Conservationists have reclaimed the last such commercial fishing license in the northern Great Barrier Reef, paving the way for the creation of a Tasmanian-sized ‘no net zone’ to protect dugongs, dolphins and turtles.
WWF-Australia announced on Monday that it had purchased and would withdraw the commercial ‘gillnet’ license from Tony Riesenweber – which held the ‘last significant quota’ for the northern reef – creating a 100,000 sq km refuge spanning from Cape Flattery to Torres Strait.
Richard Leck, oceans manager for WWF-Australia, said now is the time for state and federal governments to ban commercial gillnets on the northern Great Barrier Reef forever.
“By buying gillnet licenses, WWF did the heavy lifting,” he said.
“Creating one of the largest dugong sanctuaries in the world is an initiative of global significance.
“Now we are calling on the Australian and Queensland governments to create a special management area on the far north of the reef to permanently protect this area from commercial gillnet fishing.”
It came after WWF launched its vision of a ‘Net Free North’ after buying another of the region’s commercial gillnet licenses in 2018.
Leck said sea turtles, snubfin dolphins, sawfish, hammerhead sharks and the critically endangered Bizant River shark would now also be protected. He also called for an expanded network of net-free zones along the Great Barrier Reef coasts.
Although the licenses purchased by the WWF would “never again be used for commercial gillnet fishing”, it hoped to hand them over to traditional owners in Cape Town for “sustainable fishing” practices such as crabbing or angling. in the mud, or to generate income from charters. .
The organization reportedly paid Riesenweber less than six figures for his license.
Riesenweber primarily sought to catch barramundi with the gillnet, which he said he used at or around river mouths and areas with muddy or sandy bottoms.
The fisherman described the WFF offer as a rare case of “someone from the outside doing something positive” for an industry he said has been abandoned by the government.
“They’re trying to support the industry, in many ways,” Riesenweber said of WWF.
“So at least some fishermen can come out with some dignity.”
Conservationists describe gillnets as “walls of death”, but Riesenweber disputed their characterization as indiscriminate killers. He said commercial operators had a vested interest in sustainable fishing, but described the sale of his license as “a compromise”.
“They wanted it, they had a good reason for it and they made me an offer which I thought was reasonable,” he said. “We all want the same outcome at the end of the day… what we need to do is understand everyone’s point of view.
“You never trust your enemy, but you can understand him.”
The 68-year-old said he would continue to fish commercially on the outer reefs, but was worried about rising fuel prices and seafood imports.
Riesenweber said his grandfather fished in Moreton Bay and his father died on a trawler in 1971.
“When I retire I want to be able to buy fresh Australian fish,” he said. “But the way we’re heading is we won’t be able to do that.”
Leck said WWF supports sustainable fishing on the reef – commercial and recreational.
“It’s just unfortunate that in the World Heritage area we still have a number of poor fishing practices and a lot of room for improvement in fisheries management,” Leck said.
Riesenweber’s is the fourth gillnet license purchased by WWF on the reef. Two were purchased primarily to protect dugongs, two others for hammerhead sharks.
“It is not normal practice for a conservation organization to purchase and suspend commercial net fishing licenses,” Leck said.
“But it was a practical way to remove the threat of gillnets from a section of the reef [that is] incredibly important for endangered species.
WWF has focused on the northern part of the reef because it is home to the greatest proportion of threatened marine wildlife, with the area north of Cape Flattery supporting around 7,000 dugongs and 282,000 juvenile and adult large turtles.
Leck said there were no formal records of endangered marine species becoming entangled and drowning in the nets. But the WWF points to recent marine deaths which they say demonstrate the dangers of gillnets.
In September 2018, six sawfish and two dugongs washed up on a beach south of Townsville. All are believed to have been killed by gillnets.
“Australian nature needs us now more than ever,” said Leck.