There are 9 species of seals found in Australian waters and all of them are protected by the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.
Sometimes seals may interact with fishing boats that use trawl or gillnet gear.
Seals (also known as pinnipeds) are marine mammals that spend long periods at sea, typically alternating between diving to look for food and resting on the surface. They generally feed on fish, squid, octopus, and crustaceans and are able to dive to great depths in search of food.
The Australian fur seal and the New Zealand fur seal are the only species which breed on the Australian mainland and in Tasmanian waters. The New Zealand fur seal has the largest distribution while the Australian fur seal has a more restricted distribution. Both species breed on the coast of the Australian mainland and near-shore islands. The remaining species can breed on Antarctic pack-ice or in the sub-Antarctic Australian territories.
Fishing and seals – how they interact
Seals can interact with fishing boats that use trawl or gillnet gear.
Over the last decade, fur seal populations around south eastern Australia have increased. The foraging areas of seals and fishing operations overlap which has resulted in increased levels of interactions between fishing vessels and seals.
An ‘interaction’ is any physical contact a person, boat or fishing gear has with a protected species that causes the animal stress, injury or death. Interactions with seals can happen when boats are trawling or when the seal gets caught in a gillnet whilst trying to feed on the fish in the net.
AFMA collects data on interactions with protected species through our monitoring programs.
- Logbooks – All fishers are required to report any interactions they have through their logbooks.
- Observers – Observers are AFMA officers who travel on Australian fishing boats to collect biological data and make environmental observations which contributes to the monitoring of fishing interactions with protected species.
AFMA supports research into reducing seal interactions in the southern fisheries.
Previous research has including a South East Trawl Fishing Industry Association managed project looking at the effects of shortening trawl fishing nets. The intention of this project was to trial the industry standard length codend against a modified shortened codend to investigate if codend length affects seal bycatch rates. The project aimed to assist demersal otter trawl fishers to operate in a sustainable manner by improving the selectivity of fishing gear to minimise seal bycatch.
The final report was released in 2015.
How AFMA and industry minimise interactions
These devices have a grid across a section of the net which allows seals to get out of the net through an escape hole or swim back out of the mouth of the net. Without these devices, seals get caught in the net and cannot reach the surface to breathe.
Read more about seal excluder devices.
In some fisheries an industry code of conduct has been developed and adopted by the fishing industry to minimise interactions with seals.
The codes may include:
- actively steaming away from areas where seals are sighted
- switching off lights during night trawling
- closing the trawl opening when hauling to minimise opportunities for the seal to enter the net
- disposing of offal while the vessel is not fishing.
The South East Trawl Fishing Association has developed an industry code of practice to minimise interactions with seals. The code includes guidelines to minimise incidental bycatch of seals, provides instructions on how to report interactions with seals, and contains options for modification of gear and fishing practices to reduce seal interactions.
The aim of this strategy is to guide industry to reduce interactions between fishing operations (as well as aquaculture and tourism) with seals.
There are four main objectives of the strategy:
- obtain quantitative and independent data on the nature and extent of human-seal interactions in commercial fisheries
- minimise and mitigate adverse interactions between seals and commercial fisheries
- develop and implement robust arrangements to report interactions across all commercial fisheries operations
- encourage fisheries resource users to embrace stewardship of the marine ecosystem.
Read more about the seal strategy on the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources website
Some fishers also use additional techniques to avoid capturing seals including the use of breakaway ties, slowing the speed of the fishing, and slower hauling of nets.
Protected species that are identified as high risk bycatch species are dealt with through bycatch and discard workplans for each fishery. The workplans are integrated into the management arrangements for each fishery, and are reviewed every 12 months and formally renewed every two years.
Read more about bycatch and discarding workplans.
The Commonwealth Fisheries Marine Mammal Working Group has been established to provide advice to AFMA on marine mammal management arrangements across all Commonwealth managed fisheries.
The Working Group has been structured to elicit the best possible advice from a wide variety of stakeholder groups including marine mammal scientists, the commercial fishing industry, the conservation sector, recreational / charter fishers and members from government agencies such as AFMA, the Department of the Environment and Energy and the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources. The Working Group also has an independent Chair.