Calls for rezoning divide Queensland fishers


Lee Yida, Pxhere

Commercial fishing bans have long divided fisherman across Queensland.

To fishermen across Queensland, the debate around the potential banning of commercial fishing in the Great Sandy Marine Park is about so much more than casting a line.

The park, which stretches from Baffle Creek to Double Island Point, is at the centre of a dispute between recreational fishermen, commercial netters and environment groups across the state.

Early last year, the State Government announced it was reviewing the Great Sandy Marine Park Zoning Plan, and released the Great Sandy Marine Park Discussion Paper to gauge public opinion. The paper sparked calls to rezone the “Designated Great Sandy Area”, a section of the park which currently allows commercial fishing, despite being located in a yellow conservation zone.

The change would remove all commercial netting in the park and would impact the lives of both commercial and recreational fishermen across Queensland. Recreational fishermen argue the changes would bolster the area’s fish stocks and give local tourism industries a new lease of life.

The Fraser Coast Fishing Alliance (FCFA) chairman Scott Mitchell said commercial fishing has damaged the marine park’s ecosystems, and a ban on commercial fishing was the only way to allow those ecosystems to rejuvenate. “There’s been a decline in a lot of our key species, our key recreational species,” he said.

Commercial fishers, however, say the changes will impact their livelihoods and reduce the amount of local fish on Queensland tables. Maryborough-born Shane Snow, who has been a gill net fisher on the Fraser Coast for more than 25 years, said sustainable commercial fishing practices do no more harm than recreational fishing and said the calls to ban commercial netting were extreme and unjustified. “I was brought up on the Fraser Coast as a kid, and they’re catching more fish there now than I’ve ever seen,” he said.

Marine park “netted to death”

The Palaszczuk Government was expected to release the draft rezoning plan early this year. However, it is yet to be announced despite relentless lobbying from recreational fishing and environment groups across the state.

The (FCFA) is one of the recreational fishing groups pushing for the release of the draft rezoning plan.

Mr Mitchell said his group has lobbied the government to remove commercial fishing in the area for over 14 years. “We have in excess of 20,000 people calling on [Minister for Environment and the Great Barrier Reef] Leanne Enoch and the Palaszczuk Government to remove commercial netting from what should truly be yellow conservation zones,” he said. “The Great Sandy Marine Park is the only marine park in Australia with a designated commercial catch area, despite being classified as a conservation zone.”

Mr Mitchell said commercial netting was having an obvious impact on the area’s marine life. “They’ve netted it to death,” he said. “They net over 25 tonnes of wild barramundi out of the Mary River every year, and barramundi is one of our country’s most popular sport fish.”

He said zoning changes could see a tourism boom in Hervey Bay, Maryborough and Tin Can Bay, with rejuvenated fish stocks attracting fishermen from across the state. “We’re three-to-four hours north of Brisbane, so if we didn’t take those sorts of numbers out of the water, imagine what that would do for tourists coming from Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast,” he said.

Conservation groups including the World Wildlife Fund, Australian Marine Conservation Society, and Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland back Mr Mitchell’s proposal. In a joint submission late last year, these conservation groups voiced their concerns about the environmental impacts of commercial fishing in the Great Sandy Marine Park.

“The health of the Great Sandy Strait is in decline,” the statement reads. “The quality of recreational fishing has deteriorated due to the impact of excessive gill-netting and trawling on fish stocks, while threatening endangered species such as dugongs and turtles.”

Maggie Francic, Wikimedia
Rezoning of the Great Sandy Marine Park would impact the lives of commercial and recreational fisherman across Hervey Bay.

The groups call on the government to ban “destructive” commercial fishing in the area. “The Great Sandy Strait has outstanding economic, environmental and lifestyle values that must be protected.”

Commercial netters, however, are not convinced. Mr Snow said responsible commercial fishing was environmentally sustainable and provides hundreds of local jobs.

“We follow a code of conduct and every commercial fisherman has to adhere to that, and we are highly regulated,” Mr Snow said. “I talk to a hell of a lot of recreational fishermen, and I’ve never had a cross word or a disagreement with any of them. But some people make us out to be the devil’s spawn, and that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Mr Snow said commercial fishermen would not be the only locals impacted if the area was rezoned. “The area of contention is classified as a yellow zone with red cross-hatching overlaid… and that was put in place by the Labor Government at the inception of the marine park in 2006,” he said. “That was put in place to allow commercial fishermen to keep their jobs, but also so there would be no loss of revenue to the regional economies.”

A report from the Queensland Seafood Industry Association said roughly 90% of goods and services required to operate a commercial fishing business were sourced locally. Local businesses like mechanics, accountants, seafood retailers and net makers would be among those businesses affected by a downturn in commercial netting in the park.

In 2015, a report from the Department of Agriculture found the value of Australian fisheries and aquaculture production to be around $2.4 billion each year, with $1.2 billion of seafood products exported annually. Ensuring fish stocks are not only commercially, but also environmentally, sustainable is essential.

Fisheries “belong to all Queenslanders”

The debate around commercial fishing and its impacts on fish stocks is not limited to the Great Sandy Marine Park. In its Sustainable Fisheries Strategy 2017-2027, the State Government outlined the need to improve monitoring and research, establish sustainable catch limits, and reform harvest strategies. As part of the strategy, the State Government introduced stricter fishing regulations in September last year.

Minister for Agricultural Industry Development and Fisheries Mark Furner said the changes were made to protect vulnerable fish stocks. “Our state’s fisheries belong to all Queenslanders and it is our job to protect fish for the future,” Mr Furner said. “Some of our fish stocks like scallops, snapper and pearl perch are at risk, with stock levels under the nationally recommended 20 per cent biomass level. Quite simply, if there are no fish, there is no fishing industry here in Queensland.”

According to a report from the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation, most Queensland fish stocks are sustainable, with only three species in danger of depleting, and four species totally depleted.

“Huge and unfair” environmental and economic debt for future generations

However, a report by the University of Tasmania in 2018 claimed Australia’s fish population was in more danger than most realise. “Contrary to years of sustainability reports, our study indicates that excessive fishing pressure is contributing to a decline of many Australian fish species,” the report said.

Visualisation – Sustainability levels of Queensland Fish Stocks – 2018

The study found in areas open to fishing, “exploited populations” dropped by over a third in 10 years. In marine parks where fishing is prohibited, the same species increased by about 25%. The report said the wider effects of fishing in ecosystems were being overlooked and could have a detrimental impact on the future of Australian marine life. “The environmental and economic debt for future generations is both huge and unfair,” the report said.

Rezoning needed now or never

The current zoning map of the Great Sandy Marine Park, showing the yellow conservation zones with red cross hatching overlaid Source: Department of Environment and Science

With a state election approaching, the Government’s actions on marine park rezoning over the next few months will undoubtedly be front of mind for many voters across Queensland. The recreational fishing groups lobbying the Palaszczuk Government for the changes are concerned their issue has been pushed aside, and with a caretaker period fast approaching, they fear the rezoning will either happen now or never.

“They told us that they would release a draft rezoning plan early 2020,” Mr Mitchell said. “We’re at the end of f*****g April, so I don’t know what they call early. If they want the recreational fishing and environment groups votes, it would be in their best interests to give us what everyone is calling for… and move on.”

When asked for comment, the Department of Environment and Science said the Government could not provide an estimated release date for the plan. “The Department of Environment and Science is currently reviewing and analysing more than 3000 submissions received on the Great Sandy Marine Park Discussion Paper – Zoning Plan Opportunities, and is continuing to liaise with key stakeholders, including recreational and commercial fishing groups,” a representative said.

“Government resources are currently focused on managing the health and economic emergency caused as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, the department is unable to estimate a new release date of the Great Sandy Marine Park rezoning plan at this time.” Fishers are used to waiting, but their patience is being tested.