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Keep our marine life out of strife! (Spotted Handfish, Albatross and Seadragons in Tasmania)

Media Release

2 December 2002

Coastcare Week 2002

Australian marine experts and Coastcare Week ambassadors, Ron and Valerie Taylor, today sent an urgent warning to all Victorians — protect our threatened marine species or risk losing them forever.

Australian marine experts and Coastcare Week ambassadors, Ron and Valerie Taylor, today called on all Tasmanians to conserve and protect threatened marine species or risk losing them forever.

The Taylors issued the call as part of Coastcare Week (1 -7 December), which is drawing attention to the plight of Australia's threatened and vulnerable marine species in a new campaign — 'The Coast is our Home'. The Tasmanian Coastcare community this week is focusing on the preservation of the Albatross, Spotted Handfish and Seadragons.

Ron and Valerie Taylor have been worldwide pioneers in marine education for over 50 years. They filmed the live shark sequences in the blockbuster movie 'Jaws' for Steven Spielberg in the 1970's and made a series of hit television programs about marine life.

The Taylors have worked tirelessly for many years to protect marine species including Marine Turtles, the Grey Nurse Shark, Seals and the Great White Shark. Now they are helping Coastcare increase community awareness about protecting some of the marine species under threat in Tasmania.

"Albatrosses, the world's largest flying birds, face a number of threats including longline fishing operations, predation by feral cats, and competition and land degradation by feral rabbits," Ron Taylor said.

"Twenty-two of the world's 24 albatross species occur in the Southern Hemisphere. Nineteen of these species occur in Australian waters, and five of these also breed in Australia."

The Albatross spends most of its life roaming the oceans in search of prey. They have long life spans and low rates of natural mortality. However, the global expansion of longline fisheries has recently begun to pose the greatest overall threat to albatross species.

"Longline fishing, used to target finfish and shark species, consists of a main line with numerous baited hooks attached to branchlines. The lines can be up to a massive 100km long and have up to 10 000 hooks.

"Each year thousands of seabirds, including Albatrosses, are accidentally killed on longline hooks when birds ingest baited hooks during the setting or hauling of the longline. Birds hooked are subsequently pulled under the water by the weight of the line and drown.

"The threat to Albatrosses from longline fishing can be greatly minimised by using bird-scaring lines and streamers, weighted lines to reduce the amount of time baits are accessible to birds, and setting lines at night and beneath the water's surface. Seasonal closures of fisheries around nesting colonies during the breeding season would also prevent the death of many Albatrosses," Mr Taylor said.

According to the 2002 Australian Senior Achiever of the Year for marine conservation, Valerie Taylor, Seadragons are another marine species threatened by human activities and environmental degradation.

"The two types of Seadragons found in Australia, the Leafy Seadragon and the Weedy Seadragon, are protected species. They are threatened globally by habitat destruction where seagrass meadows and seaweed beds are damaged," Ms Taylor said.

"Increasing amounts of litter and other pollution and excessive fertiliser run-off also adversely affect Seadragon populations. Additionally, some Seadragons are caught as bycatch in trawling nets."

Weedy Seadragons, the only species known to be in Tasmania, are found along Australia's southern coastline between Rottnest Island in the west to mid-NSW in the east and around the north and east coasts of Tasmania.

They like shallow coastal waters down to about 50 metres but are usually spotted in water between 4 and 10 metres deep. Seadragons are thought to move out into slightly deeper water as they get older. They are very vulnerable because they are weak swimmers and depend on a healthy growth of marine plants for camouflage.

"Seadragons have a specific level of protection under Commonwealth fisheries legislation and in most Australian states where they occur it is illegal to take or export them without a permit," Ms Taylor said.

Tasmanian Coastcare Coordinator Chris Rees said the Spotted Handfish is yet another marine species in decline in Tasmania.

"The spotted handfish is endemic to the lower Derwent River estuary and adjoining bays and channels. It was once commonly encountered in the Derwent River estuary, however populations have since declined considerably, both in distribution and abundance.

"The spotted handfish was nationally listed as threatened in 1996. These curious fish are small, slow-moving marine fish that prefer to 'walk' along the seafloor on their fins rather than swim.

"Throughout the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, Spotted Handfish were frequently sighted by divers along the eastern and western shores of the Derwent. However, extensive surveys in 1994 and 1996 located only a handful of specimens. Subsequent surveys by CSIRO have only located three small and highly restricted colonies.

"The cause of the decline in Spotted Handfish is unclear however possible causes include the introduction of the predatory northern Pacific seastar, loss of critical habitat due to increasingly silty sediments, and water quality degradation.

"All species of handfish are currently protected under the Tasmanian Living Marine Resources Act and the Tasmanian Threatened Species Act. This legislation prohibits the collection and retention of handfish from State waters without a permit," Mr Rees said.

According to Ron Taylor, Coastcare is something we all need to be part of.

"This year's Coastcare week campaign aims to significantly lift awareness about the very real threats our marine species are facing. We also want to highlight what people can do in the community to protect these species," Mr Taylor said.

"We know relatively little about the ocean whereas we know so much about animals that live on the land. We simply do not know the real number of threatened marine species. We do not even know the level of rarity of most marine species.

"However, what we have observed is a whole range of marine creatures just aren't around in the same numbers they used to be," Mr Taylor said.

Coastcare is a program of the Commonwealth Government's Natural Heritage Trust, in partnership with State/Territory and Local Governments.

For more information on Coastcare or to join a Coastcare group, please call Environment Australia's Community Information Unit on 1800 803 772 or visit the web site at: www.ea.gov.au/coasts/coastcare

Further Media Information:

Interviews with Ron & Valerie Taylor, contact Ross Woodward or Jessica Morrow from Media Key on (03) 9787 5844. Media in Tasmania can also contact Chris Rees direct by calling 03 6233 3963.

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