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Australia’s northern waters: killer nets and flawed funding

Are we spending money on the wrong marine resources? While some $A100 million is being thrown at a new network of marine protected areas – a doubtful investment according to some commentators - the fabulous…

The danger to marine life from ghost nets is symptomatic of the threat to Australia’s northern marine environment from illegal practise and overfishing. AAP Image/Department of Heritage and Government

Are we spending money on the wrong marine resources? While some $A100 million is being thrown at a new network of marine protected areas – a doubtful investment according to some commentators - the fabulous resources of our northern waters are being pillaged and are in a parlous state. The recent cancellation of a program to remove killer fishing nets from these waters suggests our funding priorities are flawed.

Out of control exploitation?

The tropical and semi-enclosed Arafura and Timor Seas are shared by Australia, Indonesia, Timor-Leste and Papua New Guinea. The region is extremely rich in living and non-living marine resources and is also an integral part of the Coral Triangle zone, considered to have the highest marine biodiversity in the world.

Australia’s exclusive economic zone extends from the waters of the Gulf of Carpentaria up into the Timor and Arafura seas. In theory we have control over who can fish there and how they fish. However, while our northern coasts have only a sprinkling of humans, the coasts of the countries bordering these seas support very high populations.

The millions of coastal people in the region traditionally rely on the bounty of seas, those now within Australia’s exclusive economic zone included.

Colin Hunt

Illegal fishing of worrying dimensions is evident in the troubled state of northern snapper and shark stocks, with the latter also subject to shark finning.

Moreover, there is an unstated but likely large toll being taken on turtles, endangered species that we go to enormous lengths to conserve elsewhere.

Killer fishing nets

The thousands of killer fishing nets found in our northern waters and on beaches demonstrate just how out of control the exploitation of the Timor and Arafura Seas is.

Fishers cut away these “ghost” nets when they become entangled or when the fishers need to run from patrols. They also come adrift when sliced away by competing fishing vessels.

The nature of tides in the region means that the discarded nets eventually concentrate in the eastern and western inshore waters of the Gulf.

While the nets, in their hundreds of kilometres, are floating from the northern seas into the Gulf they do on-going and untold damage to marine life. Surface swimming fish and turtles are particularly likely to be trapped.

Australia’s Indigenous people hold deep cultural connections and responsibilities for marine resources and the impact ghost nets have on both wildlife and habitats is of particular concern to them.

The ghost net problem received recent publicity when the Indigenous rangers, who have collected 13,000 nets since 2004 and saved hundreds of turtles, had their funding discontinued by the Commonwealth.

The problem of ghost nets should be looked at as a symptom and a measure of the plunder of our northern marine environment by illegal fishing and overfishing, rather than as a separate and isolated issue.

Cooperation the key

Australia is already working with Timor-Leste and Indonesia to try to improve the livelihoods of their coastal people and thus reduce their dependency on already depleted fish stocks.

Regional cooperation has led to new coastal enterprises in Indonesia as alternatives to fishing. Tonny Wagey, ATSEF

This cooperative approach recognises that threats facing the Timor and Arafura Seas region are trans-boundary in nature. They can only be effectively addressed through cooperation of all four coastal nations.

Given the value of the resources at stake, the Australian aid going to this project could be well spent. And the ghost net data, recorded over time by the rangers, provides an ongoing measure of the cooperative project’s success or otherwise.

The Commonwealth could therefore take a new look at the Ghost Nets Australia project. It should be seen as an integral part of the effort to achieve better management of our northern marine resources and threatened species.

Join the conversation

11 Comments sorted by

  1. Janeen Harris


    Why remove funding from a program that was doing so much good? Are the people who were employed to clean up these nets now on the dole? Are these people still cleaning up, unpaid? The government has a history of breaking what works, especially in aboriginal communities. Let's see if this works. Yes it does. Good. Now let's change it. Inconsistent, short sighted and stupid.

  2. Wade Macdonald


    Colin once again you are spot on. As for our southern waters no Australian patrol vessel has patrolled them for at least a year and doesn't look likely to in the future under Labor. At least under Howard's government we chased away and/or fined those who extracted patagonian toothfish etc from our EEZ illegally.

    Burke and co. at labor prefer paper parks claimed as 'protection' for political vote grabbing and grandstanding.

  3. Bernie Masters

    environmental consultant at FIA Technology Pty Ltd, B K Masters and Associates

    Thanks for the article. Ghost nets are a serious problem and the removal of funding shows yet again the poor understanding that governments and city-based bureaucrats have of what's happening in the real world. Which government minister should be approached to reinstitute the Ghost Nets Australia project? The lead-up to a federal election is an ideal time to gain commitments from both major parties to re-allocate funds to a worthwhile project like this.

    1. Colin Hunt

      Honorary Fellow in Economics at University of Queensland

      In reply to Andy Saunders

      Good point Andy. But I did say "in theory".
      The bilateral agreement is certainly pragmatic on the part of Australia in recognising that it can't go it alone.

  4. Caleb Gardner

    Principle Research Fellow, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at University of Tasmania

    Conservation efforts targeted to threats,....action rather than rhetoric...resourcing activities that protect biodiversity...I didn't realise we had so much in common Colin!

    The conservation lobby's obsession with MPAs has been politically successful with massive resourcing of MPAs. You mention the initial $100 million set aside for the latest round but this is just the initial cost to shut down some of the existing businesses in the new commonwealth MPAs. We saw an extraordinary 24-fold blowout…

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  5. Edwina Laginestra
    Edwina Laginestra is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Jack of all trades

    Thanks for the article. I believe it is so important to keep reminding us of this sort of information. And I really hope you do not mind that I just went into and started a petition to let the Federal Government and Opposition they should look at continue the funding. This is very presumptuous of me - sorry - and the first time I have ever started a petition but I thought it couldn't hurt (I had recently received an email telling me how successful these petitions have been). If it is OK with you I will keep you informed of results. (And big apologies if you do not like this action and I'm sure I can pull it out if you do not want this to happen).

  6. David Hudson

    nature refuge manager at Natural Resource Management

    thanks Colin. I think you'll find this program has been funded (or at least part funded) by the Feds Caring for Our Country Program. This program, like its predecessor the Natural Heritage Trust, runs in 5 year phases and is competitive. The first 5 year phase is just wrapping up; applications for the second have already been called. See . Not to downplay in any way the worthiness or importance of the Ghost Nets Program, but every project that receives funding under this CfOC faces the same problem - until/unless they receive more funding in the second round, come 30 June everything stops. It's an incredibly frustrating way to deal with large and complex environmental issues requiring long term solutions which simply can't be solved within Government budgetary cycles. Bring on a Medicare style environmental levy!