Conservationists plan to establish a commercial fishing net-free zone in the northern Great Barrier Reef by buying and retiring the area’s last remaining licence.
WWF-Australia will launch a crowdfunding campaign to buy the 600m netoperating out of Princess Charlotte Bay in the far north, which would effectively end gillnetting in an area spanning 700km from Cooktown to the Torres Strait.
The move would create one of the world’s largest dugong havens. About 50 dugongs a year are entangled in nets along the Queensland coast.
To succeed, WWF needs donations from the public to buy the licence from an operator approaching retirement, who could otherwise sell it to a new fishing venture. Some negotiations have already taken place.
The push also needs Queensland government backing to prevent the holders of existing commercial fishing licences from moving into the area. The conservationists believe that buying out the last regular operator can pave the way for the government to declare 85,000 square kilometres of the north “net free”.
The WWF-Australia tropical fisheries and aquaculture manager, Jim Higgs, said the last licence was responsible for about 80% of the catch in the area.
“By buying this licence, WWF would make it easier for the government to achieve a net-free north because taxpayers wouldn’t have to fund a payout to the fisher,” Higgs said.
“Once WWF retires the licence, it’s crucial the government ends gillnetting in the far north because there’s nothing currently to stop other licence holders from moving in. With no local knowledge they may struggle to minimise interactions with protected species.”
Higgs visited the licence holder last year and WWF is in the process of valuing and negotiating a price to effectively retire the 600m net.
Dugongs are listed as vulnerable. Because dugongs are slow to breed, small losses can badly impact the population. Conversely the end to netting could have a significant impact on the species.
James Cook university dugong expert Helene Marsh said the northern part of the reef was the most important area for dugongs.
“They are very important feeding grounds, we must do everything we can in that area to conserve dugongs,” she said. “Fishermen don’t want to catch dugongs but they can do accidentally. The dugong doesn’t see the net and gets tangled. Unless the fishermen are sitting right on the net and cut it out quickly, the dugong drowns.”
WWF-Australia estimates dugong numbers have fallen to fewer than 10,000. The population was significantly reduced, from about 72,000 in the early 1960s, mainly due to human-made pressures between Cairns and Brisbane.
More than half of that population lives north of Cooktown. Higgs said the area was “the last stronghold” and there was no place for gill netting to continue.
WWF estimates it will cost a six-figure sum to purchase and retire the licence.