Senate debates

Tuesday, 5 September 2017


Platypus Conservation

9:38 pm

Photo of Jenny McAllisterJenny McAllister (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In Australia we face a huge challenge to protect our unique wildlife. An unacceptable number of our animals, such as the hairy-nosed wombat and the koala, are vulnerable, endangered or face extinction. Natural habitats are being cleared; river systems face pollution. The problem is complex and the solution requires a coordinated, strategic approach between federal, state and local governments. To add an extra layer of complexity, many habitats occur on private land, so we need to work with local communities. Indeed, we are frequently spurred into action by motivated, passionate community groups who love the landscapes that they share with Australian plants and animals. We have a long and difficult road ahead of us if we are to prevent further extinctions.

Tonight I want to share with you some of the work of an impressive not-for-profit group in Victoria, the Australian Platypus Conservancy. Their research and their advocacy show us that sometimes, in the middle of all this complexity, there's a simple answer. In this case it is the need to stop using a yabby trap that unnecessarily, unintentionally and sometimes illegally kills platypuses and other fauna, such as water rats and turtles. Despite a range of state and territory restrictions on traps in platypus habitats, the illegal use of traps by recreational anglers continues to kill this unique and extraordinary creature.

In freshwater waterways around our country, on public and private land, recreational fishers are setting nets to catch yabbies. Many have bought inexpensive nets from camping stores, and they're unaware that the practice is illegal or that their attempts to catch yabbies pose a serious threat to platypuses. A published study into the causes of death of platypuses in Victoria found that 56 per cent of deaths with an identifiable cause were due to drowning in illegal traps or nets that were set by recreational fishers. About a third of these cases involved the use of enclosed traps—they're called opera house nets—despite the fact that they're banned in public waterways in that state.

Opera house nets are named for their similarity to the sails on the Sydney Opera House—two sails enclosed in nets. But the fact is that, once a platypus enters it, sometimes chasing the yabby, it's almost impossible for them to escape before they drown. The photos of these dead animals, sometimes more than one of them, laid out on the riverbanks alongside these traps are heartbreaking. The deadly risk that's posed by these particular nets has been quantified in research which found the opera-house-style nets prevented all animals tested from escaping within a time interval that would allow their survival. That's actually about two minutes for a platypus. Research into two other styles of nets found that they allowed more than 80 per cent of the animals in the test to escape and survive. The nets used in the trial were the modified opera house net and the closed-top pyramid.

I want to be really clear about this—I'm not suggesting that we stop yabbying. The point is that there are alternatives. These other styles of net are capable of successfully capturing yabbies without endangering platypuses and other air-breathing fauna such as water rats and turtles. The research has stated, 'Our findings suggest that opera house traps fitted with an opening in the roof should at least be equal to and potentially exceed the performance of a standard opera house trap when they're deployed by recreational or commercial fishers to harvest edible-sized yabbies.'

We're not managing this well. Management of inland recreational fisheries is primarily a state and territory responsibility. Most jurisdictions have done something to try and address the issue, but the approaches are really inconsistent, and compliance is extremely low. In Tasmania and Western Australia, opera house nets are banned in all waters. In Victoria and the ACT, they're banned in public waters only, and no regulation exists for private and farm dams. In New South Wales and Queensland, bans exist in specific geographic zones, except that the description of these are complex, and they include instructions like, 'It applies east of the Newell Highway.' In South Australia and the Northern Territory, there are no restrictions in place at all.

The problem is that, in the retail environment, these nets are cheap, ubiquitous and just not compliant. They're widely available in fishing and camping shops all around the country. In New South Wales and in some other states, opera house nets need to have a bycatch-reduction device. It's a fixed ring that's fitted to the entrance. This would reduce the number of deaths, except for one very big problem—the nets are required by the department to be modified with a fixed ring before they are used, but they're not required to be modified with a fixed ring before they are sold, and they're not required to be sold with information about the required modifications. It's not hard to imagine why compliance from an unlicensed recreational yabby fisher, also known as someone around the corner from you who just wants to go out and do some yabby fishing, might be low.

Balancing the needs of a growing population and responsibly managing land for housing development and for agricultural uses is a difficult task. It's a huge task to protect habitat and wildlife. I'm not suggesting at all that we stop recreational fishing. What I am suggesting is that we can use other types of traps or modified traps that significantly reduce the risk to the platypus and still allow us to enjoy catching and eating yabbies. I like the idea of fishers getting out and using our rivers, creeks, lakes and dams. If there is an approach that means they can enjoy a day out fishing and help protect Australia's precious animals, surely it is something as a nation we could agree to make happen.

We need to do better in promoting safe alternatives to dangerous opera house nets. I have today written to the Minister for Environment and Energy, Mr Frydenberg, to ask what steps are being taken at the national level to mitigate these seemingly preventable deaths of our native fauna—in particular, our platypus.