Spike in protected turtles hooked by fishing lines off Australia as government relaxes marine protections

The number of protected turtles hooked by commercial fishers along Australia’s east coast has jumped tenfold over the past five years, sparking fears for the fate of vulnerable ocean life as the Turnbull government moves to tear up marine sanctuary protections.

An analysis of government data has also revealed an increase in the number of dolphins and whales, as well as seabirds such as albatrosses, ensnared by commercial fishers since 2012.

However the latest data was not included in a report to government on the wind-back of marine protections, which relied on evidence gathered before the spike was recorded.

The Turnbull government in July released draft changes to the 3.3 million square kilometres of Australia’s protected offshore regions, which were expanded in 2012 by the former Labor government.

The plans would increase the total area of the reserves open to fishing from 64 per cent to 80 per cent, including substantial increases in the Coral Sea Marine Park, near the Great Barrier Reef.

Conservationists branded the changes a huge retrograde step, but the government insisted it took a “scientific approach” and the plans “protect what needs to be protected, without negatively impacting communities and our country’s economy”.

However data collated by the Australian Marine Conservation Society suggests protected species are already at risk of harm from commercial fishing.

It shows in the first six months of this year, 127 protected turtles were hooked by commercial fishers in the Eastern Tuna and Billfish Fishery, which extends from Cape York to the South Australia-Victoria border.

It is a sharp increase on the 10 turtles ensnared in 2012 and the 30 caught in 2015.

The protected species include green, hawksbill, leatherback and loggerhead turtles.

The data was based on fishing logbook reports submitted to the Australian Fisheries Management Authority.

No whales or dolphins, known as cetaceans, or seabirds were reported as caught in 2012.

But in the first half of this year, fishers reported catching 15 cetaceans and 17 seabirds.

A report by a panel advising the government on the marine park review said the methods of fishing used in the fishery had “little to no direct impact on the physical marine environment”. However this assertion was based on scientific advice gathered between 2008 and 2015 – before the bycatch numbers peaked

An AFMA spokeswoman said the increased number of reported mortalities and so-called “interactions” with protected species was due to compulsory video cameras placed on tuna boats in mid-2015, leading to more reliable reporting.

“AFMA is a world leader in applying methods to prevent protected species from being injured or killed in commercial fisheries,” she said.

Government advice to industry says animals caught in fishing equipment can be seriously injured and drown, or become unable to catch food and vulnerable to shark attacks.

Pew Charitable Trusts oceans director Michelle Grady said the data was “alarming”.

“Government is arguing there is no evidence of a threat to the marine life found in these areas, or to the coral reefs and feeding and breeding areas. These bycatch [numbers are] a clear example of the threat,” she said.

Tuna Australia chief executive David Ellis said the data focused on the entire Eastern Tuna and Billfish Fishery, and 80 per cent of animals caught in the Coral Sea were returned to the water “alive and well”.

“We are only talking about a handful of animals,” he said, adding that fishing methods to avoid bycatch were constantly being developed.


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