The East Coast Whale Entanglement Mitigation Program has been initiated in NSW to respond to the issue of entanglement with NSW 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 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 lead core rope within the trotline of Spanner Crab fishing gear, and
modifying fishing effort within the whale migration season.
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.
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 entanglement. Allowing for limitations in budget and timeframe, the report recommends that initial gear trials should introduce industry to a range of mitigation measures, including modifications not currently permitted under current NSW OTL fisheries management arrangements through an agreed permit
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.
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.