Great Barrier Reef gill net fishing phase out

The Australian and Queensland governments are committing more than $160 million to phase out gill net fishing in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area by mid-2027 and transition to more sustainable fishing practices.

The use of gill nets is being phased out to better protect the threatened, endangered and iconic species of the Great Barrier Reef in keeping with its world heritage status.

Moving to more sustainable fishing practices is one of a range of actions to protect the Reef.

The phase out is being implemented as part of commercial fishing reforms led by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF) to support sustainable fishing in Queensland, and is one of the commitments to UNESCO to protect the outstanding universal value of the Reef.

While best known for its coral reefs, the Great Barrier Reef refers to a large area which covers around  344,400 square kilometres and comprises a range of connected habitats and marine life.

The importance of the Reef lies not only in its coral ecosystem but also in the vast inshore areas and oceanic waters. These areas also support half the world’s diversity of mangroves and many seagrass species. No other world heritage property contains such biodiversity.

The inshore ecosystems of the Reef are also under the most pressure from man-made threats including climate change impacts, land-based runoff, coastal development and direct interactions such as fishing.

Gill nets are used in fishing and work by trapping fish when they try and swim through the net, with their gills or fins becoming entangled in its mesh.

Gill netting is one form of fishing in the Reef to catch species such as barramundi, king threadfin and some species of mackerel.

The use of gill nets is being phased out to better protect the threatened, endangered and protected (TEP) species of the Great Barrier Reef including dugongs, dolphins, turtles and sawfish.

TEP species can become entangled in gill nets and be injured or killed.

While individual fisher practices can limit the risk of entanglement and improve post-entanglement survival, the potential to catch and harm non-target species with gill nets cannot be entirely avoided. This is why additional protections are urgently required.

Gill netting is effective at catching fish, however it can inadvertently entangle other marine animals including threatened, endangered and protected (TEP) species and is a key risk for survival of TEP species.

Concerns regarding the interactions of gill net fishing with TEPs has long been communicated to the fishing industry. Implementing a system of more stringent controls over netting practices to protect dugongs was first announced by the Federal and Queensland Governments in 1997. The 2003 Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Zoning Plan also reflects restrictions for gill net fishing in the Reef.

Assessment of the Queensland East Coast Inshore Fin Fish Fishery in 2019 indicated intermediate to high risk ratings for dugongs and turtles. This is again reported in the assessment in 2021 with a high risk rating for dugongs and some turtle species, leading to publication of the Protected species management strategy for the east coast inshore fishery published in 2021.

Commercial fisher interactions with TEP species are required to be reported to Fisheries Queensland via logbooks. In addition, the Department of Environment and Science maintains StrandNet, a database for recording marine wildlife strandings and deaths. It contains information about sick, injured, dying and dead marine animals, including location and causes, if possible and includes records of netting interactions with TEP. Data about interactions with TEP reported to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is also collated.

Removing gill nets provides an added layer of protection, supporting greater opportunity for the long-term survival of TEP species populations. The potential to catch and harm non-target species with gill nets cannot be entirely avoided, despite expert fishing practices, and there are continuing incidences of interactions with TEP.

Fifteen TEP species found in the Reef are listed on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red list and range from critically endangered to vulnerable. All populations are considered declining or rapidly declining, despite other conservation actions.

Australia has some of the last remaining populations of sawfish in the world and in Queensland waters these are also considered to be declining. All six species of marine turtle found in Queensland are also listed as threatened, with only leatherbacks not impacted by gill net fishing. Inshore snubfin and humpback dolphins are also in decline and occur in this region. Dugongs also in steady and ongoing decline. They can live for up to 70 years and only breed every three to seven years. Recovery from population decline can take many years. Current combined levels of mortality for dugong from all threats are thought to be unsustainable. The loss of even one animal could potentially have a serious impact and must be avoided.

Globally, many countries, even in areas that are not World Heritage listed, have restricted or banned the use of gill nets due to concerns over the interactions with sea birds, turtles, dolphins and other marine mammals.

Large mesh gill nets and ring nets are also being removed from certain waters in the Great Sandy Marine Park through the re-zoning of the park.

At present, the Queensland gill net fishery within the Great Barrier Reef provides 2.6% of the entire East Coast wild caught seafood harvest to consumers.

As gill net fishing in the Reef harvests fish species such as barramundi, grey mackerel and king threadfin, the phase out will not impact the availability of prawn, or other crustaceans, this Christmas, or in the future. Fish supply will also not be affected this Christmas because the phase out will be implemented in stages, over the next three-and-a-half years.

The commercial fishing industry will be supported to trial sustainable alternative fishing gear during the transitional phase that will serve to replace the use of gillnets in the future. Support will also be provided to industry to source a broader variety of fish product from aquaculture facilities. In time, these alternative sources will replace the fish product that is currently caught through gillnetting.

The phase-out will occur over the next three-and-a-half years. It will include:

  • the northern third of the Great Barrier Reef becoming a gill net-free zone and Hammerhead sharks becoming a no-take species in Queensland from the end of December 2023
  • additional net-free zones being established in the Gulf of Carpentaria from the end of March 2024.
  • by mid-2027, the entire Great Barrier Reef becoming gill net free.

More detail will be available from the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries as the phase out progresses.