The number of dolphins being killed during commercial trawling in Western Australia’s North West has prompted new calls for measures to reduce the by-catch.
Skippers operating off the Pilbara coast reported 17 bottlenose dolphins being caught in fishing nets last financial year.
Thirteen of the mammals died.
The figures are contained in the Department of Fisheries’ “State of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Report”.
The Conservation Council’s Tim Nicol says the current by-catch is unacceptable.
“We need to manage the oceans not just for the species that we eat but also for all the other species that live out there,” Mr Nicol said.
“This report does not deal with those issues around protecting the range of marine life that lives in our oceans.”
Researchers are frustrated that the by-catch has not been reduced, despite recommendations on how this could be achieved.
Neil Loneragan from the Centre for Fish and Fisheries Research at Murdoch University says top-opening escape hatches in fishing nets that allow dolphins to escape are being considered.
But he believes a review of fisheries research funding is causing delays to a promised six-month trial of the hatches.
“This is very important for air-breathing animals, such as dolphins, to allow them to move up, rather than down in the net,” Professor Loneragan said.
“It would be good to see that progress and those escape hatches introduced.”
Professor Loneragan believes the actual number of dolphins becoming trapped in trawl nets could be one-and-a-half to two-times higher than the data being reported by skippers in the State of Fisheries report.
He says, in the past, discrepancies have been found between the numbers recorded by skippers and the toll recorded by independent observers.
“The skipper reporting tends to be lower than that for the observers and it is probably because they are focussed very much on the fishing operation,” Professor Loneragan said.
The Pilbara trawl fishery stretches across almost 15,000 square nautical miles from south of Point Samson to north of Port Hedland.
The industry produces about 1,500 tonnes of demersal scalefish a year worth between $5 million and $6 million dollars. The catch is mostly sold in the Perth market.
A much bigger fishery off South Australia was recently closed due to the scale of the dolphin by-catch.
The Australian Fisheries Management Authority closed about 27,000 square kilometres to gill net fishing because of a significant increase in the number of what it calls “interactions” with dolphins.
The Fisheries Minister, Norman Moore, says the Western Australian Government is doing all it can.
“Remember of course that those fisheries provide most of the fish that goes onto tables of people across Western Australia and across Australia,” Mr Moore said.
“There are very few parts of Western Australia that have any trawling at all. In fact, about 90 per cent of the state’s fisheries don’t allow trawling at all.”
“Obviously with any trawling there are some by-catch issues but I’m confident that this fishery is being managed in a way that is acceptable,” he said.
“We are making sure that those few trawl fisheries we have in the state are doing minimal damage to the environment.”