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Townsville, Queensland
18 February 1998

Senator the Hon Ian Macdonald
Parliamentary Secretary to the
Minister for the Environment

I am very pleased to have been invited to open this meeting of the Dugong Review Group on behalf of the Minister for the Environment, Senator Robert Hill. Conservation of the dugong is an issue that is of great interest to both Senator Hill and myself and judging from the amount of correspondence we receive in our offices, the conservation of dugong is also close to the hearts of many Australians.

This meeting occurs at the end of an intense 18 month period of activity by both the stakeholders and Governments to ensure the conservation of dugong in the southern Great Barrier Reef and Hervey Bay regions.

At the opening of the previous meeting of the Dugong Review Group in October 1996, Senator Hill asked the members of this Group to identify, emergency measures to eliminate, or at least fairly substantially reduce, the accidental dugong mortality or deliberate slaughter of the marine mammal in the southern Great Barrier Reef.

Since the last meeting, many submissions from Dugong Review Group members, government agencies and independent committees have been considered at four meetings of the Great Barrier Reef Ministerial Council.

The process has involved extensive review of a considerable amount of material and research assembled over a relatively short period of time. The Ministerial Council has been impressed by the preparation and detail of the material presented at each meeting of the Council and the Ministerial Council has as I've mentioned been appreciative of that tremendous input.

It has been worth it I think, a comprehensive platform has now been established for the conservation and recovery of dugong between Cooktown and Hervey Bay.

The major feature of the decisions by the Commonwealth and Queensland Governments is the system of 16 dugong sanctuaries created over about 1100 kilometres of coastline between Hinchinbrook and Hervey Bay.

From the results of the 1994 aerial survey of dugong in the southern Great Barrier Reef region, about 65% of Dugong occur in the Dugong Protection Areas, of which about 42% are within the highly protected Hinchinbrook region and Shoalwater Bay region.

By any measure, this is a significant achievement for conservation.

You are aware, that there are two types of sanctuaries, the 'A' and 'B' zones, and they have different levels of restriction on commercial mesh netting within them. These restrictions were as you are probably all well aware recommended by a committee which included an independent chair and representatives of commercial fishing organisations as well as academics and conservationists. In the 'A' sanctuaries offshore, foreshore and drift nets have been prohibited completely and river set nets limited to 5 of the 7 sanctuaries. In the 'B' sanctuaries, a number of restrictions to fishing practices have been introduced to minimise the risk to dugong.

Throughout the consideration of the dugong conservation issue, the Ministerial Council has been concerned to ensure that appropriate consideration and compensation is made for affected fishermen. A considerable amount of money has been spent by both governments in ex-gratia payments to fishermen who have lost income or become redundant as a result of the introduction of the sanctuaries. In addition, a licence buyback scheme has operated to minimise displacement of fishing effort from the sanctuaries into adjacent areas. And that was we thought in the Ministerial Council and on the advice we had that that was a very important part of the compensation package.

The Ministerial Council has also considered the possible impact of indigenous hunting on dugong numbers south of Cooktown. In recognition of the considerable importance of dugong within indigenous cultures, the Council agreed to develop cooperative management agreements with indigenous communities. I am very pleased to say that tomorrow I will be in Mossman to officiate at the launch of a co-operative agreement with the aboriginal community in that area. Just yesterday, or the day before, Senator Hill and I had a talk to the people involved and they are very, very committed in their proposals and their steps to ensure the dugong is preserved.

The Ministerial Council has made some other decisions and these include: - restricting permits to hunt in the southern GBR while numbers are low; - reviewing shark-netting for bather safety; - imposing boating restrictions in dugong habitat areas of the Hinchinbrook region; - increasing surveillance and enforcement, and reviewing penalties for illegal take; - holding meetings with the Department of Defence with the aim of prohibiting the use of explosives in DPAs. - seeking advice on best management practices in relation to areas where seagrass occurs; and - supporting Council management related research into seagrass habitat issues.

The existence of dugong is attributed as one of the values for which the Great Barrier Reef was inscribed on the World Heritage List. Australia has therefore acquired an international responsibility to protect the dugong. In discharging this responsibility, Australia has created the world’s first system of protected areas designated specifically for the conservation of dugong. In creating the dugong sanctuary system the Ministerial Council has adopted a sensible precautionary approach in keeping with contemporary Best Practice Management for World Heritage areas.

The establishment of the dugong sanctuaries and the other initiatives are milestones in the effort to save the dugong south of Cooktown.

We as a Government and the Queensland Government are determined to ensure that effective enforcement of the DPA's occurs, and that there is ongoing monitoring and continuing research into dugong populations throughout the Great Barrier Reef. And if over time we have been proven to be wrong one way or the other the Ministerial Council will of course will keep that matter continually under review and adjustments will be made in the future on the best recommendations from yourselves and science.

We are committed to playing a major role in stabilising and reversing the decline of dugong in the southern Great Barrier Reef Region. Complementary management by government agencies is important, but the commitment of stakeholders is essential for its success.

Just as there are many threats to dugong survival on the Great Barrier Reef so there must be many responses to them. The government has set in train a number of key actions. It is now up this group to review the implementation of these actions and focus on achieving a secure future for the dugong.

I know that you are all committed to this process and that you have an intensive time in front of you in looking at what has happened and considering where we should be going from here, so I do very much wish you well in those deliberations. You will hear a lot of talk over the next day or so, so I won't talk to you or at you any longer and I hope to be around for various periods this morning and if I can get involved I am more than happy to.

I've indicated to John that if there are any easy questions then I am prepared to try to answer them and if there are difficult questions I will not quite skilfully throw them to John and Richard.

Thanks very much for your effort and I wish your deliberations well in the next period of time.

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