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Media Releases and Speeches

Dugong Group Welcome


Speech by Senator Hill
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Minister for the Environment

4 October 1996
Townsville

Thank you for inviting me to open this meeting of the Dugong Review Group.

I am pleased to welcome representatives from Federal and State governments, conservation groups, Aboriginal groups, the fishing industry and the scientific community. Such broad representation at this meeting is promising because if we are to successfully address the dramatic decline in dugong numbers in the Southern region of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park then all stakeholders must be involved.

Let me say at the outset that, in my view, this Group must identify - and the stakeholders must then implement - emergency measures designed to eliminate, or at least substantially reduce, dugong mortality in the Great Barrier Reef Area.

I am sure you are all aware of the substantial decline in dugong numbers in the Southern Great Barrier Reef Area - a decline of between 50 and 80% since 1986-87. By 1994 the dugong population had plummeted to an estimated 1700 animals in this area.

This massive decline in dugong numbers qualifies the dugong for classification under IUCN categories as 'critically endangered' in the southern Great Barrier Reef region. A draft action plan for the Dugong recommends that it be listed under the CommonwealthEndangered Species Act 1992 as nationally vulnerable. The Endangered Species Scientific Subcommittee is likely to consider the status of the dugong under Commonwealth legislation in the next twelve months.

The nearest terrestrial relative to the dugong is the elephant. As with the conservation of the elephant, the conservation issues raised by the dugong's plight are complex. The nations struggling with the challenge to conserve the elephant are developing nations. Similarly, dugongs occur in the waters of over 40 countries, and all except Australia are developing nations.

Australia therefore has a special responsibility for dugong conservation. That responsibility rests largely with the groups represented here today - the scientists, aboriginal groups, the fishing industry, community groups and, of course, government. I hope that you will discharge that responsibility wisely.

The cause of the decline in dugong numbers may be attributed to a combination of the following:

- gillnetting;

- habitat loss and disruption;

- shark meshing; and

- indigenous hunting

I would like to acknowledge the steps that have been taken thus far by stakeholders to address these causes.

GBRMPA has:

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities have taken steps to reduce hunting and, in areas south of Cooktown, to cease hunting of dugong altogether for the time being. This decision to self regulate dugong hunting when numbers are in serious decline is highly commendable and is a significant demonstration of the Aboriginal community's commitment to dugong protection.

The commercial fishing industry has moved:

The Queensland Department of Primary Industries has reviewed the deployment of shark nets for bather protection.

The Queensland Department of the Environment has commenced the preparation of a conservation and management plan for dugong in Queensland.

Conservation groups have alerted the public to the dugong situation and have sought public understanding and cooperation through programs such as the 'Dugong Watch' instigated by the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland in Yeppoon.

Finally, academic and research institutions, especially James Cook University and CRC Reef Research Centre, have enhanced our understanding of the complex interrelationship between dugongs and their environment.

The efforts made to date are a start. They are, however, clearly not enough. Unless all parties take urgent and significant additional action we face the very real prospect of dugongs disappearing from areas of the Queensland coast.

For its part, the Commonwealth is prepared to make a significant commitment to protecting the dugong.

I have the pleasure to announce today that the Commonwealth government will this year commit $633,000 on the collaborative dugong program for the Great Barrier Reef.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority will contribute $420,000 of this amount comprising:

Under another funding arrangement with the Queensland Government, the Commonwealth Government will contribute:

The CRC Reef Research Centre at James Cook University, will also be contributing at least $63,000 this year to dugong and habitat research programs.

Urgent contributions to dugong protection are required from other parties:

- I hope Aboriginal communities will continue to support the voluntary
limitations on traditional hunting and, in addition, will ensure
community adherence to these limitations.

- Perhaps most importantly, I hope that the fishing industry can identify
and accept arrangements which minimise the impact of that industry
on the dugong population. I recognise that most fisherman will try and
avoid harming dugong. However, clearly some additional steps need
to be taken for the industry to minimise its impact on the dugong
population- this could include the increased use of dugong-friendly
fishing gear and practices, the creation of dugong sanctuaries and
education programs.

- Similarly, governments need to ensure that adequate management
plans are in place to ensure protection of dugong habitat. For
example, as identified above, the Queensland and Commonwealth governments have recently agreed to develop and implement a management plan for the Hinchinbrook region. I expect this plan will implement protective measures for dugong - for example, by regulating boat traffic in the channel. This plan will, for the first time, ensure that the full range of developments that could impact on dugong in the Hinchinbrook Channel are addressed in an integrated and effective manner.

In opening this meeting of the Dugong Review Group, I urge all parties to identify and implement the emergency measures necessary to prevent the decline of the dugong in the Southern Great Barrier Reef. Ideally, I would like Commonwealth and Queensland Ministers to be able to consider a package of emergency measures agreed by stakeholders at the Great Barrier Reef Ministerial Council in late November.

In my view, conservation measures are more likely to be effective if they are endorsed and supported by the community and have been developed in a cooperative manner. I trust this will be the case with dugong conservation.

However, I wish to conclude my remarks by emphasising the Commonwealth's commitment to dugong conservation. If all interested parties cannot voluntarily and co-operatively take the necessary action to protect dugong then the Commonwealth will be left with no option - it will need to take further action itself. The Commonwealth has various options available to it - including creating sanctuaries under the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act or taking action under the Endangered Species Protection Act and the World Heritage Properties Conservation Act. I trust that resort to these measures will not be necessary. However, the fate of the dugong in the Southern Great Barrier Reef is precarious and, without further decisive action by stakeholders represented here today, the Commonwealth will need to examine all of the options available to it.

Commonwealth of Australia