AN emergency meeting was held in Port Lincoln yesterday with pilchard fishers and State Fisheries officials following the sudden and complete closure of the fishery last week after revelations that 19 dolphins had been killed in nets over the last five months. While the South Australian Research and Development Institute had known about the deaths through their observation program for months, State Fisheries director Will Zacharin said he was only notified of the findings two weeks ago.
Mr Zacharin said Fisheries Minister Rory McEwen acted immediately to close the fishery, which was among the first to be declared sustainable under the Federal Environment Biodiversity and Conservation Act.
Mr Zacharin said observers had revealed waters north-east of Wedge Island had been particularly bad for dolphin interaction, according to the technical officer from SARDI who spent 89 days at sea over six or seven months.
"Most mortalities occurred in late February but there was also significant problems in March, April and May," he said.
Newly elected president of the pilchard fishers association Leith Whittaker said the industry had been working on a code of conduct to reduce interactions and bycatch of other protected and threatened species including dolphins for the past 12 months.
A draft industry code was released to the Government in early August that included changes to fishing practices such as requiring gates and weighted cork lines to allow any trapped dolphins to swim free.
"We hope that the outcome of today is this industry initiative is accepted and that we can get on with business and abiding by our code of practice," Mr Whittaker said.
He said there was a new spirit of cooperation with skippers and owners in the expanding fleet committed to ensuring the code of conduct would be followed.
Mr Zacharin said the aim was to have 100 per cent observer coverage on all fishing trips at least in the short term, until the Government had confidence the code was being followed.
All pilchard vessels, like the Federally managed tuna fleet, will soon have vessel monitoring equipment fitted so fishing activity can be tracked remotely.
Mr Zacharin said the most important step for fishers was if necessary to release any net found to have caught dolphins.
Pilchard history and facts
* 14 licence holders - up to two vessels per licence, average crew five
* Vessels net pilchards in purse seine nets
* Current total allowable catch - 51,000 tonnes (based on estimate of spawning biomass), up from around 40,000 tonnes last year and 20,000 tonnes in 2002
* 39,000 tonnes harvested this year
* More than 90 per cent of catch used as tuna farm feed
New president of the pilchard fishers association Leith Whittaker says there is new commitment in the pilchard industry to stop dolphins being trapped in nets. Observers saw 19 dolphins trapped in five months