Dugongs being poached for meat, MP claims

By AAP with Marina Kamenev 6 December 2010
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Dugongs are being hunted for an illegal meat trade in Queensland’s far north, says a shadow cabinet minister.

A QUEENSLAND OPPOSITION MINISTER says he has evidence that dugongs are being poached for an illegal meat trade – but experts argue that the problem has been over-exaggerated.

Glenn Elmes, the Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Sustainability, said last week that he has passed on the names and addresses of people poaching dugongs to the police and the State Government.

Traditional owners in Queensland have permission to hunt dugongs for their own consumption, but Glenn, who is also the State MP for the seat of Noosa, says he has proof that some people are breaking the law. “To hunt the animals for traditional purposes is fine, but when you are poaching and on-selling the meat for profit, that’s when it is against the law.”

“No secret in the north”

The Shadow Minister’s claims include that a 5 pm flight arrives every day at Cairns Airport from Horn Island with packaged dugong meat for sale. “This is not a secret in the north,” he says. “I have asked for an urgent investigation…If that is not forthcoming, I will use the opportunity at the next sitting of this parliament in February to name the individuals.”

Queensland’s Sustainability Minister Kate Jones confirmed that she was looking into the claims. “I hope there is something substantial in the information he has provided, so if illegal activities have taken place they can be investigated and the offenders brought to justice,” she said in a statement.

The Minister added that the opposition should be careful not to generalise about traditional owners. “What our government doesn’t do is make gross generalisations about all Native Title holders in the states far north.”

One of many threats

On two recent occasions, people were fined $1000 for using illegal nets in the Yarrabah area, just south of Cairns. There have been some calls for a crackdown on illegal dugong killing in far north Queensland since the bodies of three of the endangered creatures were discovered near Cairns in April.

However, Professor Helene Marsh, one of Australia’s top dugong experts, who is based at James Cook University in Townsville, says the scale of the problem has been exaggerated. “Poaching is not the only threat to the dugong population,” she told Australian Geographic. “They are affected by port developments in places such as Gladstone and Townsville and are also killed in commercial fishing nets.”

Helene says that in the Torres Strait, archaeological evidence of dugong hunting has been traced back over 4,000 years. “Dugong is a delicacy with huge cultural value, but it’s also an important staple food because of the isolation of islander communities.”

Making hunting sustainable

Nevertheless, the Shadow Minister says that he believes it’s time to consider a blanket ban on dugong killing. “Overwhelmingly, everyone, indigenous and non-indigenous, wants a total moratorium on the taking of dugong and turtles until the surviving numbers are known and a sustainable take for indigenous people by traditional means for traditional purposes can be reinstated,” he says.

Helene argues that the answer is, instead, to work with indigenous communities to make hunting sustainable. “I would prefer my taxpayer money went on Indigenous community ranger programs, rather than challenges to hunting bans in court. The real issue is to stamp out illegal poaching not to punish those (who) aren’t doing anything wrong.”

Scientists estimate there are some 100,000 dugongs in the world and that around three quarters of them are found in Australian waters. Though their numbers declined near the urban coast of Queensland in the ’60s and ’70s, aerial surveys led by Helene’s team suggest the population is reasonably stable today.

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