF’s push for a Net Free North and WWF’s long term advocacy for greater protection in Gulf waters.

Based on observed interaction rates, WWF-Australia 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.

“Gill nets kill indiscriminately. In Queensland, vulnerable species like dugongs, snubfin dolphins, turtles, sawfish and hammerhead sharks suffer terrible deaths in gillnets each year.

“It’s time to remove this deadly and outdated fishing practice from areas that are important habitat for endangered species,” he said.

WWF-Australia wants to create a Net Free North through a Queensland government ban on gill nets between Cooktown and the Torres Strait to protect one of the last global strongholds for dugongs.

To kickstart the creation of a Net Free North, last year WWF-Australia purchased and retired the last full-time gill net licence operating in the area.

But unless the government acts there’s nothing to stop other operators moving in.


Consultation has opened on proposed amendments to Queensland fisheries regulation but the changes do not go far enough to protect threatened species such as sawfish and dugongs, so WWF is urging people to make a submission at

Mr Leck said WWF-Australia had compiled a large case file of known or suspected victims of gill net fishing in Queensland.

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