Gillnetting in the GBRMP: recommendations for urgent change

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The management of gillnetting in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is so far behind the rest of Australian fisheries as to have slipped, in some respects, to Third World standards.3 Regional management Daintree estuary and coastal mountains narrow.jpg

We all know that there are not nearly as many large fish left in our estuaries and adjacent waters as there used to be. We now very rarely, if ever catch some of the species that used to be common.
Environmental factors have a lot to answer for but probably the major contributor to low numbers in many areas is overfishing by gillnets, especially netting of spawning aggregations or “runs”. Unfortunately the scientific studies to test this claim have never been done and now the proverbial horse has well and truly bolted.
Facts raised in this column over the past three months speak for themselves. They indicate that the authorities urgently need to restructure the gillnet fishery to reduce the risk of a number of other iconic species also disappearing from our catches.

1 Two mackerel net boats  Douglas coast 23Aug07.jpg
In May and June, I outlined the need for change purely on grounds of sustainable fisheries management. Add to this the impact gillnets can have on dugong, turtle and inshore dolphin, then add the anger, social conflict and loss of social and economic opportunities caused by gillnet overfishing and it beats me why we have allowed this to continue for so long.

It is time for the bureaucrats and politicians to take this topic out of their too-hard baskets and put in the hard yards before time runs out on our fish. In this, my final article in the series, we shall look at how the fishery should be restructured for the greatest benefit to local communities, the industry and fish stocks alike.
These recommendations have been developed during discussions between various NQ fishing networks and will go a long way towards helping the fishery reach required standards of sustainability (see June’s column and

More details are contained in the report The Bones of Contention, 3rd Ed. to Fisheries Minister, Dr John McVeigh, by Paul Aubin and yours truly (you can Google it).
As to the cost of the process, well it should eventually pay for itself and prove to be a great long-term investment.

But how can we put a price on the value of unique populations of barra, king threadfin, grey mackerel and iconic rare and threatened species such as dugong, in our World Heritage GBRMP?
Once they’re gone they are gone forever. This would be to our lasting shame. How could we ever explain to our grandchildren why we failed future generations?

Three basic concepts

All stakeholders need to take onboard three basic concepts if they are to understand the need for change in this fishery.

Firstly there are solid physical reasons for our NQ east coast inshore fish stocks being so small in comparison to our land mass and these stocks are already depleted, yielding catches at a fraction of their real potential.  
Nowhere have I seen a greater need for recognition of the small size of some local stocks than when I photographed two large drum netters on the small grey mackerel spawning grounds off the Daintree Coast in 2007.

In my professional opinion, the most likely reason for the lack of grey mackerel on these spawning grounds for the next three years was because they had been overfished in 2007. Local fishers, including two professional mackerel line-fishers, were fuming. The local pros were also heavily out-of-pocket for the next three years.
These boats are just too big and too efficient for the size of the resource in that area.
The second concept is that gillnetting is already operating at dangerously unsustainable levels. Allowing bigger boats, more and better nets and opening up areas previously closed to gillnetting is flogging a dead horse.

Rather we must focus on achieving a truly sustainable fishery and enabling fish stocks to recover to more profitable levels.

Thirdly, the concept of right-of-access by any gillnetter to fish almost anywhere netting is permitted along the entire east coast must be kicked into touch once and for all, for reasons explained in May’s column. Our fish belong to the public, not just the pros and right now we are failing our fish.

Regional management

The most-needed change is for the east coast of Queensland, distance around 2,000 km in a straight line north to south, to be divided into an appropriate number of fishery management bio-regions where management of fishing in each region is tailored to suit local conditions. In The Bones of Contention Paul and I suggest nine such regions.

Sound fisheries management plans, aiming to deliver optimum community benefits, should be developed for each region. Commercial fishing effort should be tailored to the sustainable requirements of communities in each region. 4 Dugong Thornton Peak sq.jpg

The plans should include where, when, how and by whom commercial fishing may be conducted in each region. They should also have various simple input controls such as maximum permitted number of fishing licences, number and lengths of nets, mesh size, maximum size of boat, number of days that may be fished and so forth, for each region. Spawning closures and more net free areas would probably also be required.
Each gillnet licence should be restricted to only one region or part(s) of a region and VMS (vessel monitoring system) should be used whenever nets are set.

Only when gillnetters are satisfied with who is permitted to fish on ‘their’ grounds will any form of resource stewardship be likely.


We are presently allowing suburban estuaries and adjacent coastlines to be overfished. As gillnets can take the most fish for the least return in such areas and do the most collateral damage, whilst spoiling it for so many, this is economic folly and socially divisive.

Now more than ever there are strong social and economic reasons for areas fished heavily by the recreational sector to be managed as Recreational Only Fishing Areas (ROFAs) or (gill-) Net Free Areas (NFAs).
Recreational fisheries management plans should be developed for each ROFA aimed at allowing fish stocks to recover to optimum levels.


ROFAs and NFAs come at a cost. Revenue can be secured by following the successful examples of other states and introducing annual recreational fishing licences (RFLs) for working adults.
If rec licences cost about the same as a slab of stubbies and helped you land more and bigger fish closer to home, then this has to be a good deal.

Commercial fishing licences

Commercial fishing licences should be held only by fulltime commercial fishers. They are intended as tools for sustainable management. Regrettably Queensland has allowed them to morph into tradable items such that they can no longer serve their intended function.
Specialist legal advice is required here but, in view of obvious threats to sustainability, there should be compulsory buyback of all under-used licences and symbols and no further private trading of these.

Bait and small mesh gill nets

 These nets are probably killing millions of fingerlings and undersize larger species every year, regardless of how much care is taken. Studies to quantify the slaughter of juveniles by dragnets are crying out to be done.
The use of small mesh gillnets and recreational drag nets, in NQ at least, should be banned and seasonal closures of nursery areas probably need to be introduced for commercial bait netting. 3 Hammerhead & greys in net sq.jpg

Netting of grey mackerel

There is still no spawning closure for grey mackerel, a species having an unknown number of non-mixing populations along the East Coast.

The continued gillnetting of their easily accessed inshore spawning grounds under a single total allowable commercial catch quota, as at present, places whole populations at high risk. This is Australian fisheries management at Third World standards.

An adequate management plan, including a ban on netting their spawning grounds, is urgently required to prevent the further loss of local populations.

Hammerhead sharks often die in nets set for grey mackerel and have bits exported for shark’s fin soup. From March 2013 all hammerhead sharks are CITES Schedule II species, meaning a special permit from CITES is required for export of their fins. They are themust-see’ shark for most scuba divers, being totally protected in NSW, but are now rarely seen whilst diving the GBR. Form your own conclusion.
Details of the campaign to halt gillnetting of grey mackerel can be found on this site./Grey_Mackerel.html

It’s politics, stupid!

After years of banging my head against a brick wall trying to explain the science to FQ, it finally dawned on me that it would be politics and not the science that would bring about change.

There are awesome benefits to be gained from continuing gillnetting reform beyond the present buyback phase. That is why everyone should make the effort to create the political will for reform now.
One last question for you: How can GBRMPA and Fisheries Queensland claim to be upholding the World Heritage biodiversity values of the marine park whilst allowing many inshore fish populations to remain at high risk of local extinction? Their field staff are increasingly aware of the problem.
Obviously cages at the top need to be rattled! It is up to us to insist the relevant managers re-evaluate the content of their too-hard baskets.

What can you do? Well for starters, how about explaining to your mates, your local fishing club, political candidates and even your GBRMPA Local Marine Advisory Committee (LMAC) members why we have to restructure the gillnet fishery and what needs to be done? It is in everyone’s interest.

And whilst you are at it a quick letter to Fisheries Minister, Dr John McVeigh, be very useful.
David Cook

By David Cook
Wonga Beach


1. Conditions vary widely between regions; for example the Daintree River, shown here, only 120 km long, can service only small inshore fish stocks: one reason for regional management.
2. Allowing large offshore gillnetters such as these to net small inshore spawning grounds of grey mackerel until they are fished out is unsustainable fishing at Third World standards.

3. Hammerhead sharks, often caught in grey mackerel nets, are now a CITES listed species.

4. Dugong and nets don’t mix well; this is one of many suspected of drowning in a gillnet.


3 Regional management Daintree estuary and coastal mountains narrow.jpg

1 Two mackerel net boats  Douglas coast 23Aug07.jpg

3. 3 Hammerhead & greys in net sq.jpg

4. 4 Dugong Thornton Peak sq.jpg