Communique 7 December 2021

The East Coast Inshore Fishery Working Group met on 7 December 2021 online. The purpose of the meeting was to update members on the progress on implementation of the Sustainable Fisheries Strategy 2017-2027 (SFS) , present recent research on barramundi, shark depredation and a north Queensland tunnel net trial, and to discuss barramundi maximum size limits, net ply and mesh size requirements and the rationale for current commercial catch limits. The working group welcomed a new commercial fishing member from Moreton Bay and a member from the Department of Environment and Science (DES).

Fisheries Queensland provided an update on the implementation of the SFS, 13 new harvest strategies and associated regulations that commenced on 1 September 2021, current consultation on the listing of scalloped hammerhead under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 and proposed urgent management measures for the Gulf of Carpentaria, and the release of the commercial fishing reporting application ‘eCatch’. The conservation member noted concerns with hammerhead discard mortality considering the current scalloped hammerhead listing and consultation process and recommended the implementation of a total allowable mortality limit (including discards) in future for hammerhead shark.

Members were invited to provide a general update from their respective sectors. The commercial sector noted concerns regarding the new reporting requirements, timeliness of stock assessments and alignment with the harvest strategy process, availability of quota for purchase or lease and management of latent quota and co-caught species. Commercial fishers were also interested in exploring quota reconciliation (including undercatch and overcatch) and the ability to retain catch across fishing trips. Recreational members outlined interest in discussing catch share arrangements, the recent Minderoo Foundation report on fisheries performance, the accuracy of recreational fishing survey estimates and ways to improve communication of working group outcomes. The conservation member highlighted the current high international focus on the Great Barrier Reef, including impacts of fishing on the reef and protected species that will likely be considered in future world heritage decisions. Members from the conservation sector, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) and DES raised concerns about protected species interactions, adequate data collection and validation and ensuring that high risk species are incorporated into the Protected Species Management Strategy (PSMS) going forward (e.g. narrow sawfish). GBRMPA also expressed interest in how quota arrangements introduced in September 2021 are progressing, including information on reporting of discards and quota consolidation. The working group recognised the importance of fishing to Aboriginal People and Torres Strait Islanders, but some members held concerns regarding the safety and sustainability of some netting practices used by traditional fishers and potential black marketing, particularly during the barramundi closure period. All working group members expressed a desire for more responsive decision making through harvest strategies.

Fisheries Queensland provided an overview of the recent regulation changes to net ply and mesh size in the N1, N2 and N4 fisheries. It was noted the net ply changes were intended to reduce risk to threatened, endangered and protected species (e.g. larger animals may break through the net) while mesh size changes were primarily in response to evidence of reduced egg production in the barramundi fishery. Since 1 September 2021, clear signals have been received from the commercial sector that the new net ply and mesh size regulations are not workable for the nearshore component of the fishery, and working group members considered regional commercial sector feedback on the issue.

The working group noted that empirical evidence of lighter net ply reducing protected species interactions in the nearshore fishery is limited and advice from commercial fishers suggesting that lighter ply may have the opposite effect, increasing the risk of entangling non-target species. Given the feedback from industry, complexity of the issues, limited data to inform solutions, concerns of increased entanglement risk and the broader reforms recently implemented in the fishery, the majority of the working group recommended that ply rating in the nearshore be amended to a maximum of line 90 across all management regions or, if preferable, maximum ply ratings more appropriate for each region (e.g. line 70 in region 2, line 90 in region 3). The working group agreed that in making this recommendation there is a need to immediately progress work on best management practice, improvements to the PSMS, including a review of gear rules, increased and adequate monitoring and data validation.

With regard to mesh size, the working group noted the 2019 barramundi stock assessment results suggesting that egg production was low across the fishery, and all members recognised the importance of protecting large female fish as research demonstrates an exponential relationship between fish size and egg production. The working group also noted the influence of environmental cycles and habitat on barramundi recruitment and recruit survival. Members welcomed an updated barramundi stock assessment which is due in 2022.

Considering this, the working group supported delaying consideration of mesh size and barramundi maximum size limit changes following the release and consideration of the updated stock assessment, with a decision to be made prior to the 2023 fishing season. Mesh size for the nearshore component will remain at the pre-September 2021 mesh size of 215mm until an alternative solution is identified. The recreational sector noted that if changes were to be made in future, they would support a reduction in the maximum size limit for all sectors and a reduction in mesh size to select fish commensurate with any reduced maximum size limit. The commercial sector noted they would support a reduction in maximum size limit, total allowable catch limits and possession limits pending the updated stock assessment results in preference to gear restrictions, noting that industry would prefer to fish efficiently and with the flexibility to use gear that suits their operation within output controls. All sectors agreed that all relevant management arrangements should be reviewed with the updated stock assessment. The conservation sector emphasised the importance of responsive management action and stressed that a decision must be made before the 2023 season at the latest.

The working group were presented with an update on Fisheries Research and Development Corporation (FRDC) research priorities and an overview of recent research including the contribution of stocking to east coast barramundi catch, shark depredation and feasibility of alternative fishing gear (tunnel nets) to reduce bycatch in north Queensland waters.

Research project outcomes of barramundi origins in wild caught fish in the dry tropics region indicated a high percentage of commercially caught barramundi originate from the wild, with stocked fish only contributing to a small proportion of commercial catch. Working group members noted it was a good indication that stocked fish were not required to support the wild fishery and expressed interest in extending this research to different regions and species. The research noted the most effective way to increase the number and size of barramundi in the marine fishery is to improve access to, and quality of, freshwater habitats for juvenile barramundi.

The working group were provided with a summary of shark depredation projects underway and recently completed, including work quantifying depredation rates in the line fishery off Mooloolaba and the Spanner Crab fishery. The working group noted that there is a large range of research underway and shark depredation is a complex issue. The research demonstrated that there were a range of shark species associated with depredation and that these species varied based on the fishery and area of focus. Further work is underway in Queensland to explore additional regions and shark species associated with depredation. Members expressed from their own experience that depredation events have increased in recent years, and that the behavioural association of sharks with boat and fishing activities are likely to be one of the key drivers. An FRDC national workshop on depredation will be held in 2022, which plans to bring together fishers, fisheries managers and scientists from all jurisdictions to progress initiatives around depredation.

The working group noted a research trial testing the feasibility of alternative gears (tunnel nets) to reduce bycatch mortality in northern inshore net fisheries. The project brought together fishers from the Moreton Bay tunnel net fishery with north Queensland net fishers and seafood processors to trial the gear in Cardwell (which was identified as the most feasible site). Catch was dominated by species of lower commercial value such as silver grunter and did not capture commercial quantities of key target species such as barramundi and king threadfin. Survivability of all catch was high, including protected species (marine turtles), and all catch was released alive. The gear was technically feasible but needed refinement and extensive trialling to determine viability. There was also interest in researching ‘arrow-head traps’ as, anecdotally, these were historically used with success. The recreational sector noted concerns with use of tunnel nets regarding localised depletion, impacts and any consequential changes to access for recreationally important species, and social aspects if this type of gear were permitted in north Queensland in future.

Fisheries Queensland provided an update on the Total Allowable Commercial Catch (TACC) limits set for the 2021 and 2022 fishing seasons, including the rationale used to determine the TACC limits for target and secondary species in the fishery. The recreational sector noted concerns with how catch shares are set and the use of historical data (e.g. black jewfish). Particular concerns were raised regarding how net free zone reallocation was incorporated into catch share allocation calculations for barramundi. Members acknowledged that some commercial secondary or byproduct species hold high recreational value and the process for any future catch share calculations for these species should ensure these values are considered in the calculations and decision-making process. Recreational members sought further clarification on how the current sectoral catch shares were established, how future catch shares are applied (including what data is used) and how decision rules are applied under the harvest strategy to set Total Allowable Recreational Catch (TARC) limits at the next meeting.

The next meeting will be held in March/April 2022 and will discuss protected species management and next steps, independent monitoring and data validation, regional harvest strategy progress, shark depredation research, localised depletion monitoring and stock assessment and sectoral share processes going forward.