The future of commercial fishing in the Gulf of Carpentaria is under serious threat as the Queensland government looks to introduce widespread net-free zones from Karumba to the tip of Cape York Peninsula.
And while the government says no decision has been made on which areas will be closed off, a map was last week issued to the Gulf of Carpentaria Inshore Fisheries Working Group that suggests more than half of the viable fishing area will soon become off limits.
For recreational anglers and charter fishing operators out of Weipa, the government’s decision provides good news – Albatross Bay will be closed to all net fishing operators.
But for commercial fishers based out of Karumba – and for all Queenslanders who enjoy wild-caught barramundi, king salmon and grey mackerel – the future appears dire.
The state government’s motive to create net-free fisheries in Far North Queensland is based on a UNESCO report into the Great Barrier Reef, which dropped last year.
In that report, it said gillnet fishing was harming the reef. As a result, all gillnet fishing on the east coast in the northern Great Barrier Reef zone will soon be banned by the Queensland government.
The Gulf was also touted for closures because many threatened species travel between the east coast and the Gulf to breed.
Commercial fishers in the Gulf are now reeling, having seen the potential extent of the closures.
They said they were prepared for some areas to be made net-free zones, including Albatross Bay, but did not expect to see such widespread closures when the proposed map was dropped on them last week.
Last night in parliament, Member for Traeger Robbie Katter said he was blown away by the directive of the state government.
The MP, whose electorate includes Karumba, called for Fisheries Minister Mark Furner to stand down as a result.
He said good people and hard-working businesses would be impacted.
“The Minister is destroying their lives and everything they have worked for during their lives for political motivation,” Mr Katter said.
“If he was the Minister for the Environment, that is OK, but not when he is the Minister for Agriculture (and Fisheries).
“The Gulf of Carpentaria fishermen were advised of the Palaszczuk government’s plans to ban net fishing in the region.
“The repercussions are still sinking in, but essentially at least 80 per cent of the Gulf commercial fishing fleet would be out of business and it would remove the supply of sustainable and widely sought-after barra and (grey) mackerel.
“The economic fallout would not just be for those fish shops but for all those people who contribute to the economy—the electricians, boilermakers, fuel suppliers and everyone else.
“Karumba is a pretty big industrial player in the context of fishing even though it is a small town. “Taking 80 per cent of its main industry in town is a town killer for them. This is really driving a stake through the heart of that town.
“The Minister should stand down for this.”
In a statement, Mr Furner said that no decision on net-free zones in the Gulf had been locked in.
“On June 5, the Australian and Queensland governments announced more than $160 million in funding to significantly reduce net and other high-risk fishing activities in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area and the Gulf of Carpentaria,” he said.
“The funding will be used to create net-free zones including in the northern third of the GBR and parts of the Gulf of Carpentaria to better protect threatened species that move between the GBR and the Gulf.
“The Queensland government has established a Future Fishing Taskforce to advise on the implementation of the commitments made, including the establishing of additional gillnet-free zones in the Gulf of Carpentaria and other locations of high ecological value.
“Claims that decisions have been made about the future of Gulf net fisheries are not correct. No such decisions have been made.
“On September 5 and 6, the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries facilitated a meeting of the Gulf of Carpentaria Inshore Fisheries Working Group in Cairns.
“At the meeting, a summary of several potential net-free zones that had been discussed with the Future Fishing Taskforce was presented to members.
“The list of potential closures was derived from the community following the media release or through submissions to the Future Fishing Taskforce.
“Again, no decision has been made at this point in time.
“DAF will also attend the annual general meeting in Karumba next month to continue to engage with the industry on these matters.”
Karumba fisherman David Wren said if the proposed closures went ahead, it would spell the end of his business, Wren Fishing.
“We hold three N12 licences in the Gulf, which allows us to fish for grey mackerel and shark,” he said.
“Looking at the map with the proposed closures, half of our fishing ground will be taken away.
“And while you might be able to fish in the other areas, those places will get wrecked straight away because everyone will be fishing them.
“It’s like having a cattle property and only putting your cows in half of the paddocks. What will happen to the grass? It’ll disappear.”
Wren Fishing employs about 50 people and produces 600 tonnes of fillets per year.
“When that goes to market, that’s six million pieces of 100-gram portions,” Mr Wren said.
“At $10 per portion, that’s $60 million worth of Queensland caught mackerel that is lost to the market.
“The flow-on impacts to the North Queensland economy will be felt far and wide.”
Mr Wren, who is also the chair of the Gulf of Carpentaria Commercial Fishers Association, said the government needed to take a deep breath and take its time to work with the commercial fishing industry about any proposed net closures in the Gulf.
“We understand that we’ll have to give up some ground, but what that map says is just too much,” he said.
“We’re all flat out at the moment because the season closes on October 7. We don’t have time to be sitting in front of computers and making calls to fight this.
“Any decision should be put on pause and some compromises should be made.”
Mr Wren said that if the proposed closures went ahead, he would likely shut his business down.
“I love Karumba. My kids are here and my grandkids are here,” he said.
“I won’t leave but there won’t be anything here for my grandkids if the net fishing is closed.
“It’s so sad because we’ve had a great season and we run a very sustainable fishing industry down here.”