, via Wikimedia Commons”]Australian Sea Lions are among the rarest animals in Australia’s oceans, with population estimates now fewer than 12,500. Only 2000 live in Western Australia making the small breeding colonies in WA some of the most fragile in the country, according to scientists including in documents from the Department of Fisheries, only a few deaths each year could send colonies on the path to extinction.
Gillnet fishing is listed as the number one threat to the survival of Australian Sea Lions.
So it is a surprise that the WA Department of Fisheries has refused to meet a condition from the Federal Government to implement an observer program designed to measure the impact of shark gillnet fishing on Sea Lions.
Coverage from the ABC here Concerns Sea Lions at Risk from Gillnetting
The Fisheries Department comment in this article that there is a low risk of interaction is clearly not good enough. Their own documentation submitted to the Federal Government as part of this assessment shows that gillnetting occurs in close proximity to breeding colonies, and acknowledges that only a small number of deaths could lead these colonies on the path to extinction. Somehow from this they have concluded there is a low risk of ‘interaction’, a nice way to say capture in nets and probable death by drowning.
The same situation existed in South Australia until observers were put on vessels. It showed that Australia Sea Lion deaths were not almost nothing, but in fact an estimated 256 each breeding season. Now the fishery has full observer coverage and just last week a section was closed after another sea lion death http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-02-08/sea-lion-death-shark-fishery-closure/3817252. Numbers are likely to be lower in WA, but as mentioned before this is in context of smaller colonies where a lower number of deaths could lead to extinction.
The observers have also found that large numbers of dolphins are killed, 56 have been found since observer coverage began leading to further fishery closures, raising concerns of much wider impacts on threatened and protected species.
For more detail see the media release Media Release: WA Department of Fisheries Fails to Protect Endangered Sea Lions and the full submission to the Federal Governmnet from CCWA, AMCS, HSI and CCSA Comment on DFWA WATSF application for EPBC approval
At the same time, the Western Australian Fishing Industry Council (WAFIC) have just launched a so called “sustainable fisheries sustainable oceans” campaign promoting fisheries management in WA. I guess it is easy to claim that fisheries are sustainable when hiding behind a department who refuses to even investigate the environmental impacts of fishing on an iconic endangered species. Working to solve these problems rather than denying them would serve the industry better. Perhaps the money for the ad campaign could have been invested in observers on gillnet vessels.
To be fair, the industry do have a track record, such as the implementation of sea lion exclusion devices on Western Rock Lobster pots which was an innovative solution to a long term problem of sea lion pups dying in pots, but it still seems to take far more public pressure that it should before they will change.
And a last note on this, the Department of Fisheries submission, they claim that the proposed commonwealth marine parks will further reduce the risk of gillnet impacts on Australian Sea Lions. In theory this could be true depending on the final reserve design, but when you look at the WAFIC submission they have proposed stripping all protection out of all the areas where sea lions breed and forage in order to reduce impacts on shark gillnetting. Not hard to see the issue here.