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EcoNetwork responds to proposed DPI trial of modified crab catching gear in Port Stephens


This submission is in response to the Department of Primary Industries’ consultation process for a proposed trial of modified crab catching gear in Port Stephens announced on 18 December 2014 and detailed in the associated consultation paper on the DPI website:

Please record in your analysis of the public consultation data that approximately 2000 members and affiliates of EcoNetwork-Port Stephens and 15,000 signatories of the petition to ban witches hat crab nets in NSW support your proposal to require modified recreational crab fishing gear in Port Stephens.

However, we do not support your proposal to make this requirement a “trial” for only one year. Consistent with the application of the internationally accepted precautionary principle, witches hats and wide-mouth traps should be banned in Port Stephens with an amnesty period allowing crab fishing gear modified as specified in your consultation paper to be deployed for one year. A ban on the use of these gear types should then be legislated and enforced after the amnesty period, unless it can be proven that these gear types are not harmful to the environment within the Port Stephens Marine Park area, with special reference to the potential impact on threatened sea turtle species.

Collaborative research between DPI and the Office of Environment and Heritage will be required to assess and monitor the turtle population in Port Stephens and provide an environmental impact statement for recreational crab fisheries using modified and un-modified witches hats and wide-mouth crab traps.


EcoNetwork Port Stephens Inc. is the sustainability and conservation based peak body for a regional network of environmentally concerned individuals and 16 affiliated community, environmental and eco-tourism groups and businesses; composing a total membership of approximately 2000. Our primary focus is on community and environmental issues in the Port Stephens region.

We support the concept of changing your “recommendations” to modify witches hats and wide-mouth crab traps for reducing turtle bycatch, as specified in the last two annual publications of the “NSW Recreational Saltwater Fishing Guide”, to a legal requirement for recreational crab fishing gear deployed in Port Stephens. It is not stated in your consultation paper entitled “Proposed trial of modified recreational crab catching gear in Port Stephens”, but we are aware that this proposal actually arose from concerned members of the public, particularly John Clarke, not from management staff within DPI. At our last Annual General Meeting in July 2014 our membership passed the following motion: “We agree to support the campaign by John “Stinker” Clarke to ban the recreational use of witches hat crab nets and wide-mouthed crab traps in Port Stephens.” Therefore, please record in your analysis of the public consultation data that approximately 2000 members and affiliates of the Econetwork Port Stephens support your proposal to require modified recreational crab fishing gear in Port Stephens.

In your announcement of the proposed trial on 18 December 2014 there was no indication of whether or when the trial will actually be implemented. From your statement in the announcement: “A local consultation paper is available on the DPI website and the NSW Government is asking the community to provide feedback on the proposed trial”, it would appear that implementation of the trial is contingent on public “feedback”. However, there is no information about how this “feedback” will be used to decide whether or not to implement the trial. We can only assume that “feedback” will be put into two piles, one pile supporting the proposal to require the modification of crab gear and the other pile not supporting the proposal, and that implementation will only occur if the number of supporters is higher than the number of non-supporters. Please note that approximately 15,000 people have signed the petition to ban the use of witches hats in NSW: We assume that signatories of this petition would support the proposal to require modification of witches hats in Port Stephens. Therefore, please add these 15,000 supporters to the 2000 Econetwork Port Stephens supporters so that our submission adds approximately 17,000 people to the supporters pile. Adding these supporters to the support pile should help to offset the bias toward non-supporters you have created by sending pre-printed submission forms to bait and fishing tackle retailers in the Port Stephens region for recreational fishers to submit “feedback” which will be primarily added to the non-support pile.

We do not support the principle that the requirement to modify crab catching gear will only be implemented for a “trial” period of one year. The consultation paper does not specify what criteria will be used to assess the effectiveness of the gear modifications after one year and what options will be considered after the one year trial. Your proposal to “determine the effectiveness of the trial” implies that the burden of proof required to extend the trial of gear restrictions beyond one year will lie with concerned members of the public and/or DPI to demonstrate that bycatch mortality of turtles in recreational crab fishing gear within Port Stephens has decreased significantly within the one year trial period. This process is not consistent with the internationally accepted “precautionary principle” and will be very difficult to prove because there are no estimates of historic or current turtle population sizes in Port Stephens and there has been no official fishery independent program to monitor the recreational crab fishing gear types used, their loss rates or their associated annual turtle bycatch mortality rates before the trial is implemented. The only “monitoring” data available is the reporting of turtle mortality by recreational fishers and concerned members of the public. This data is very biased by fishery dependence and social behaviour, so that there is presently no way of determining actual turtle bycatch mortality rates for any of the recreational crab fishing gear types used in Port Stephens.

Your consultation paper indicates that DPI is aware that Port Stephens is “an important estuary for turtles based on recent turtle tagging data” and acknowledges that there is a historic problem with turtle bycatch mortality in some types of recreational crab fishing gear. A management agency that is truly concerned by this knowledge of impacts on threatened turtle species in a Marine Park would legislate a ban on the use of crab fishing gear types that are known to have a historic turtle bycatch mortality problem in Port Stephens (witches hats and wide-mouth crab traps) but would allow a one year amnesty on the use of this gear if it is modified according to the specifications in the consultation paper. A ban and associated amnesty would be based on the precautionary principle as defined by the NSW Protection of the Environment Act, Section 6: “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation. In the application of the precautionary principle, public and private decisions should be guided by:

(i) careful evaluation to avoid, wherever practicable, serious or irreversible damage to the environment; and (ii) an assessment of the risk weighted consequences of various options.” Based on this principle, a complete ban on the use of witches hats and wide-mouth traps after the end of the one year amnesty should be legislated and enforced unless the recreational fishing industry and/or DPI can prove that these methods are not harmful to the threatened sea turtles (loggerhead turtles are listed as endangered in NSW and green sea turtles are listed as vulnerable in NSW) in the Port Stephens Marine Park area.

This issue highlights the lack of knowledge about sea turtle populations in NSW and the environmental impacts of recreational fisheries. Research on NSW turtle populations will be required and assessment and monitoring work in Port Stephens will require co-operative research by DPI and the Office of Environment and Heritage (designated agency responsible for management of marine reptiles in NSW). An Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for modified and unmodified witches hats and wide-mouth traps will also be required. The EIS should include estimates of gear loss rates and associated bycatch mortality of fish, crabs, seabirds and sea turtles in “ghost fishing” gear (a documented problem in Port Stephens). It is our understanding that no Environmental Impact Statements have been compiled for any of the recreational fisheries in NSW, despite extensive funding available from licence fees held by DPI in the Recreational Fishing Trust. We note that NSW Fisheries used funds from the commercial fisheries sector to compile EIS information for all commercial fisheries in NSW 15 years ago.

Yours sincerely,
Dr Bruce Pease, President, EcoNetwork-Port Stephens
Nigel Dique, Secretary
Darrell Dawson, Coordinator