thumbTwelve management changes required to the East Coast Gillnet Fishery to assist recovery of inshore fish stocks

A summary of concerns held for fisheries management in far North Queensland that is relevant to fisheries management Australia wide.

The following letter summarises concerns held by members of the Network for Sustainable Fishing, Douglas Region (NSF DR) Far North Queensland. Co-ordinator: David C. Cook BSc (Hons1), Post Grad Dp Fisheries Mgt. The letter is 11 February, 2013 and can be downloaded as a PDF here (recomended). It was addressed to: The Honorable John McVeigh, Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, 80 Ann Street, Brisbane.

A summary letter was also forwarded to other Ministers and a copy can be downloaded here.

Dear Minister McVeigh,
Towards a sustainable future: twelve management changes required to the
East Coast Gillnet Fishery to assist recovery of inshore fish stocks

Fishers throughout Queensland recognize major issues with the current use of gillnets in the East
Coast Inshore Finfish Fishery (ECIFF). In this letter we recommend to you twelve much-needed
management changes to help transform local gillnetting into a sustainable fishery whilst assisting
the recovery of our declining inshore fish stocks. We include some background to the need for
these changes, with a list of features of the gillnet fishery which fail to comply with criteria used to
assess the sustainability of various fisheries worldwide.

Whilst we recognize the need for austerity in the current economic climate, to do nothing now to
halt the decline of our inshore fish places local food security, recreational and tourism opportunities
and the gillnet fishery itself at medium to high risk. Much of the funding for key management
change to improve inshore fish stocks could be raised through the introduction of recreational
fishing licences and better use of the recreational user fee (RUF) charged on boat registrations.
It is encouraging that LNP‟s election promise to spend $9m on the buyback of some gillnet licences
is well underway. Finally, after years of denial by the previous government, you, as new Fisheries
Minister, recognize that gillnetting, under present management, is significantly contributing to
declining inshore fish stocks. This is a major breakthrough and a deep relief to many in all sectors
of the fishery. Congratulations to LNP for taking the initiative to reduce gillnetting effort.

Priority: Management change in the East Coast Gillnet Fishery.

As each region in Queensland has its own unique circumstances, a number of other regional
networks are also writing to you to present concerns relating to their own regions. I present our
concerns here from a Douglas Region perspective. An earlier draft of this letter has been
distributed widely, in and beyond the DR and consideration taken of all comments received back.
It is now accepted between networks that a reduction in gillnet effort and initially, whilst stocks
rebuild, a harvest reduction of around 50%, would help stocks recover and ensure a better future
for those remaining in the fishery as well as the tourism industry and local communities in general.
Given that buyback of gillnet licences is proceeding, the challenge is to achieve a genuine
reduction in both gillnet effort and, initially, harvest of the above order of magnitude. We must not
pay just to remove unused licences or buy licences from fishers who are allowed to later continue
netting. Even with significant reduction in effort, under current regulations there is still a high risk of
loss of valuable economic and social opportunities. This includes the risk of extinction of some
local populations of key estuary and/or inshore species. The priority now must be significant
change to the regulation and management of the ECIFF.

Twelve recommended management changes

To keep this communication to a reasonable length, the explanation and justification for most of the
following recommendations may be found in the References cited at the end. We recommend the
following changes be introduced as a matter of urgency, in approximate order of priority:

1. Three paradigm changes in policy:

A - Re-focus from right of access by gillnetters to rebuilding inshore fish resources;

B - Require all fisheries in Queensland demonstrate they are sustainable (c.f. USA
& Western Australia) e.g. through independent certification by the Marine
Stewardship Council (MSC) c.f. WA. The public can assist by refusing to purchase
product not labeled as caught in certified sustainable fisheries; this would drive the
other recommendations (below);

C - Discourage participants from scaling up to inappropriately large operations, (the
downfall of countless fisheries worldwide) by restricting investment to an
appropriate small scale (e.g. size of boat) in keeping with size of local inshore
stocks and by maintaining permanent investment warnings on the fishery.

2. Ban netting of Grey and School mackerel such that all mackerel are line only species.

3. Introduce Recreational only Fishing Areas (ROFAs) or Net Free Areas (NFAs) / Line
Only Areas (cast nets and targeted mullet surround netting permitted) in areas of
appropriate urban, tourism or conservation significance.

4. Demarcation of the East Coast into at least nine regions (or zones) with gillnetters
permitted to fish in only one region/zone and only with compulsory use of VMS reporting.

5. Develop input (e.g. length of net, size of boat, number of days that may be fished,
additional area and spawning closures) rather than output mechanisms (TACCs) for
regional management of commercial effort.

6. Introduce recreational fishing licences where all income is used to help fund those
management measures listed here which improve the recreational fishing experience.
Make better use of the recreational user fee (RUF) charged on pleasure vessel
registrations to also improve the recreational fishing and boating experience.

7. Commercial Fishing licences, symbols and endorsements: the purpose of these is to
allow management of commercial fishing effort – not to provide the public with objects of
trade. They are presently clearly failing their intended purpose, so ensure:

A. compulsory buyback of all latent licences, symbols and endorsements such that
FQ controls all such latent licences, symbols and endorsements and there is no
private trading of these;

B. Commercial fishing licences to be held only by genuine fulltime commercial fishers,
there must be no part-timer fishers (who are inherently capable of subsidizing their
fishing from other income);

8. Ban four inch (passive) gillnetting (far too destructive: high wasted bycatch of
undersized large commercial species) in FNQ, but permit active ring-netting of mullet.

9. Ban recreational drag netting for prawns or bait (reason summarised in Plate 2).

10. Greater enforcement regarding illegal gill netting, including sale of gillnets to persons not
holding and displaying a current fishing licence with appropriate endorsement/symbol and
also possession of gillnets by persons who do not have the appropriate licence and symbol.

11. Heavier penalties for all violations of commercial fisheries regulations.

12. GBRMPA to have legal right of veto with regards to locations and seasons where/when
gillnetting activities are permitted within GBRMP.

drag net flier

Further Background

Members of NSF DR participated in a study of the oral history of fishing in the Douglas Region,
carried out by JCU under an FRDC funded study in 2010. Being aware of the contribution the
community made to this study, we know the results will confirm our concerns regarding far fewer
large fish in our inshore waters. The results have so far not been made available to us. Some in
the community suspect this is because findings were politically unacceptable to the government of
the day as previous Ministers had persistently denied there was any problem with inshore

The Douglas Region NSF is just one of a number of similar regional networks along our coast with
members who are deeply concerned about the poor condition of our inshore fishing. Over the past
few months I have been involved in considerable discussion with networks stretching from Weipa
and Cooktown, through Cairns, Mackay, Rockhampton, Fraser Coast and beyond. A significant
level of consensus has been achieved with regards to how to tackle widespread overfishing by
gillnets, leading to frustration over the loss of economic and recreational opportunities.

As co-ordinator of NSF DR, I advocate sustainable fishing at optimum stock levels across all
sectors. My professional training in fisheries management encourages me to avoid taking sides
between commercial, charter and recreational fishers. There should be the opportunity, and there
is the need and potential for all sectors to operate successfully and harmoniously if under adequate
management. Numbers and sizes of inshore fish in local catches have dropped so far that
opportunities for harmonious co-existence are now limited.

The current management regime now results in commercial netters at conflict with each other and
also with recreational and charter fishers. This is verging on irresponsible governance. The solution
is better fisheries management, including creation of various levels of net-free, line-only and
recreational-only fishing areas.

As an example of the frustration felt by some in the community, just recently, on 1 Feb. 2013, at
Rocky Point boat ramp, Douglas Region, the inner tube valves of a vehicle used by a 2
nd generation, local commercial netter were cut off, deflating his tyres and making them impossible to
re-inflate. The netter discovered this deplorable act when he returned to his vehicle after a
gillnetting trip around 1.00 a.m. on the morning of 2nd February.

Issues in the gillnet fishery which ensure it fails any adequate assessment of sustainability
The over-arching feature of our inshore fish stocks is that the species targeted by gillnetters can
support only relatively small-scale fishing operations, not the industrial fisheries of more nutrient
rich waters. Under current management regulations and the existing conditions within the gillnet
fishery, there are many features of the ECIFF rendering it incapable of being independently
assessed as sustainable, e.g. using MSC criteria. These include:

1. Gillnetters may set nets almost anywhere on the East Coast open to general gillnet fishing. This
engenders a “take it before someone else does” mentality and renders pointless any attempt
at local husbandry of local resources as these are „open for plunder by out-of-towners’.

2. Only barramundi are protected by a spawning closure. Most inshore species spawn in schools
or aggregations in easily netted inshore waters at predictable seasons and sites either during
and/or outside the barramundi closure. Such aggregations or „runs‟ are highly vulnerable to
overfishing by nets. Plate 1 shows four key species caught locally with developing roe. Dates of
capture indicate the pre-spawning aggregations occur outside of the barramundi closure. During
the barramundi closure these species may be taken by four-inch or “offshore” gillnets.

3. Key species have separate (non-mixing) localised populations around different estuary systems
and their adjacent turbid waters. Individuals of some species do not venture far into clean water
or over clean sand or around rocky headlands into different estuary systems. If heavily
overfished, localised populations may not be replaced by immigration from other populations
and may even become locally extinct. There is no management measure in place to reduce the
risk of this happening as in, e.g. the long-term collapse of the Bowen grey mackerel fishery in
the 1970‟s and the near collapse of the Douglas Region grey mackerel fishery 2006 - 2010.

4. Even relatively tiny waterways in urban and tourism centres such as Packers Creek, Port
Douglas Township, may be legally netted, subject to the whims of any gillnetter. This is a recipe
for local depletion and social conflict: a complete misallocation of economic and social priorities.

5. Different target species mature at different sizes; immature individuals of some species are
enmeshed and die in large quantities in gear (including commercial bait nets, recreational drag
nets and four-inch gillnets) designed for smaller species. No records are kept of this.

6. “Offshore” gillnet fishing is defined as being in water over two metres depth at low tide. 600m of
gillnets may be set just off the shore and, like four-inch nets, are used throughout the
barramundi closed season. The impact of „offshore‟ nets on spawning barramundi numbers is
unknown whilst there are many anecdotal accounts of past wastage of many tonnes of
discarded bycatch e.g. queenfish and tuna with tonnes of corpses dumped in coastal caves or
found washed up on remote shorelines.

7. Four-inch nets catch many undersized commercial species including barramundi and threadfin,
the latter (two species of threadfin) like a number of other species die quickly when netted.

8. Gillnets kill rare and protected animals such as inshore dolphin, dugong, turtle, hammerhead
shark and sawfish and enmesh whales but there is no incentive for netters to report such
“interactions” and there are industry-survival/public relations reasons not to report this.

9. Catches may be landed anywhere along a vast coastline whilst fisheries surveillance has very
limited funding. It is therefore impossible to monitor the majority of landings. This facilitates noncompliance
with reporting requirements such that misreporting and exceeding any total allowable
commercial catch (TACC) restrictions are low risk options in most places.

10. Because of the circumstances described in point 9, above, there is no incentive for fishers to
accurately report catches in logbooks whilst little effort is made by the authorities to validate
such records. Catch data reported in logbooks are considered by many in authority and industry
to be of such poor quality as to be misleading.

11. Historical catch-effort data (regrettably still reported as catch/day) are not comparable with more
recent data because of effort creep i.e. advances in effectiveness as a result of modern
equipment, e.g. GPS and hydraulic hauling of gillnets, often on much larger and live-aboard
boats. This allows round-the-clock fishing of longer lengths of net more effectively and at a
fraction of the physical effort than previously. Modern refrigeration and transport systems
broaden the harvest capacity even further.

12. Because of different localised populations along the coast, a single TACC for any species
comprised of local populations (e.g. the grey mackerel TACC) is meaningless. Local
populations may be fished to commercial extinction before the State-wide TACC is reached.

13. As stock assessment and monitoring is lacking or low key, authorities do not have good
estimates of sizes of given stocks or stock abundance trends in most areas. They are therefore
poorly placed to estimate individual sustainable TACCs for many localised populations. The
single east coast grey mackerel TACC is based on guesswork and overlooks the likelihood of
past catches masking population declines because of three phenomena: effort creep,
hyperstability and serial depletion (see Reference 5).

14. Gillnetting for grey mackerel is a boom-and-bust activity as pre-spawning schools are readily
targeted and have been overfished to the point of commercial extinction in some areas. As
Spanish and spotted mackerel breed in the same season and in the same areas as greys, they
are also caught in significant numbers, despite it being illegal to target these two species by net.

15. Part-time commercial fishers earning most of their income from other sources may subsidise
over-fishing to a high risk level. Queensland still considers such part-time commercial fishing as
a legitimate „lifestyle‟ activity. However it risks reducing local population levels from commercial
extinction to full local extinction. Fulltime fishers would probably not be able to afford to continue
fishing until full local extinction of any population is reached (unless the species is also caught
as bycatch whilst other species sustain their fishing operations).

A common misconception regarding commercial fish landings in Queensland versus Asia

The claim Queensland imports so much fish and has catch rates far lower than Asia because of too many restrictions on fishers is wrong. The two major reasons for our unique catch rates are:

(i) Our waters have lower nutrient levels than most Asian continental coastal waters, and

(ii) Asians like to eat many more species than are targeted by the fisheries of Queensland.
Fisheries in Queensland largely ignore the vast available quantities of many species that abound in
some of our waters, including anchovies, herring, scads, jack-mackerel, fusiliers, small tuna species,
milkfish, surgeonfish, unicornfish, rudderfish, rabbitfish, 12 small grouper species, our many parrotfish
species, our many wrasse species, goatfish, butterfly-bream, threadfin-bream and so on. These are all
taken in huge quantities in Asia. Comparing our fisheries with Asia‟s is comparing apples with oranges
(or barramundi with anchovies).

Co-management unlikely to be a solution at this stage
Experience in the region suggests that co-management, under present conditions, will not improve
fisheries management in the ECIFF or reduce conflict between our fishing sectors. NSF DR has
documented the reasons for the initial failure of co-management trials in the Douglas Region

(References 2 & 5). International research on successes and failures of co-management reveal
(Reference 4) that it has the greatest opportunity of success in fisheries which have one or very
few fishing methods, where operators work at similar levels and where there is good community
cohesion, good leadership and adequate enforcement. Currently the ECIFF displays the very
opposite of all these features.
In Queensland, lifestyle, mindset, social anonymity, roving netters and lack of enforcement are
clear pointers to the likelihood of co-management failing to perform as the sought after silver bullet.
Attempts by authorities to pursue co-management in the ECIFF without first ensuring significant
regulation change and the introduction of the above management changes would be misguided.
This means that strong leadership from government is required now to fix what many, including
fisheries managers interstate, recognize as a poor reflection on Queensland.


Minister McVeigh, you will be aware, following our meeting in August last year, with the material we
have on the Fishers for Conservation Website,,au but, for ease of access, some of
these links are given below. This document will also be available on their website in due course.

1. Aubin, Paul & David C. Cook, 2012. The Bones of Contention: improved management of
inshore fisheries in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park would benefit fishing and tourism
sectors in FNQ. 3rd revised edition, updated to support a brief to Minister John McVeigh MP,
Department of Agriculture, Fisheries & Forestry, Queensland on 29 August 2012. An initiative of
CAREFISH, supported by the Network for Sustainable Fishing (NSF). Published online by Fishers
for Conservation at:
2. McPhee, Daryl, 2012. Future Management and Governance of the Queensland East Coast
Inshore Finfish Fishery. Report Prepared for the World Wild Fund for Nature. WWF, Brisbane
3. Cook, David C. 2012. A Community Campaign for Sustainable Inshore Fishing in Far North
Queensland. A report prepared for NSF DR and presented to Minister John McVeigh in Cairns, 29
August. 2012. Publ. online by Fishers for Conservation at:
4. Gutierrez N.L, R. Hilborn and O. Defeo. Leadership, social capital and incentives promote
successful fisheries. Nature 470, 386–389. An international study of co-management attempts
worldwide. Available at a small cost at:
5. Network for Sustainable Fishing, 2010. A review of concerns relating to the offshore gillnet
fishery in the inshore waters of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in relation to the
Guidelines for the Ecologically Sustainable Management of Fisheries with recommendations
for early intervention. NSF contributors: David Cass (Cooktown), David Cook (Douglas), Paul
Aubin, (CAREFISH, Cairns), Kim Martin (Rockhampton), Lance Murray (Mackay). Editor: David
Cook, 62pp. Publ. online by Fishers for Conservation:
Minister, we sincerely hope you will give the above your close consideration. We look forward to your
continuing to make improvements to the ECIFF until sustainability at improved stock levels is achieved. We
are convinced the economic gains from this in the medium term would soon outweigh the short term costs
and provide excellent flow-on benefits to fishing, tourism and communities in general.

Yours sincerely,
David C Cook

Over/ Plate 1 Species netted in pre-spawning aggregations in World Heritage GBRMP waters
Plate 2 Flier/Poster: Warning, Recreational drag netting kills young fish!
Cc: various networks
Plate 1: A selection of four Species netted in World Heritage, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park
inshore waters whilst in spawning aggregations. Photographs by David Cook
Grey mackerel (above) in the Douglas Region were rapidly depleted by gillnetting of pre-spawning aggregations
Queenfish were once discarded in tonnes by mackerel netters and have dropped to a fraction of their former numbers
Runs of Blue threadfin (above) are now much smaller than ever
NB: This fish was netted at the beginning of the barramundi season with half formed roe indicating spawning
would have taken place outside of the barramundi closure. King Threadfin mature as females at about 80cm
to 1 metre in length at around 6 yrs of age. Prior to this they have been sexually active mature males at risk
of being netted in spawning runs. They also live in closed, localised populations restricted to given estuaries
systems and their surrounding turbid waters. They are therefore at medium to high risk of being fished to
commercial and even local extinction under the current ECIFF management regime.
Plate 2: Flier/poster produced in the Douglas Region in response to concerns over the
inevitable casualties of juvenile commercial/sports fish as bycatch during recreational drag
netting, usually “for a feed of prawns”. High resolution copy of flier may be downloaded from: