New technology aims to save seals

5th March 2013

A new project aims to reduce seal interactions by shortening trawl fishing nets. SETFIA has established a project steering committee with representatives from the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA), SETFIA, Fishwell Consulting and the Phillip Island Nature Parks.
The project is supported by AFMA through funding from the Australian Government’s Caring for our Country initiative and ExxonMobil Australia. Caring For Our Country funds environmental projects aimed at protecting Australia’s natural environment and sustainability. ExxonMobil Australia supports marine conservation projects through its community contributions program and it has been a long term supporter of seal tracking and education projects by Phillip Island Nature Parks.
Seal populations are increasing but Fur Seals sometimes opportunistically feed on fish inside of trawl nets, and are occasionally caught in the net. Sometimes the seals are returned to the water unharmed, however some unfortunately drown. Populations of Australian Fur Seals are rapidly increasing in numbers, which may result in an increase in these interactions with the fishery. Reducing the chance of these interactions is a logical step for the fishery which is actively working to improve its sustainability.
Large trawl vessels are able to use grids that exclude seals from trawls, however they are impractical and unsafe on small vessels that are typical in the South East Trawl Fishery. In a rush to return to sea last year, a South East Trawl vessel did not have time to sew extensions into their trawl as they normally would. The extensions make the trawl longer and stops fast swimming fish escaping from the trawl. The crew found that having a shorter net (“modified trawl” in diagram above) did not affect catches of the slow swimming species that they were catching, but instead over time noticed a large decrease in interactions with seals.
These fishermen approached SETFIA to formally trial the net in reducing seal interactions. Key areas of investigation are whether the shorter net can reduce seal interactions without reducing commercial fish catch. The project will collect data from a normal trawl and a shortened trawl over a year and results will be reported in early 2014.