Call to ban commercial fishing in Gulf of Carpentaria sparks backlash from local fishers

© Provided by ABC NEWS Mornington Island’s mayor Kyle Yanner is calling for a ban on commercial fishing around the island. (Supplied: Antoinette Raffaut)

A leader in Queensland’s Gulf Country is calling for a ban on commercial fishing, which he says is decimating fish stocks and protected species around Mornington Island.

Mornington Shire Mayor Kyle Yanner’s concerns have been echoed in several government reports that reveal a history of overfishing and risks to vulnerable species in the Gulf.

But the idea of axing commercial operations has sparked a backlash from fishers who say the industry already observes sustainable practices.

Cr Yanner said he had noticed a depletion of fish around the island in the past eight years, an issue he puts down to overfishing and poor enforcement of regulations. 

“The fishermen just drag up all the seagrass beds. They disturb all the natural ecosystems,” he said.

“They’re smashing the place up and it’s driving the fish away.

“The federal government has made all these rules, but there’s plenty lacking in enforcing them.”

Of its 1,200 residents, nearly 90 per cent of Mornington Island’s population identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. 

“We’re so reliant on being able to catch our own food, and now we’re having to look at buying fancy boats to take us further out because there’s no fish on our shores anymore,” Cr Yanner said.

Mornington green zone

Cr Yanner wants a green zone to be implemented around Mornington Island to prevent all fishing or collecting activities.

He said the aim would be that First Nations people would still be able to fish.

The idea has triggered a backlash from professional trawlers like Karumba man David Wren, who has been operating in Gulf waters for 38 years.

The veteran fisherman, who supplies grey mackerel across the country, said axing commercial fishing would dissipate communities and deprive Australians of quality fish.

“Without commercial fishing, what do ordinary people eat? They rely on us to put quality food on Australian tables,” Mr Wren said.

“Not to mention the hundreds of jobs involved in the chain of operation,” he said, adding that he felt the industry already implemented sustainable methods.

“The paperwork involved and the rules and regulations are very strict and very expensive, and it’s all about making it a sustainable fishery for the generation coming through.”

Overfishing and ecological impact

The Gulf of Carpentaria Developmental Fin Fish Trawl Fishery (GOCDFFTF) is the area in which commercial trawlers operate.

Several government assessments of GOCDFFTF have raised concerns with overfishing, poor data collection, and risks to vulnerable species.

Historically, barramundi, king threadfin, and black jewfish have been overfished along with ‘byproduct’ species such as mangrove jack, according to the Australian Government Department of Environment and Energy’s 2019 report.

Meanwhile, a 2021 assessment by the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment found that greater efforts were needed to protect Species of Conservation Interest (SOCI), such as turtles and batoids (stingrays, skates), which were found to be at “intermediate risk”. 

Currently, fishers use Bycatch Reduction Devices (BRDs) and Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) to minimise bycatch, but greater recording of data about the interaction with protected species was needed, according to the report.

A spokesperson for the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) said it currently implemented strategies to combat illegal fishing.

“In order to effectively deter illegal fishing in Commonwealth fisheries and the AFZ, AFMA delivers a risk-based, intelligence-led compliance and enforcement program.

“The approach includes communication and education, targeted strategies and ongoing monitoring and maintenance programs,” the AFMA said.

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