Media Release Fight For Our Reef

Great Barrier Reef dugongs get greater protection with gillnet phase-out 

November 16, 2023
  • Gillnet phase out will also benefit threatened turtles, dolphins and sawfish
  • Queensland Govt says it will buy out all Reef gillnet licences 
  • Govt says fishers will be fairly compensated and offered significant retraining packages for alternative employment

Queensland’s threatened dugongs and their most important habitats will get far better protection when gillnets are removed from Dugong Protection Areas from 2024, the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) said after the Queensland Government today announced its plans for phasing out gillnets in Great Barrier Reef waters.

The government will buy out all of the Reef’s gillnet licences and says fishers will be fairly compensated. Some gillnet fishers will be able to continue fishing under strict conditions on a temporary licence, including having independent monitoring of their fishing activities, until all gillnet fishing is completely phased out on the Reef in June 2027.

AMCS Great Barrier Reef Fisheries Campaign Manager Simon Miller said: “This move will give dugongs vital safe havens from gillnets, especially for the declining dugong population on the southern section of the Great Barrier Reef.

“Researchers from James Cook University TropWATER centre recently found that the southern dugong population, from Hinchinbrook to Bundaberg, has been declining at 2.3% a year for nearly 20 years, with estimates of just 2100 individuals left and very few calves being sighted.

“Dugong Protection Areas are located in the most important habitats for dugongs, but they also provide protection to iconic threatened species like turtles, dolphins and sawfish.

“With destructive gillnets removed from these key areas, our precious marine life will no longer have to run a gauntlet of gillnets, and in June 2027 they will be given a full reprieve when gillnets are completely removed from Reef waters.

“The gillnet fishery has had a devastating impact on our Reef’s iconic species; the Queensland Government should be commended for this world-leading reform. The government said it will buy out all of the Reef’s gillnet licences and, importantly, fishers will be fairly compensated and offered significant retraining packages to transition into alternative employment.

“The government must also purchase fishers’ gillnets, this is critical to ensure that more than 259 kilometres of nets are not used illegally or dumped, adding to the plastic waste crisis.

“We also welcome the Queensland Government mandating independent monitoring of the remaining fishers, before the nets are phased out in 2027. Cameras on boats will give us an accurate picture of what is being caught, to ensure that action can be taken if the fishery continues to have an unacceptable impact on the Great Barrier Reef and its protected species.”

Recreational fisher Phil Laycock, a member of Cairns’s peak recreational fishing body CAREFISH, said: “The recreational fishing sector strongly supports the Queensland government’s plans to phase out the gillnet fishery. Recreational fishers see first hand the impacts of gillnet fishing on threatened species and local fish stocks.

“New net-free zones will build on the success of the existing net-free zones in Rockhampton, Mackay and Cairns, which have been a huge boost to regional tourism. With gillnets removed from these areas, we have seen increases in the numbers and size of barramundi and king threadfin, giving our local kids and tourists a better chance of catching these great sports fish from the shore.  

“In a few years’ time, when all gillnets are removed from the inshore waters of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, we will see more and more big barra, and have a sport fishery that is the envy of the world.”

Gillnets are large fishing nets, sometimes over one-kilometre long, used to catch fish such as barramundi and mackerel, but they are indiscriminate in what they catch. Earlier this year, AMCS released photos showing dugongs, narrow sawfish and green turtles entangled in gillnets or dead on the beach in a Dugong Protection Area. One photo showed at least 13 sawfish caught and allegedly dead in a single gillnet.