Local residents, recreational fishers, local commercial line fishers and traditional owners all along the North Queensland Coast are concerned about the devastating effects of commercial gill netting targeting spawning aggregations of the Grey Mackerel and other inshore species. This is occurring in the shadow of the iconic and world famous Daintree World Heritage area and the iconinc Great Barrier Reef. Australian and International law provides protection for threatened habitats and species on land – but less than a kilometer offshore commercial boats from other Queensland Ports pillage annual gatherings of the Grey Mackerel legally, despite netting being banned for other mackerel species long ago. There are concerns that this species is being fished to commercial extinction and local fishers note the effects of indiscriminate netting on the stocks of other species such as Queen fish. Traditional owners and other residents are also concerned about the deaths of dugongs, sea turtles and other so called ‘by-catch’ in the nets used to target Grey Mackerel.
Local resident, semi-retired fisheries consultant and FFC member David Cook has formed the Action Network for Sustainable Fisheries in Douglas Shire and is coordinating the campaign for a moratorium on net fishing in the sensitive waters adjoining the Daintree World Heritage area. You can help our campaign! Learn more about the Grey Mackerel issue below by reading the information provided including articles from local newspapers and briefings prepared by Mr Cook.
What Can You Do to Help?
- Send an email to the Queensland decision makers responsible and call for a moratorium on gill netting targeting the Grey mackerel Spawning aggregations.
- Join Fishers For Conservation (membership is free) and lend the weight of your membership to our call for a moratorium on destructive commercial netting practices.
- Contact FFC and/or the Network for Sustainable Fisheries in Douglas Shire and offer further assistance/support.
BRIEF TO DOUGLAS LMAC, 10 October, 2006
CONCERNS OVER INSHORE & ESTUARY FISH STOCKS IN WORLD HERITAGE WATERS ALONG THE DOUGLAS SHIRE COASTLINE – A call to ban all off-shore gill netting and inshore gill netting by non-residents and those with no long term history of inshore netting in the shire
A summary of some of the main points:
- Based on their local knowledge and experience, both recreational and commercial fishers who have fished the inshore waters along the Douglas Shire coastline for many years are aware there are fewer species of large fish being commonly caught nowadays in local, inshore waters than even 10 years ago; those species which are still being caught are now far less abundant and the average sizes of most species caught are noticeably smaller than they used to be.
- Very large schools of Grey mackerel used to be common at specific sites in inshore waters off the Douglas Shire from around June to September but the size of the schools and the frequency they have been encountered during this period has dropped very significantly in recent years .
- The Grey mackerel (Scomberomorus semifasciatus) is endemic to only a small area including the inshore waters of N. Australia, some of the Arafura Sea and the Gulf of Papua (probably also only the inshore areas), mostly in relatively discolored and nutrient rich waters influenced by estuaries; i.e. it is found nowhere else in the world (www.Fishbase.org ).
- Local opinion is that the cause of the apparent decline in Grey mackerel numbers and the shortening of the “season” has been the repeated netting by large, off-shore boats (around 50 ft in Loa) over the last few years of all the known inshore grounds where pre-spawning and spawning Grey mackerel aggregate. The net boats use large hydraulic drum winches to haul 600 m of monofilament 6 inch mesh nets and can legally operate in our inshore waters down to a depth of 2 metres at low tide.
- DPI has banned the use of nets to capture both Spanish and Spotted Mackerel. Large Spanish mackerel in breeding condition (with large roe) and Spotted mackerel are caught by hand line fishing (trolling and bait) on the same grounds as where the Grey mackerel reach breeding condition along the Douglas Shire coast i.e. where they are currently being netted. It is therefore inevitable these two species are also caught in significant quantities by the Grey mackerel gill netters.
- The temptation to keep the large Spanish and Spotted mackerel inevitably caught as by-catch from netting Greys, (as by that time they are already dead) and simply either declaring them as Grey mackerel (or else as having been caught whilst trolling between the grounds and port) must be considerable. After these species die, the skin colour and markings fade and by the time they have been filleted and frozen, they are hard or virtually impossible to differentiate. I am unaware of what the chances are of anyone being caught for this offence. The question needs to be asked whether DPI can guarantee that misreported by-catch of Spanish and Spotted mackerels is not artificially boosting the level of catches recorded for Grey mackerel.
- CRC Reef Research Centre, using DPI data, reports the ‘commercial gross value of production’ of the Grey mackerel fishery in 2003 to be $1,323,000 for the 220.5 tonnes landed. This gives an average return of $6/kg. About 4% of the total annual catch of Grey mackerel is by recreational fishers (1997 & 99 survey, RFISH).
- Winds over about 15 knots are regular in inshore waters along the Douglas Shire coastline during the ‘Grey mackerel season’ and these greatly limit the amount of fishing done by recreational fishers while the netters can fish in considerably rougher weather and throughout the night over many more days of the season.
- A DPI spokesperson has said there is no evidence that current fishing of Grey mackerel is unsustainable. This raises three questions: (i) how much have they looked for any evidence, (ii) what evidence do they have that current levels are in fact sustainable, and (iii) would they like to call an open meeting in Mossman to make this point known to the hundreds of residents who would be interested to make their own viewpoints on this subject firmly known to DPI.
- There is a fundamental flaw in using total catches and catch-per-unit-effort (CPUE) figures as indicators of the health of fish stocks of inshore species (like the Grey mackerel) where all known breeding sites are netted. Namely total catches and CPUE for some species can remain quite high until the stocks suddenly crash. Once this happens it has been found that populations of some species are likely to remain low for many years afterwards (e.g. North Sea Herring, Atlantic mackerel and others).
- Many fish stocks have been fished-out the world over by under-regulated fisheries where authorities have waited too long before introducing appropriate measures to restrict fishing effort. Damage has been long lasting with thousands of boats having to be decommissioned and hundreds of thousands of jobs lost. Very often evidence put forward by fisheries managers and their requests for more appropriate controls have been ignored by politicians encouraged by wealthy fishing fleet owners. Such fishing has proved to be more similar to mining of resources rather than the responsible harvesting of a resource. We need to learn from such past mistakes and act now to reduce and reverse what we consider to be similar overfishing of the fish stocks found along the Douglas Shire coastline.
- While mackerel net fishermen are claiming they “follow” the same schools up and down the coast I am not aware of any tangible evidence for this. I am also unaware of any evidence that they are not simply fishing down known local populations aggregating at known sites. Mackerel may simply be gathering at the same sites at the same time of year to feed on locally abundant bait fish schools occurring in these locations during these months. When the gill-netters have fished down one pre-spawning aggregation, the larger boats can simply move on to the next known site along the coastline. There is currently a research project operating out of JCU investigating this possibility.
- There is a significant fishery for Spanish mackerel in the Torres Straits and along the Eastern northern end of Cape York based on a troll fishery. This should also presumably land significant quantities of Grey mackerel if they were present, however the catch of Greys from this fishery is insignificant. This would indicate the species is either uncommon in the area or for some reason not taking lures. In relation to this point, DPI is asked to provide an overall summary of total annual landings of Grey mackerel by boats operating on the East Coast north of Douglas Shire as the figures given on the internet indicate these are either negligible or for less than five boats (no values given) whereas figures for Spanish mackerel are significant.
- If the Grey mackerel stocks on the East of Queensland are indeed subdivided into local and relatively discrete populations with little exchange of individuals, then the opportunities for serial overfishing of what amount to pre-spawning and spawning aggregations is alarming. This is because, at least in waters off Douglas Shire, the schools remain for long periods mostly in one or two small localities rather than constantly roaming freely over the whole area. The current practice of relatively unrestricted large scale gill netting using hydraulic drum net-haulers is considered by many Douglas Shire residents to be contributing to a massive decline in local stocks.
- Regardless of whether there is only a single stock i.e. a freely intermingling single population moving up and down the entire Qld coast as claimed by the netters, or a number of discrete populations, because of the serious decline observed in Grey mackerel catches in local waters in recent years, we are required to exercise the ‘precautionary principle’ as indicated in the 1995 FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fishing (see below) and further restrict catches of Grey mackerel.
- It may prove to be irresponsible to wait for the finalisation of the long awaited DPI Inshore Finfish management plan before taking appropriate management measures. There is currently ample justification based on good fisheries management principles to demand an immediate moratorium on netting of grey mackerel in the waters off the Douglas Shire. As far as I am aware, the Fisheries Legislation currently allows the Minister for Primary Industry to introduce a special regulation to this effect.
- In Douglas Shire, local commercial line fishers, charter fishers, recreational fishers and those with commercial interests in fishing, including tackle shop owners and outboard motor service agents, caravan park owners and all seven Shire Councilors have signed a petition calling for the banning of netting of Grey Mackerel in the waters off Douglas Shire. Almost 700 signatures have been collected. Copies of the petition were sent to the National and Labour Candidates before the State Election, and to the local commercial fishers’ representative for a meeting in Brisbane commencing this week.
- Douglas Shire Council passed a motion in September by 7 votes to nil to write to the Minister for DPI, QLD to request a banning of offshore gill netting and commercial gill netting by non-residents in the shire (still to confirm full details).
- Returned Labour MP, Jason O’Brien, spent the morning of 22 September 2006 at meetings held at Mossman Bait and Tackle, Wonga Esplanade Caravan Park, Pinnacle Caravan Park and at the Daintree River boat ramp (near the ferry crossing) discussing the issue with many concerned locals. Mr. O’Brien was clearly impressed with the depth and breadth of concerns throughout the local community for our failing inshore and estuarine fish stocks. Mr. O’Brien is attempting to hold a meeting with the DPI minister, Tom Mulherin, this week to discuss the issue and request it be given urgent attention.
- Recent Press Articles or letters and television coverage include:
- PD & Mossman Gazette, Aug. 31, 2006, Front page headlines “Mackerel Fear” and colour photos, article continued p.10
- PD & Mossman Gazette, Sep. 7, 2006. Letters to the Editor. “Mackerel investigation needed” and “Netting drowns dugong”
- PD & Mossman Gazette, Sep. 14, 2006. Article “Fish stocks impact tourism”
- Cairns Weekend Post, Sep. 9, 2006. “Breeding Site being bled dry” including large photo of off-shore gill-netter pulling in mackerel in inshore waters 800 m from the high tide line off a national park island, just 1 nm off the Douglas Shire coastline, with inset showing Grey mackerel caught in same place on same day, carrying large, ripening roe.
- Cairns Post, Sep. 25, 2006. “Call to ban gill netting”. Picture of traditional elders/owners on the Daintree estuary with an article about the visit to the Shire on 22 Sep. by Jason O’Brien, MP, to listen to residents complaints about fish stocks and calls for a ban on all off-shore gill netting in the inshore waters and estuaries of the Shire.
- Cairns Post, Sep. 26, 2006. “Mackerel Battle”. Lists concerns by the of-shore netters and also rumours about threats of violence if the netting of Grey mackerel in the Shire is allowed to continue. One of the local campaign co-ordinators is quoted as saying ”it would be irresponsible of DPI not to address the issue immediately.”
- Win News, 6pm. 27 Sep. 2006. 2 minutes taken up including interviews with the Mayor, Mike Berwick and David Cook.
- SCRFA (see below) Newsletter, No. 9. Breaking News, informs members of the international world concerned about conservation of reef fish spawning aggregations about the reports of overfishing of Grey mackerel stocks.
- The (international) Society for the Conservation of Reef Fish Aggregations (SCRFA) has flagged the issue in their latest international newsletter and a Douglas Shire spawning aggregation site has been entered into their data base. They are willing to lend their support for the conservation of spawning aggregations of Grey mackerel at such sites.
- A representative of the Cairns and Far North Environment Centre (CAFNEC) has expressed support and suggested hosting or helping with a forum on the whole issue of commercial netting of inshore and estuary waters in FNQ. Douglas Shire Sustainability Group, (DSSG) with 150 members has offered the support of their members. Fishers for Conservation Inc., (FFC) a national body based in S. Australia has taken the netting of spawning aggregations of grey Mackerel on-board (see their web page). Under discussion is the possibility of forming a local FFC branch to support our Grey mackerel campaign and encouraging local relevant scientific research to complement and strengthen our current efforts. FFC consider that funding for the research projects could be secured under the Recreational Fishing Community Grants Programme, Round 4 if a local branch were formed, and the National FFC office would assist in the development of the project proposal and funding application. The Cairns representative of SunFish has also expressed his interest in our campaign.
- As recreational fishers nowadays can never even catch anything approaching their bag for Greys in local waters when the weather does calm down, it would be logical, as an additional precautionary measure, to consider dropping the recreational bag limit from 10 fish to an appropriate number, bearing in mind the weather greatly limits the amount of fishing the recreational fishers can undertake.
- The stocks of other species in local estuaries have fallen so low that there should be an immediate ban on all (other) commercial netting by persons who do not live in the shire and/or do not have an established history of netting in the shire. Other management measures such as the buying out of local netting licenses may also be necessary to give stocks the opportunity to rebuild.
- A local netter has pointed out that there are good reasons why he should be allowed to continue to ring net mullet and garfish in shallow water by day as this is an active, well controlled operation that targets small moving schools of mullet not caught by any other method.
- DPI has said they have no evidence that local stocks are being overfished. But then neither does the ostrich that keeps its head stuck in the sand. Any monitoring programme that ignores the hard earned experience and wisdom of community elders each having fished local waters for over 20 years …. to use the modern parlance … “so” lacks credibility.
A number of records of statements have been collected from local residents, this needs to be up-graded to a fully funded survey
Jumping Cod (Tripletail) used to be extremely common in and near the Daintree estuary; these are now very rare, Maori seaperch used to be commonly caught and are now rarely seen.
Even previously common species such as Queenfish and Golden trevally
See statements from fishers referred to in footnote 1, above
Evidence in one commercial line fisher’s DPI Fisheries log book where effort has been relatively consistent, and the attached observations and statements by long-time local recreational fishers.
DPI Queensland apparently use the term “off-shore” to describe waters over 2 metres at low tide, internationally it is usually taken as at least 3 nautical miles from the shoreline.
Note: The Grey mackerel are caught by what DPI term “off-shore” netting, where DPI apparently define “off-shore” as “in waters over 2 metres depth”; internationally “off-shore” is usually considered to be beyond a given number of nautical miles or kilometres from the shore.
“QLD DPI&F confirmed at their recent east coast finfish fishery consultation meeting held in Port Douglas on 23 Oct that anyone of the 400+ licensed gill-netters on the East Coast can legally fish any area on the East Coast not closed to fishing or requiring special permits (very few areas). This is a recipe for serial overfishing of inshore areas such as around estuaries and known grey mackerel aggregating sites. There is anecdotal evidence serial overfishing is already happening but it appears DPI&F data analysis is not sufficiently fine tuned to pick this up. As DPI&F apparently cannot prove fish stocks of various species on the East Coast are composed of single intermingling populations, they should take a precautionary approach and limit given operators to reasonable quotas for certain local areas and ensure adequate precautions are taken to prevent any possibility of serial overfishing of local stocks being their only way of supporting catch rates and CPUE at current levels. DPI&F need to be convinced of the value of including the voluntary advice of a variety of local stakeholders via Local Fisheries Management Advisory Committees when deciding quotas and licences for given areas. These need to be established with a view to managing and allowing the re-building of deplenished local fish stocks. The emphasis needs to be shifted back, with regards to inshore fishing, to small local, labour-intensive fishing methods landing top quality product rather than larger more expensive boats with highly efficient gear capable of fishing-out local areas in a short period of time and often landing poorer grade product. In QLD at least, it appears DPI&F need to pay far more attention to local anecdotal evidence of overfishing of local stocks and take effective measures to objectively record any changes. Studies need to be undertaken based on the recollections of older fishers as to stock levels 20 to 30 yrs ago in order to record estimates of baseline stock levels for future comparative purposes.” – David Cook