THE controversial fishing trawler Geelong Star has killed four dolphins and two seals in its nets in fishing operations in Australian waters.
The ABC reports the 95-metre-long vessel, which is operated by Seafish Tasmania, caused the deaths despite having a marine mammal excluder device and an Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) observer on board.
A statement from Grahame Turk of the Small Pelagic Fisheries Association, made on behalf of Seafish Tasmania, said the operators were required to notify the AFMA of the deaths within 24 hours and they did so.
He said the Geelong Star ceased fishing for 12 hours and steamed away to an area 20 nautical miles from the original catch location, where dolphins were not visible.
The arrival of the freezer factory trawler, which has permission to catch 16,500 tonnes of pelagic fish a year, has drawn widespread criticism and sparked protests in Perth, in Tasmania's north, and Hobart on the weekend.
As a result of the animal deaths caused by the Geelong Star, AFMA released the following media release:
The Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) has strengthened marine mammal protection in the Small Pelagic Fishery (SPF), putting in place additional measures in the vessel management plan (VMP) for all mid-water trawl vessels operating in the fishery.
Vessel management plans specify the detailed operational requirements to minimise risks to the marine environment and all SPF mid-water trawl vessels are required to have an AFMA approved VMP before commencing fishing. VMPs are updated to take into account on the water experience and the latest developments in techniques to reduce interactions with protected species.
AFMA has been advised that the Geelong Star, the fishing vessel nominated by Seafish Tasmania Ltd to fish in the SPF, is currently completing its first trip in the fishery.
Consistent with the requirements of all vessels fishing in Commonwealth waters, the Geelong Star must report any interaction with protected species, including marine mammals like dolphins, seals or Australian sea lions.
The Geelong Star has notified AFMA of two seal mortalities and four dolphin mortalities. Any mortality of marine mammals is a serious concern for AFMA and the Geelong Star will immediately be required to take additional precautions to further reduce the risk of marine mammal interactions.
"AFMA has always said that we will update the Geelong Star's vessel management plan to take into account on the water experience," said AFMA's CEO Dr James Findlay.
"Additional measures will now be imposed to protect dolphins and other marine mammals.
These changes include modifications to marine mammal exclusion devices and move on provisions, day-time fishing only or requiring the vessel to return to port if further dolphins are killed.
"The company has re-affirmed its commitment to AFMA to do everything possible to protect marine mammals and the broader marine environment during fishing operations – this is pleasing to see.
"Unfortunately, from time to time both commercial and recreational fishers will accidentally harm marine mammals and other protected species while seeking to put seafood on our tables. We will continue to work with marine mammal experts and fishers to ensure that all reasonable steps are taken to minimise these risks.
"The sustainability of the entire marine ecosystem, including marine mammals is a priority for AFMA and we take any marine mammal mortality very seriously."
Ongoing monitoring of vessel operations is an essential part of fisheries management. AFMA will continue to deploy two officers on the Geelong Star to closely observe the operations for the foreseeable future.
In response to the recently reported dolphin mortalities, the master of the Geelong Star suspended fishing immediately. AFMA's on-board bycatch specialist then assessed the situation and the vessel moved 20 nautical miles away from its current fishing location. The vessel master also initiated fishing gear and other operational changes.
The Geelong Star's current vessel management plan can be found at afma.gov.au. The updated vessel management plan will soon be published.