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Hook, Lion and Sinker: Gillnet Closures Save Sea Lion Colonies

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AUSTRALIA - Additional fishery closures put in place a year ago to protect sea lions have been highly successful, with no sea lions caught in gillnets since the latest closures took effect in April 2012.

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Prior to April 2012, the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) closed three key habitat areas off South Australia to gillnet fishing following the death of eight Australian Sea Lions in the shark fishery.

These deaths meant that set ‘trigger limits’ in the Australian Sea Lion Management Strategy were reached, prompting AFMA to close three key sea lion habitat zones to gillnet fishing. Each closure is for 18 months, which is approximately the breeding cycle for Australian Sea Lions.

AFMA’s quick intervention, and the cooperation of the fishing industry, has provided urgent and comprehensive protection for sea lions, with marine mammal expert Associate Professor Simon Goldsworthy saying that this sets a benchmark for other fisheries. “Globally, this is now seen as an important case study,” Associate Professor Goldsworthy said.

AFMA Executive Manager Dr Nick Rayns said that although the closures were absolutely necessary, AFMA recognised that they had a major impact on the fishing industry.

“In 2010, after a scientific study estimated that hundreds of unreported sea lion deaths were occurring each year due to gillnet fishing, we closed an area of 18,500 square kilometres or nearly the size of Australia’s largest national park, Kakadu,” Dr Rayns said.

“The latest closure took this to 102,451 square kilometres (much bigger than the size of Tasmania) and now we have almost reached 12 months without any sea lion deaths at all – and this is confirmed by monitoring every trip, either with video cameras or an AFMA observer on board.”

Under the strategy if a total of 15 sea lion deaths are confirmed in a 12 month fishing season the entire fishery adjacent to South Australia will close, however the smaller zone closures have proven so successful that AFMA hasn’t needed to take this action. Dr Rayns said that this was an excellent result for sea lion recovery and the fishing industry.

“We work very hard to balance competing priorities; to limit the impact of fishing operations on the environment but still enable fishing business to be viable and to meet the needs of Australian seafood consumers,” he said.

Shark fishers have also been participating in a trial using hooks instead of gillnets as these pose much less risk to sea lions. The trial will be completed later in 2013.

The industry is also working with AFMA on future management arrangements for the fishery to further reduce the impact of fishing on marine mammals.