Fur Seals

The Hon. T.J. STEPHENS ( 15:28 ): I seek leave to make a brief explanation before asking the Minister for the Environment a question regarding long-nosed fur seals.

Leave granted.

The Hon. T.J. STEPHENS: The hardworking excellent member for Hammond, Mr Adrian Pederick MP, has referred to me a number of reports and investigations into the overpopulation of long-nosed fur seals along the South Australian coastline. Given that 10,000 fur seals consume over 400 tonnes of seafood per day, my question is: what is the effect on commercial and recreational fishers of this overpopulation of fur seals?

The Hon. I.K. HUNTER (Minister for Sustainability, Environment and Conservation, Minister for Water and the River Murray, Minister for Climate Change) ( 15:28 ): I thank the honourable member most sincerely for his question of me on this very important topic. It is important that we come to the issues that really need to be based on good science, about where do the fur seals eat—and, of course, it is offshore. But we will come to that.

The South Australian government takes concerns expressed by our local communities, fishery organisations and traditional owners about the impacts that long-nosed fur seals may have on the Coorong and Lower Lakes area very seriously. We have listened and we are taking action to ensure that impacts from seal interactions are kept to a minimum. The state government does not support the culling of long-nosed fur seals. We know from the best available evidence that culling would be ineffective, as culled seals would simply be replaced by new seals.

Culling would fail to address the impacts being felt by commercial fishers and could also create welfare and safety issues for seals and fishers. Other options, such as relocation and sterilisation, have proven to be costly and ineffective in other parts of Australia, and we can use the experience of seal interactions and government interventions in Tasmania to point to the failure of these management options.

The South Australian government has taken a number of steps to help fishers and local communities mitigate these impacts. The Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources and Primary Industries and Regions SA are working closely with the Southern Fishermen's Association on a plan to mitigate impacts felt by the fishing industry from seal interactions.

This includes the state government investing $100,000 in research into fishing gear, methods and deterrent devices, and I understand that the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation, which is co-funded by the commonwealth and industry, has contributed more money to this project. Approximately $260,000 of funding has now been secured to investigate alternative fishing gear and practices and to trial different seal deterrents.

On 12 September 2015, the government announced that it would waive 2015-16 licence fees and make other changes to provide fishing operators with additional flexibility. These changes include increasing the season length in which hauling nets may be used in Area 1 of the fishery by 106 days, permitting drum nets to be used by all Lakes and Coorong Fishery licence holders and increasing the number of relief days per licence holder from 28 to 90 days. I am advised that training for commercial fishermen to use seal deterrents such as crackers was held on 27 November 2015. The use of these crackers will inform research into the most effective ways of using crackers to reduce the impacts of seals on the fishery.

SA Water is to be commended for the alteration and fencing work it is doing at the Tauwitchere and Goolwa barrages. This work is designed to reduce the ability for seals to haul out onto these structures, and a key outcome of this work is to reduce the ability of seals to move from the Coorong side of the barrages into the Lower Lakes. Wildlife cameras have been installed to monitor seal activity at Tauwitchere. Rural Business Support, which incorporates Rural Financial Counselling Service SA, has offered to assist fishers with free, independent and confidential financial information and business support. Referrals can be provided to other services, such as personal and social counsellors.

As well as these steps, the government has established a high-level working group to address issues that have arisen from seal interactions. This working group is made up of representatives from relevant government agencies, local councils, natural resources management boards, environmental NGOs, research institutions and key industry groups. The Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority (NRA) has also been invited to attend, I am advised.

DEWNR is committed to further discussing how the government can better understand impacts on Aboriginal culture, lands and waters and develop a sustainable long-term solution for the region. The working group had its fourth meeting on Thursday 26 November 2015, I am advised. DEWNR is undertaking a series of seal counts in the Coorong. I am told that the most recent count carried out on 6 January 2016 found 14 seals—13 at Tauwitchere Barrage and one on Goolwa Barrage.

Long-nosed fur seals are a natural part of the marine ecosystem, of course; they are not an environmental pest. The best available evidence shows that the increase in seal numbers in the Coorong and Lower Lakes area has not resulted in any broadscale negative ecological impacts to the area. DEWNR takes the health of the Coorong and Lower Lakes and wider environment very seriously and will continue to monitor environmental indicators in the area. I am advised that most of the fur seals' diet in the ocean is made up of redbait and lantern fish, which are small bait fish that have no commercial fishery in South Australia. They also eat arrow squid and leatherjackets.

I understand that the scientific advice is that, in fact, seals fish for their food offshore—up to 200 to 400 kilometres offshore, depending on the sex of the seal. Of course they come in and enjoy the surrounds of the Coorong while they are digesting that and then, when it comes time to feed again, they will go back offshore. That is not to say, as I have said before, that they do not see fishing nets as being a virtual smorgasbord for them and will take those if the opportunity arises. They also take fish that are coming through the barrages and are stunned by the sea water. Of course they would, but it is not the preponderance of their diet. Their diet mainly comprises redbait and lantern fish—those small bait fish—and squid which they catch a long way offshore.