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Assessment of the Torres Strait

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The Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities final recommendations to the Australian Fisheries Management Authority for the Torres Strait Bêche-de-mer Fishery

The Torres Strait Bêche-de-mer Fishery is a hand collection fishery targeting several species of sea cucumber. Although of low value compared to other Torres Strait fisheries, the fishery has in the past provided an important source of income for traditional inhabitants.

There has been little activity in the fishery in recent years owing to the prohibition on harvest of many of the high value species in the fishery including sandfish, black teatfish and surf redfish. Total allowable catches of these species have been set at zero tonnes since 1998 for sandfish and for black teatfish and surf redfish since 2003, due to marked declines in abundances as a result of fishing activities. Resource surveys undertaken in 2009 (Skewes et al 2010) and 2010 (Murphy et al 2010) provide an indication that stocks are recovering. Draft community based harvest strategies for two Torres Strait communities have been developed in consultation with the Hand Collectable Working Group and the traditional inhabitants of those communities.

The material submitted by the Australian Fisheries Management Authority on behalf of the Torres Strait Protected Zone Joint Authority in April 2011 demonstrates that the management arrangements for the Torres Strait Bêche-de-mer Fishery continue to meet most of the requirements of the Australian Government Guidelines for the Ecologically Sustainable Management of Fisheries - 2nd edition.

Stock Status and Recovery

The department considers that overall the management regime for the Torres Strait Bêche-de-mer Fishery aims to ensure that fishing is conducted in a manner that does not lead to over-fishing. Management arrangements in the fishery include input and output controls in force under the Torres Strait Fisheries Act 1984 and Torres Strait Fisheries Regulations 1985, and legislated through Fisheries Management Notices issued under the Torres Strait Fisheries Act 1984 as well as conditions on fishing licences.

Sea cucumbers are harvested by divers working from dinghies less than seven metres in length, by hand or with hand held non-mechanical devices. The use of hookah or self contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA) equipment is not permitted. Competitive total allowable catches are set for all main target species in the fishery (four species have individual total allowable catches and 12 species have a combined total allowable catch of 80t) as well as minimum size limits on all high and medium value species and two low value species, based on size at reproductive maturity.
Sandfish recovery

Sandfish have traditionally been a primary target species in the Torres Strait with the majority of the fishing for this species taking place on the Warrior Reef complex. Past fishing pressure led to a marked decline in the stock, and a zero total allowable catch was introduced for this species in 1998.

Sandfish stocks were classified as overfished and subject to overfishing in 2009 (Woodhams and Rodgers 2010). A zero tonne total allowable catch for this species in the fishery allows for recovery of the stock. In its 2011 submission, AFMA stated that due to the closure of the Papua New Guinea Sea Cucumber Fishery in October 2009, there has been less illegal fishing by Papua New Guinea fishers in Australian waters, hence reducing the risk of overfishing of sandfish.

Ecosystem Impacts

Taking into account management measures for the fishery, including:

  • vessel length limits;

  • gear restrictions (hand harvesting only, with restrictions on the number of divers operating);

  • species-specific minimum size limits based on approximate size at reproductive maturity; and

  • competitive total allowable catch for target species

the department considers that the management regime for the Torres Strait Bêche de mer Fishery provides for fishing operations to be managed to minimise their impact on the structure, productivity, function and biological diversity of the ecosystem.

However, the department considers that a number of previously identified risks and uncertainties remain, which must be managed to ensure that impacts are minimised, including:

  • the inherent vulnerability of sea cucumber species in general to over exploitation;

  • the lack of robust data collection in the fishery owing to the voluntary nature of fishery dependant data collection (docket books);

  • the lack of information on the biology of key target species;

  • remaining uncertainty regarding the stock status of several target species; and

  • the need for continued collaborative management with other jurisdictions exploiting similar species and/or joint stocks of sea cucumbers.

The key challenges for this fishery will be:

  • achieving reliable estimates of commercial (community) catch;

  • implementing the existing draft community based harvest strategies to include meaningful performance indicators, performance measures and responses;

  • identifying and pursuing opportunities for research into the biology of key target species; and

  • continuing collaborative research and management with other jurisdictions exploiting similar species.

The department considers that, until it can be demonstrated that these issues have been adequately addressed, declaration of the harvest operations of the Torres Strait Bêche de-mer Fishery as an approved wildlife trade operation for three years, until 20 June 2014, is appropriate. The department considers that the declaration should be subject to the conditions listed in Table 4. To contain and minimise the risks in the longer term the recommendations outlined in Table 4 have been made.

Unless a specific time frame is provided, each condition and recommendation must be addressed within the term of the declaration.

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