Fury over ‘ludicrous’ commercial fishing decision in whale nursery

Fury over ‘ludicrous’ commercial fishing decision in whale nursery

A southern right whale conservation group has reacted angrily to the state government’s decision to permanently allow year-round commercial rock lobster fishing in a whale nursery.

Key points:

  • The change to the rock lobster season will allow fishers to capitalise on times of high export demand
  • Encounter Whales says the decision puts whales at risk of entanglement
  • No mothers or calves have been recorded in Encounter Bay so far this season

The whale breeding ground, located along South Australia’s south east coast near Victor Harbor, is usually closed to commercial fishing during winter.

However, the SA government temporarily lifted the ban two years ago to help the fishing industry cope with the disruption to the export market caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The government announced last week the winter season closure would be removed permanently.

Elizabeth Steele-Collins from the Victor Harbor-based whale conservation group Encounter Whales was among those outraged by the decision and said it would increase entanglements.

“To allow the professional rock lobster fishers permanent, all-year-round fishing during whale season is ludicrous,” she said.

“Mothers with calves are particularly vulnerable.

“Let us not forget that the outcome of most of these entanglements is a prolonged and agonising death for the whale.”

A whale entangled in ropes in blue ocean waters.

The Department for Environment and Water rescued a whale tangled in ropes in the waters of Encounter Bay, near Chiton Beach, in 2019(Supplied: Encounter Whales. Taken by D Cowan under scientific permit.)

It comes as the first southern right whale of the season was officially spotted and recorded in the Encounter Bay whale census on Monday — the last day of July.

The juvenile whale was filmed 100 metres offshore at Kings and Depledge Beaches late in the morning, accompanied by a pod of dolphins.

Only a handful of southern right whales have visited the area so far this season with no mothers or babies spotted yet.

The area is also visited by humpback whales but is not a breeding site for those whales.

Export market demands

Ms Steele-Collins said the ideal solution would be to not permit any cray pot fishing in whale aggregation areas or along migration corridors between May and November while whales were moving around the coastline.

Seasonal closures remain in place for recreational fishers.

Speaking on the South Australian Country Hour last week, Primary Industries Minister Claire Scriven said the change would allow fishers more time to catch their quotas and align supply with export market demands.

She said in the past the industry had not been able to capitalise on significant events, such as the Mid-Autumn Festival, which was celebrated in China and around the world.

“It’s a key time for getting a premium price,” she said.

“It’s making the fishing season more flexible.”

Boat laying cray pots in whale corridor

A commercial cray fishing boat was seen laying pots along the coast near Victor Harbor.(Supplied: Encounter Whales)

Days before the announcement was made, Encounter Whales raised concerns over pots being laid legally by a commercial boat operator in areas near The Bluff, West Island and along Waitpinga Cliffs to Newland Head.

The South Australian Northern Zone Rock Lobster Fisherman’s Association (SANZRLFA) responded by contacting Encounter Whales and making a commitment to stay out of Encounter Bay and the adjoining whale migration corridors while whales were potentially in the area.

However Ms Steele-Collins said the premier’s announcement days later that the winter closure would be permanently removed had made the industry’s commitment moot.

She said while the commitment sounded reasonable, there was still a significant risk of entanglement.

“The cray pot ropes will now be strewn across kilometres of whale migration corridor throughout the whale season on an ongoing basis,” she said.

“This is both outrageous and ludicrous.”

‘Not here to take risks’

SA Northern Zone Rock Lobster Fishermen’s Association executive officer Kyri Toumazos said the removal of the winter closure was in line with the majority of rock lobster fisheries across the country, which operated all year round.

Dark-haired man wearing black t-shirt sitting near the ocean smiling, with several boats in the background.

Kyri Toumazos says his association’s members will avoid the whale pathways.(Supplied: FRDC)

He said after speaking with the Encounter Whale group his members now had all the relevant information about movement patterns and would stay away from areas whales were likely to move through.

“None of us want to have an impact on the whales,” he said.

“We’re not here to take any risks; we have a whale mitigation strategy.”

Mr Toumazos said the pots laid along the coast near Victor Harbor had been removed immediately after Encounter Whales raised their concerns.

Minister Scriven said although the rock lobster fishers observed in Encounter Bay weren’t doing anything wrong in placing the pots where they were, it could potentially have “negative impacts” on the whale migration.

Coloured map showing different zones around the SA coastline.

Commercial rock lobster fishers are now permanently able to fish all year round in the northern zone.(Supplied: PIRSA)

“The industry has been very proactive; they’ve been in contact with the Environment Department and ensured they have all of the relevant information that they’ve communicated to the industry members so that they will stay away from the migration pathways,” she said.

“I think it’s a really good example of where they’re able to demonstrate that they want to continue their business, but they want to do it in a way that is both sustainable and sensitive to environmental and community concerns.”

Marine scientist Vanessa Pirotta has conducted research into whale entanglements in cray pots. She said any existence of nets and pots posed a threat to whales and it was a “very awful thing” for whales when they became caught.

“No-one wants entanglements,” Dr Pirotta said.

“Not whales and not humans. It’s costly and people lose assets.”

A southern right whale and dolphin swim together in the ocean.

The arrival of this southern right whale on the last day of July was greeted with relief by whale watchers around Encounter Bay.(Supplied: Nicole Rix, Photography by Nikki)

She said it was not entirely known why whales became entangled but they were curious animals and would often investigate structures and objects.

Dr Pirotta said there was a need for science to inform when and where to place the pots.


Read More