Great Barrier Reef dugongs’ continued decline shows why gillnets must be banned in their last strongholds

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Dead Dugong Calf

  • Latest research shows southern Reef dugong population dropping 2.3% annually since 2005 to approximately 2100 individuals and disturbingly fewer calves are being found

  • $12 million gillnet fishery is dwarfed by the $6 billion tourism industry that relies on healthy Reef marine life and ecosystem

  • Queensland Government must immediately end gillnet fishing in Dugong Protection Areas

The continued population decline of the threatened dugong in Great Barrier Reef waters shows why gillnets need to be banned in Dugong Protection Areas while gillnets are being phased out from the Reef, the Australian Marine Conservation Society said after the results of the latest dugong aerial survey report were released today.

Researchers from James Cook University TropWATER centre recently completed aerial surveys of the Southern Great Barrier Reef, Hervey Bay and Moreton Bay looking for dugongs. They found the Southern Great Barrier Reef dugong population, from Hinchinbrook to Bundaberg, has been declining at 2.3% a year since 2005, with estimates of approximately 2100 individuals left. Alarmingly, very few calves were seen in the southern Reef, which doesn’t bode well for the future of the population.

The study shows that the highest dugong densities occur within Dugong Protection Areas, which are meant to provide additional protection to dugongs as well as other threatened species such as turtles, dolphins and sawfish. However, commercial gillnet fishing continues to occur within these areas, with dugong deaths attributed to bycatch contributing to their continued decline.

AMCS Great Barrier Reef Fisheries Campaign Manager Simon Miller said: “The continued population decline of dugongs in Great Barrier Reef waters is incredibly alarming and shows why gillnets need to be banned in their last strongholds on our Reef.

“The consistent decline and the unrelenting pressures on our Reef’s dugong population could lead to localised extinctions in Great Barrier Reef waters. Dugongs are a threatened species in Queensland and are being pushed to the brink of extinction in other areas around the world, so it is extremely concerning that the Southern Great Barrier Reef and Hervey Bay populations continue to decline. We need to do more to protect this iconic species.

“Gillnets are indiscriminate killers, and one of the biggest threats to dugongs on the Great Barrier Reef. This study provides further evidence that the Queensland Government must urgently close all Dugong Protection Areas to gillnet fishing, to protect threatened dugongs. Dugong Protection Areas also provide key habitats for other threatened species such as turtles, sawfish and snubfin dolphins.

“Closing Dugong Protection Areas to gillnet fishing, along with the full ban on gillnets in 2027, will be a huge boost for threatened species, the health of the Reef and the $6 billion Reef tourism industry and the 64,000 jobs it supports.”

Gillnets are large fishing nets, sometimes over one-kilometre long, used to catch fish such as barramundi and mackerel, but they are indiscriminate in what they catch. Earlier this year, AMCS released photos showing dugongs, narrow sawfish and green turtles entangled in gillnets or dead on the beach in a Dugong Protection Area. One photo showed at least 13 sawfish caught and allegedly dead in a single gillnet.

In June the Queensland and Australian governments announced a $160 million package to phase out gillnets from the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area by June 2027 and create new net-free zones in the interim. The package includes compensation for affected fishers.

The $12 million Reef gillnet fishery is dwarfed by the $6 billion Great Barrier Reef tourism industry and the 64,000 jobs it supports, which rely on healthy marine life and a fully functioning ecosystem. The vast majority (89%) of the barramundi produced in Australia is farmed, not caught at sea, and the Reef gillnet fishery supplies just 1.3% of Australia’s barramundi, according to the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Statistics’ 2021 data.

The study also found an alarming decline in the Hervey Bay dugong population to 1,533 individuals. Back-to-back flooding events in 2022 decimated seagrass, the primary food source for the species. The majority of remaining dugongs were seen clustered around the last remaining seagrass in Hervey Bay, an area that has recently been afforded greater protection as part of the rezoning of the Great Sandy Marine Park, which will help to secure the future of the species in the region.

Australian Marine Conservation Society

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