Media Release Great Barrier Reef

Gillnets obliterating endangered species in Reef waters

April 24, 2023
  • Call to ban gillnets after photos show dugongs, turtles & sawfish dead in nets
  • One photo shows at least 13 sawfish tangled in gillnet that allegedly died
  • World Heritage Committee’s advisers called for end of gillnet fishing in Reef waters

Photos taken on a small stretch of Great Barrier Reef beach over 12 years show that gillnet fishing is killing endangered species and in numbers far greater than has ever been reported, according to the Australian Marine Conservation Society.

The photos – from a 10km stretch of beach near the small settlement of Wunjunga on Upstart Bay at the mouth of the Burdekin River – were taken by locals concerned at the amount of dead wildlife washing up following gillnet fishing in the area.

The photos show threatened species including dugongs, narrow sawfish and green turtles dead on the beach or entangled in gillnets. One photo shows at least 13 sawfish caught and allegedly dead in a single gillnet, yet fishers have reported that only an average of 10 a year have been killed in gillnets on the east coast in the five years from 2017 to 2021. Endangered sawfish continue to suffer severe population declines, predominantly due to fisheries bycatch.

There were also photos of dismembered marine life, turtles with fins and heads hacked off, sparking concerns that fishers are illegally mutilating endangered species to attract sharks to devour the carcasses and avoid their reporting obligations.

Gillnets are large fishing nets used to catch species such as barramundi and mackerel, but the nets are indiscriminate and are responsible for the bycatch and death of endangered species. There are currently 240 licensed gillnet fishers in Queensland, using 159km of gillnet, further than from Brisbane to Noosa.

AMCS Great Barrier Reef Fisheries Campaign Manager Simon Miller said: “This catalogue of shocking images shows the scale of devastation that gillnets cause within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. Gillnets are indiscriminate killers, which can capture and drown iconic threatened species such as dugongs in minutes. Fishing practices on our Reef must be gold standard, but these photos show the reality is far from it.

“These are just the impacts of gillnet fishing that have been observed by concerned locals along one small stretch of our Reef coast; you can imagine the carnage that takes place out of sight throughout the entire Reef. One fisher killed at least 13 sawfish in a single night, that is more dead sawfish than are reported dead by every fisher on the east coast most years.

“The Queensland Government cannot keep turning a blind eye to these deaths. It must permanently end gillnet fishing in Great Barrier Reef waters, as recommended by the World Heritage Committee’s scientific advisers, UNESECO and the IUCN, in last year’s Reactive Monitoring Mission report that highlighted the need to take urgent additional actions to conserve the Reef for future generations.”

Dead dugongs

The photos show four dead dugongs, including a calf, even though Upstart Bay is a Dugong Protection Area, which is supposed to give additional protection from gillnets. Dugongs in this area are from the southern Great Barrier Reef population, estimated at just 3400 and in long term decline.

Dead turtles

The photos showed many dead turtles, predominantly Endangered green turtles but may include other species. One turtle has rope wrapped around its head, possibly in an effort to sink the carcass, while others had no head or missing flippers. Wunjunga Beach is a nesting site for flatback turtles, with about 11-100 nesting turtles a year, as well as small numbers of nesting green and loggerhead turtles (about 1-10 a year of each species).

Timing of deaths

While it is difficult to discern the cause of death in some images, locals say that each time gillnet fishing took place in the area immediately before the animals washed up on the beach.

Worryingly, locals allege that some gillnet fishers operate illegally in the area, including without Vessel Monitoring Systems, deliberately wounding and killing threatened species to untangle them from nets, burying threatened species bycatch so it isn’t discovered, and removing heads and flippers of threatened species to attract sharks to devour the carcasses.