Turtle and dugong footage causes controversy
A TV report showing turtles and dugongs hunted in the Torres Strait has been criticised as unbalanced and emotive.
The green turtle is the most commonly hunted species in the Torres Strait. (Credit: Dieter Spears)
FOOTAGE FROM A television report aired last week has sparked outrage over some cases of misuse of traditional hunting allowances for dugongs and sea turtles around Queensland's Torres Strait Islands.
The footage on the ABC's 7:30 showed images of dugongs and turtles being killed and butchered in a cruel way. The program also said that meat gathered by some indigenous communities in the Torres Strait was being sold on the black market.
Under the 1993 Native Title Act, indigenous Australians have the right to hunt protected species - such as sea turtles and dugongs - for their own subsistence and ceremonial purposes. However, they are limited to hunting in their own country and it must not be for commercial gain.
"While that right exists, most Traditional Owners are very careful about sustainable take, humane hunting practices and limiting hunting where populations of these animals are under stress," Queensland Minister for Environment Vicky Darling told Australian Geographic.
Traditional methods of hunting
While the hunting may be allowed by law, many people were shocked by what they saw, says the minister: "I was disturbed when I saw the footage, as I expect were many other viewers."
However, John Kris, the chairman of the Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA), says the ABC report was emotive and unbalanced and failed to mention the efforts made by the indigenous community to sustainably manage this traditional hunting and to find more humane ways of processing the meat.
"We have been seeking solutions, but the experts simply can't agree on acceptable procedures," John says. "People also have to appreciate, as in other seafarer cultures, meat has been processed this way for thousands of years."
The report also focused on a number of anecdotal examples that are not representative of the bigger picture, John says: "It's unfortunate that good and innovative work done by indigenous communities has been overshadowed by emotive and unbalanced coverage clearly scheduled to gain political leverage during the Queensland election campaign".
Traditional Aboriginal hunting of dugongs and sea turtles can be traced back many thousands of years and plays an important cultural role in indigenous communities. For some groups, hunting is a right of passage for young men and the meat is used for ceremonies and gatherings.
Poaching is minor problem for dugongs
Research from James Cook University, led by Professor Helene Marsh, has highlighted that poaching is not the only, nor the worst, cause of decline in dugong populations - with port developments, commercial fishing and natural disasters much higher on the list.
After Cyclone Yasi swept through Queensland in 2011, important seagrass beds along the coast were destroyed, and the number of sea turtle and dugong deaths rose sharply. In an effort to conserve the populations of these species, four traditional owners groups, the Gooreng Gooreng, Gurang, Taribelang Bunda and Baila people, agreed not to hunt dugong for the next five years and limit their take of green turtles to 20 a year.
"Some traditional owner groups have temporarily suspended their hunting activities recognising the effect of recent natural disasters on our marine life," says the minister. "Our view has always been that the best outcomes are to be achieved through working hand in hand with Indigenous communities."
The illegal meat trade
Claims of an illegal meat trade date back to 2010, when Queensland's Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Sustainability Glen Elmes passed on the names and addresses of alleged poachers to the Queensland police and State Government.
Following the allegations made by the ABC last week, Minister Vicky Darling has called for an immediate investigation and says "if it is found that there was any illegal activity, these individuals can expect to be prosecuted."
Cairns-based animal rights activist Colin Riddell argues that there should be a moratorium on the hunting until surveys can establish if these animals have the population numbers to sustain hunting, after which a permit system should be put in place.
"[It] should be strictly controlled by the elders in the community and should be monitored from out of community compliance officers," says Colin. "[The animals] should only be killed and consumed in the community, not shipped all around Australia. It's nobody's privilege in Australia to be eating endangered animals because they like the taste of it."
"I have always said if there is alleged selling of turtle or dugong meat that the appropriate authorities should address the claims immediately," says John of the TSRA. "The Department of Environment and Resource Management (DERM) and the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) monitor fisheries compliance and if people have concerns they should be reporting to those agencies."
As for the sustainable management of these two iconic species, John says: "From a traditional owner perspective, from a region's perspective, and as Chair of the TSRA, we have aspirations to locally manage both dugong and turtle sustainably... We have for years now been encouraging communities through management plans to sustainability manage their own resources, and 14 communities are now in the process of adopting those plans."
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