The WWF has bought the last remaining commercial gill net in a bid to protect dugongs. (Reuters, file photo)
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has been accused of playing political stunts and making a “money grab” as a divisive debate rages over the future of far north Queensland’s dugong population.
The conservation group this week signed a deal to purchase the last remaining commercial gill net off the east coast of Cape York and intends to retire the licence to protect vulnerable species.
It says it raised a confidential six-figure sum from nearly 3,000 donors to make the deal.
The nets can span large distances along the seabed in order to trap fish swimming through and are often blamed for indiscriminately trapping endangered animals including dugongs and turtles.
But the purchase has raised the ire of a motley crew including conservationists, academics and fishermen.
Colin Riddell, environmentalist and campaigner against hunting by traditional owners, said gill nets were not a big killer of the protected species.
“I think the biggest catchers of [dugongs] are the ones who eat them,” he said.
Some environmentalists and politicians argue traditional owners should not be permitted to hunt dugongs and other protected species for personal use. (7.30)
Australian traditional hunting laws give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people the right to hunt dugong, sea turtle and other protected or endangered species for personal, domestic or non-commercial communal needs.
“I think the WWF skirts the issue. It’s a bit of a hot potato because it involves Indigenous hunting and [WWF] goes for the easy one which is the trawlers,” Mr Riddell said.
“I think it’s just a money grab by the WWF.”
“I get sick and tired of seeing them adopting every issue that’s around trying to get money in.
“If they didn’t have people sitting in offices and actually did something, I’d respect them.”
‘Nothing to do with science’: Marine researcher
A former fisheries officer and marine researcher said it appeared the WWF was more interested in gaining political sway than protecting wildlife.
“They’re a multinational and they suck in money and use it for their political objectives … it’s got nothing to do with science in any shape or form,” James Cook University’s Geoff McPherson said.
“They’ve been trying to get other licences as well … it’s a way of getting the foot in the door and managing the fisheries of the state.”
He said fisherman using gill nets were required to stay near them, and not many dugongs were actually caught.
“Because they’re sitting on the net they can hear the dugong coming if it’s a calm night, and some of the guys still use acoustic alarms,” Mr McPherson said.
The WWF’s head of oceans Richard Leck rejected the suggestion that gill nets were of low concern.
“We rely on the best scientific advice and before we undertook this action we spoke to Professor Helen Marsh, who is the foremost Australian expert on dugong conservation, and she very strongly endorsed this action,” Mr Leck said.
“Professor Marsh has looked at the issue of traditional hunting in the far north and she doesn’t see it as significant as gill netting.
“We also respect the rights of traditional owners to undertake their traditional activities … so that is not a focus for us.”
A WWF video calling for donations to purchase a gill net on the northern Great Barrier Reef
A secret Federal Government report from 2016 found “no substantive evidence” of an illegal trade in dugong meat in Queensland.
The commercial fishing industry is also up in arms over the conservation group’s purchase of the gill net.
“[The WWF] has the capacity to shut down commercial fishing by stealth if it continues to outbid genuine commercial fishermen who would otherwise buy these licences,” Queensland Seafood Industry Association President Keith Harris said in a statement.
“The Queensland Government needs to step in and put a stop to it so the flow of local seafood can be maintained for consumers.”
Debate full of ‘mistruths’: Traditional owner
Duane Fraser, a Wulgurukaba traditional owner from the Townsville region, said he was growing increasingly frustrated by the “seemingly everlasting” debate about traditional hunting.
“There needs to be a sensible conversation … but emotion and public rhetoric don’t always allow for an environment that fosters real discussions and conversations around the space,” Mr Fraser said.
Duane Fraser is a Wulgurukaba traditional owner from Magnetic Island. (ABC News: Bridget Brennan)
Mr Fraser said traditional owners had already self imposed quotas on the number of animals taken from the ocean.
“People understand their responsibility to the conservation of these species … they’re our species as well and we’ve been harvesting these animals for a very long time,” he said.
“In the Townsville region we haven’t harvested those species for some time for good reason.
“We understand that the numbers were low so we put in place quotas, we put in place cultural measures, to ensure that those species could then again thrive.
“If individuals want to start using very emotive language and placing in the public facts that are just not true, mistruths, then there is no real opportunity for positive dialogue.”
He said there were so few traditional hunters in Queensland that it was “physically not possible” to catch dugongs and turtles in quantities “that some individuals claim they are capturing”.