Bycatch/SOCI Workshop communique 14-15 May 2019

Role of the workshop: is to provide advice on the operational aspects of managing bycatch and species of conservation interest (SOCI) interaction in Queensland’s east coast inshore fishery and the development of a Bycatch/SOCI Management Plan consistent with the Sustainable Fisheries Strategy

The workshop brought together a range of stakeholders and scientists to inform development of a bycatch management plan for the East Coast Inshore Fishery. The bycatch management plan would complement the harvest strategy being developed, which will focus on management of target and by-product species.

The workshop was provided an update on the fisheries reform process. Members of the east coast inshore fishery and the Sustainable Fisheries Expert Panel, who were in attendance, also outlined key issues.  The workshop agreed that bycatch and protected species interactions was a key challenge for the fishery and that a suite of measures were needed to address these issues and give the community more confidence in the fishery.

An overview was provided of the first level of the ecological risk assessment completed for the fishery. The level 1 assessment and preliminary results from the level 2 assessment highlighted the high risk species groups were dugong, turtles, dolphins, sawfish and some sharks and rays.

For each high risk species, the workshop discussed the risks, available scientific information and existing protection measures in place, along with potential solutions.  The workshop agreed that the objective was to minimise interactions so that fishing poses a low risk and doesn’t jeopardise these species’ population, noting that the risk cannot be entirely eliminated.  The workshop noted that some species can be released alive, and the main objective is to minimise mortalities.

The workshop noted that significant efforts have been made over a number of year to reduce interactions. This included dugong protection areas, gear changes, attendance rules, existing closures and a range of other measures.  All participants acknowledged that commercial fishers actively work to avoid interactions and are continually adjusting apparatus and practices to reduce the chance of interactions.  The workshop agreed that it was critical to work with industry and focus on social and behavioural drivers rather than just technical solutions. It was acknowledged that while there are risks from netting in this fishery, there are also other non-fishing related risks including but not limited to climate change, water quality and habitat loss.

A presentation was provided by the Australian Fisheries Management Authority around bycatch mitigation strategies for dolphin and Australian sea lions in the Commonwealth gillnet fishery.  For sea lions this includes some permanent closures and triggers for further temporary closures when interaction numbers hit a certain point.  In the case of dolphins, individual limits are also in place, supported by 100% electronic monitoring coverage that requires individual fishers to return to port if they exceeded a certain number of interactions.

The workshop agreed that the focus should be on solutions to reduce the overall risk from the fishery while providing an approach that allows fishers to innovate and improve netting practices. The workshop recommended the following package of measures:

  1. Digital observers and better reporting – Moving to 100% digital observer coverage, starting with higher risk gear types. Improved reporting when an interaction occurs and education about what to do following an interaction.
  2. Best Management Practice (BMP) program – The BMP program should provide a training and accreditation process for fishers to demonstrate that they are using best practices (e.g. how they set gear, types of bycatch reduction devices that could be used etc).  Development of a BMP program is proposed to be funded through an FRDC project.
  3. Individual accountability and limits on interactions – Establish a limit of 1-2 mortality events per year (across dolphin, sawfish (except narrow sawfish) and dugong). After the first incident, a fisher could not return fishing without being an accredited BMP fisher or undertaking specific training. If a second incident occurred, a fisher would be restricted in the use of netting apparatus (e.g. a reduced length of net such as 200m). If a third incident occurred, a fisher would not be permitted to use netting apparatus for a specified period (but could continue other forms e.g. line fishing).
  4. Alternative gear – Establish processes to facilitate the trial of alternative gears (e.g. tunnel and arrow head fish traps) to mesh nets as well as trialling Bycatch Reduction Devices (BRDs).  A trial of tunnel nets / arrow traps in collaboration with industry is proposed to be funded through FRDC.
  5. Minimum regulatory standards – e.g. maximum ply strength for offshore N1/N4 so that large animals can break through. Consider reducing maximum mesh size in N2 down from 8.5 inch.
  6. Review and adjust some fisheries closures – Based on the results of a spatial risk assessment, work with fishers, managers and conservationists to determine if existing fisheries closures could be opened or if new closures are required with the intent to produce an overall net benefit.
  7. Innovation challenge – Develop an innovation challenge and prize to encourage net fishers to come up with innovative gear technology and test bycatch reduction devices to reduce the risk of SOCI interactions. This could include pingers, lights, gear modifications etc, noting the difficulty in statistically proving the effectiveness of changes in reducing what are generally rare interactions.
  8. Pingers trial – Trial of pingers in a particular area to test their effectiveness in reducing interactions, ensure there are no unintended consequences to SOCI species and better understand operational requirements.
  9. Better information to fishers – Create a system where fishers can report and notify other fishers about sightings of high risk species aggregations or areas where interactions have occurred.  Consider utilising the new commercial fishing app.
  10. Annual review of SOCI interactions – Annual assessment, similar to the harvest strategy, of the number of interactions, whether any risks have changed and whether any changes are required to mitigation measures.

The workshop also recommended some species specific measures:

  1. Regional triggers for interactions with dolphins and turtles – Establish a trigger for a specified number of mortalities occurring within each of the management regions.  Once the trigger is reached, temporary closures to netting would be implemented in ‘hot spots’ that would apply to all fishers. Species this would apply to were snubfin dolphin, and Australian humpback dolphin and more vulnerable turtle species (loggerhead, leatherback, hawksbill, Olive Ridley).  Fishers would be permitted to use other forms of fishing gear (e.g. line fishing).
  2. Species specific education – Particular focus on sawfish handling and turtle handing/resuscitation.
  3. Species specific gear – Mandate turtle excluder devices in tunnel nets.

Before implementing these measures, additional work is required to identify potential ‘hot spots’ for key species that could be closed temporarily. GBRMPA, DES and Fisheries Queensland will work with researchers over the next two months to pull together the relevant species distribution information for dolphin, dugong, sawfish and turtle nesting sites, and overlay it with existing closures and recent fishing effort (and vessel tracking information in the longer term), to identify potential areas for temporary closures, inform the level 2 ERA and/or inform review of Dugong Protection Areas.

It was noted that a number of shark species are more vulnerable and listed as threatened, endangered or protected. It was noted that a number of measures are already in place (no take species such as white shark, grey nurse and speartooth; trip limits for guitarfish, shovel nose, white tip and grey reef sharks) and a maximum size limits. It was noted that discards of other shark (e.g. hammerhead) would need to be considered in sustainable catch limits through the harvest strategy.

The workshop reviewed existing reporting requirements and recommended:

  • Further improving the existing SOCI logbook and consider using AIVR to report interactions rather than through the Department of Environment and Science marine animal stranding hotline to reduce duplication. Fisheries Queensland would continue to provide data to DES and the public.
  • Develop information on what steps fishers need to take if an interaction occurs.
  • Educate fishers to focus on releasing animals alive and include information on how best to do that.  However, if an animal does not survive and is a high risk species, consider whether the fisher can assist with collecting and providing more information to better understand the population (e.g. photo, sample etc.).
  • Introduce a debrief with the relevant fishery manager after mortality incidents with high risk species to discuss lessons learned and review netting practices.
  • Improve public reporting (quarterly interactions, by region and gear, better accessibility online) of interactions.

The workshop noted a number of actions are required to be completed before a draft Bycatch and SOCI Management Strategy can be developed in full.  Fisheries Queensland advised that some of the proposed measures would be consulted on as part of implementing the fisheries reforms and that once a draft Bycatch and SOCI Management Plan is available, it would be made available for public consultation later in 2019.