5 June 2023


WWF celebrates over $160 million protection package for World Heritage icon

The World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia today congratulated the Australian and Queensland governments for the decision to phase out destructive commercial gill net fishing from the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.

A Federal and Queensland government package of over $160 million will fund the buyout of gill net licences, create the net free north, mandate the use of independent data validation on commercial fishing vessels, and declare all hammerhead sharks no-take species for commercial fishers.

Dugong accidentally caught in gill net, near Mackay, Queensland, April 2018.
Dugong accidentally caught in gill net, near Mackay, Queensland, April 2018. © Supplied
Dugong with calf swimming in Australia
Dugong with calf swimming in Australia © naturepl.com / Doug Perrine / WWF

The commitment follows a seven-year campaign by WWF and its supporters to create a Net-Free Reef where dugongs, inshore dolphins, and turtles can be free from commercial gill nets.

“This announcement is shaping up as a globally significant moment for ocean conservation, fisheries management and the Great Barrier Reef - one of the natural wonders of the world,” said Dermot O’Gorman, CEO of WWF-Australia.

“If all goes to plan, by June 2027 we’ll have a Net-Free Reef where dugongs, turtles, dolphins and other threatened species can swim without the threat of becoming entangled and drowning in a gill net, and that’s a cause for global celebration."

“WWF effectively created a 100,000 square kilometre safe haven for marine wildlife in the northern Great Barrier Reef by buying the last remaining commercial gill net licence in 2022. So we’re also celebrating the commitment to enshrine protection of this area."

“This will provide the permanent protection from gill nets that our marine species need."

“More than 35,000 WWF supporters called for a Net-Free Reef. Thousands donated to help remove commercial nets. The Australian and Queensland governments have listened. This historic win has been made possible because of their continued support.”

WWF-Australia’s Head of Oceans, Richard Leck said WWF was now looking forward to working with the Australian and Queensland governments to deliver urgently needed protection for more areas critical to the survival of the Reef’s threatened marine wildlife. 

“Commercial gill nets have no place in the Reef World Heritage Area. Permanently phasing out commercial gill netting is essential to retain the World Heritage status of our Reef,” Mr Leck said.

“The commitment to mandate the use of independent data validation on commercial fishing vessels is also welcome and long overdue. It means we’ll have a much better understanding of what’s happening out on the water, including how many threatened species are being accidentally caught.” 

WWF-Australia: “we bought a net”

In 2016, WWF-Australia took an unusual step for a conservation organisation: purchasing a commercial gill net licence in order to shelve it.

It made headlines around the world and helped highlight that gill nets kill indiscriminately, catching target fish species but also drowning dugongs, dolphins, turtles, sawfish, hammerheads and other threatened shark species.

In total, thanks to generous supporters from across the globe, WWF-Australia purchased, and shelved, four commercial licences entitled to fish in Great Barrier Reef waters.

This included the last two licences operating in Queensland’s Far North, home to globally significant populations of turtles and dugongs.

Mothballing these licences effectively created a safe haven larger than Tasmania for threatened species. It stretches from just north of Cooktown to the tip of the Cape – an area WWF dubbed the Net-Free North.

Mr Leck also called for immediate protection from commercial gill nets in all declared dugong protection areas in Queensland.

“It beggars belief but currently gill netting is permitted in some dugong protection zones,” he said.

The Reef’s World Heritage status is again in the spotlight

“Today’s announcements are an important step forward in Australia’s battle to retain World Heritage status for the Great Barrier Reef,” Mr Leck said.

In 2021, UNESCO recommended the Reef be declared World Heritage in danger. Australia successfully lobbied against this result in part by inviting a UNESCO/IUCN monitoring mission which visited in 2022.

One of the ‘high-priority’ recommendations from that monitoring mission was for destructive gill net fishing to be phased out in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.

The World Heritage Committee will again consider an in danger listing for the Reef at its meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital, 10 September–25 September 2023.