13 July 2016


Conservation group WWF-Australia is taking the unprecedented step of buying a Great Barrier Reef shark fishing licence – ironically to save sharks and other species.  

“We’re seeking donations to buy and retire a shark fishing licence. It’s a new approach to conservation,” said WWF-Australia conservation director Gilly Llewellyn.

“This will save at least 10,000 sharks each year, prevent dugongs, turtles and dolphins being killed as bycatch, and help the Reef heal after the worst coral bleaching in its history,” she said.

The move comes as new figures reveal the shark catch on the Reef increased from 222 tonnes in 2014 to 402 tonnes in 2015 – an increase of more than 80%.[i]

These figures indicate 100,000 sharks were caught on the Reef in 2015 (based on each shark weighing an average of 4 kg).[ii]

“This is an opportunity for people to help stop a massive 1.2 km long net from sitting in Reef waters and indiscriminately killing almost everything that swims into it."

“These enormous nets kill tens of thousands of juvenile sharks each year, including hammerheads which are listed internationally as endangered. Hammerhead numbers have crashed in Queensland, possibly by 80%,” she said.

Ms Llewellyn said shark species are in decline on the Reef, and around the world, because they are slow to mature and produce relatively few offspring. For these reasons they are very susceptible to fishing pressure.

Without these apex predators the Reef suffers. A recent study, led by the Australian Institute of Marine Science, found that sharks play a crucial role in Reef health and help coral recover from bleaching.[iii]

“After bleaching, algae spreads. Researchers found that where sharks were removed by overfishing, smaller predators like snapper became more abundant. These snapper kill the algae-eating fish and the algae then overwhelms young coral,” Ms Llewellyn said.

The nets are not just an issue for sharks. Dugongs, turtles and dolphins can also get trapped as bycatch and held underwater until they drown.

Earlier this month a dead dugong was found near Townsville with injuries consistent with entanglement in a net. 

Following the 2011 floods and cyclones, there was an estimated population of only 600 dugongs between Cooktown in the north and near Bundaberg in the south[iv] and current combined levels of mortality from all threats are thought to be unsustainable.[v]  

Species Facts

  • Hammerhead sharks on the Great Barrier Reef may have declined by as much as 66% to 83% of the 1960s population level.[vi]
  • In 2010-11, scalloped (Sphyrna lewini) and great hammerheads (Sphyrna mokorran) represented 15.5% of the weight of all Great Barrier Reef net caught sharks.[vii]
  • Both scalloped and great hammerheads are listed in the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List as endangered.[viii]
  • The Federal Environment Department is assessing whether scalloped, great and smooth hammerhead sharks should be listed as threatened and has extended the assessment to 30 September 2017.[ix]

The Licence

  • The licence WWF is buying is an N4 licence which entitles operators to target sharks and grey mackerel on nets up to 1.2 km long. The licence can also be used to line fish for other species.
  • There are five N4 licences in Queensland. WWF argued against their introduction.
  • In addition to the sharks caught by N4 licences, sharks are also taken as bycatch by operators targeting barramundi and other species in shorter nets.
  • N4 licence holders can use their nets anywhere from Rainbow Beach, south of Fraser Island, to Torres Strait.
  • The licence WWF is buying caught more than 500,000 kg of shark between 1993 and 2004 which equates to an average of about 10,000 sharks per year. However, in one year alone it caught 191,000 kg which equates to 48,000 sharks.
  • The licence has not been active for shark fishing since 2004 but has been used for line fishing.
  • The owner has put the licence up for sale and WWF wants to prevent it again being used to target sharks.
  • WWF is seeking to raise $100,000 for the licence.

WWF-Australia Media Contact:

Mark Symons, Senior Media Officer, 0400 985 571

[ii] Review of management arrangements for the east coast Queensland shark fishery 2014, Wildlife Trade Operation Condition 7, Queensland Government.

[iii] Mark Meekan, Principal Research Scientist, Australian Institute of Marine Science, Killing sharks is killing coral reefs too, The Conversation, 19 September 2013.

[iv] Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority 2014, Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report 2014, GBRMPA, Townsville, p33.

[v] Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority website, About the Reef, Animals, Dugong.

[vi] Analysis of the of the Queensland Shark Control Program records by Professor Colin Simpfendorfer, Director, Centre for Sustainable Tropical Fisheries and Aquaculture & College of Science and Engineering, James Cook University

[vii] A. Tobin, J. Smart, A. Harry, R. Saunders, C. Simpfendorfer (2014). Estimating fishing mortality of major target species and species of conservation interest in the Queensland east coast shark fishery. Centre for Sustainable Tropical Fisheries and Aquaculture, Table 1.

[ix] Australian Government Department of Environment website, Extensions to EPBC Act listing assessment and decision timeframes,