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East Coast Whale Entanglement Mitigation Program | Oceanwatch Australia

The East Coast Whale Entanglement Mitigation Program has been initiated in New South Wales, Queensland, and Tasmania to respond to the issue of entanglement with set fishing gear.

As Humpback whale populations in the southern hemisphere recover from past commercial whaling, the potential for interactions between whales and commercial fishing operations is increasing, with most entanglements occurring since 2006. The majority of entanglement incidents involve Humpback whales, a species listed as Vulnerable under the Commonwealth EPBC Act and NSW Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016. Whale entanglements are complex and often dangerous incidents to respond to. Due to the size of whales, disentanglement operations require staff to have specialist training and skills. While disentanglement provides a means for dealing with incidents as they arise, the optimum solution to the problem involves reducing the risk of entanglement.

Prior to this project a number of NSW Ocean Trap & Line (OTL) fishers had made initial efforts to mitigate risks associated with whales becoming entangled in set fishing gear, including:

  • trialling sections of rope of reduced breaking strength close to surface head gear,
  • trialling negatively-buoyant rope within the trotline of Spanner Crab fishing gear, and
  • modifying fishing effort within the whale migration season.

In 2019, OceanWatch partnered with the Professional Fishermen’s Association (PFA) to host a workshop as the first stage of the East Coast Whale Entanglement Mitigation Program in NSW. The workshop objectives identified a range of fishing gears and techniques suitable for the mitigation of whale entanglements to be tested by commercial fishers, and considered modification of existing NSW OTL Fishery Codes of Practice to include specific practices to mitigate whale entanglements. Allowing for limitations in budget and timeframe, the report recommended that initial gear trials should introduce industry to a range of mitigation measures, including modifications that weren’t permitted under NSW OTL fisheries management arrangements through an agreed permit process.

In 2022, the program was extended to include Queensland and Tasmania in efforts to better assess fishery interactions with whales along the Australian East Coast.

The East Coast Whale Entanglement Mitigation Program is made up of two individual projects, supported by OceanWatch Australia, through funding from the Australian Government and the Australian Government Marine Park Fisheries Assistance Extension Program.

GEAR TRIALS

NSW GEAR TRIALS

Modified fishing gear field trials were initiated during the 2020 East Coast whale migration. The trials focused on the NSW OTL Demersal Fish Trap (DFT) and Spanner Crab (SC) fishing endorsements, which utilise buoy lines and surface floats attached to set demersal fishing gear, as an integral component of the fishing operation.

Importance was placed on understanding individual fishers’ unique circumstances in relation to the fishing gear modifications being trialled. Fishers provided a subjective assessment of:

  • The practical utility and safety aspects of fishing gear modifications that may potentially minimise whale entanglement, incorporating common spatial and temporal variables encountered in the NSW OTL fishery,
  • potential impacts on crew and vessel safety, and
  • the potential for future uptake of specific gear modifications and techniques.

Several NSW OTL fishers who participated in the gear trials still use some form of gear modification during the humpback whale migration season. As of 2023, NSW OTL fisheries management regulations have been adjusted to allow for the sinking of headgear and use of delayed release technology which helps reduce the amount of slack rope in the water column.

Details of the trialled gear can be found in the final report below.

QUEENSLAND

Queensland Spanner crab, blue swimmer crab, and offshore net fishers, along with fisheries management representatives, disentanglement teams, and whale researchers, were invited to participate in a 2023 co-design workshop to better understand Queensland fishery interactions with humpback whales. Findings from the workshop informed the development of a Code of Practice specific to mitigating whale entanglements in Queensland set fishing gear. It also provided direction for the ongoing modified fishing gear trials initiated in late 2023, which include sink ropes and whale pingers.

Like the NSW gear trials, importance is placed on understanding individual fishers’ unique circumstances in relation to the gear modifications being trialled. Fishers will provide a subjective assessment of:

  • The practical utility and safety aspects of fishing gear modifications that may potentially minimise whale entanglement, incorporating common spatial and temporal variables encountered in the fishery,
  • potential impacts on crew and vessel safety, and
  • the potential for future uptake of specific gear modifications and techniques.

TASMANIA

Seafood Industry Tasmania (formerly Tasmania Seafood Industry Association) held a 2023 co-design workshop with southern rock lobster fishers, fisheries management representatives, marine conservation representatives, and a local modified gear developer to better understand whale interactions with Tasmanian fisheries. Findings from the workshop are informing the development of a Code of Practice specific to mitigating whale entanglements for southern rock lobster fishers and have promoted further research into innovative gear modifications with the potential to suit the fishery needs. Trials have yet to begin but are anticipated to be initiated in 2024.

Final Report

Project Updates

2022 Workshop Reccomendations

Initial Workshop Report

Code of Practice

Expressions of Interest

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