Recreational fisher Michael Powell holding up a barramundi in Rockhamption © David Hatfield

2 May 2023


A new WWF-commissioned report, co-authored by Queensland’s former chief scientist, quantifies the remarkable success of Queensland’s three net-free zones since destructive gill nets were phased out in late 2015.

Using data collected by Infofish Australia, the report finds that in Rockhampton’s Fitzroy River the average length of barramundi increased by 23% from 50.4cm to 61.9cm.

Also in the Fitzroy River, king threadfin average sizes increased by 24% from 63.1cm to 78.4cm.

Before the net-free zone, fewer than 2% of king threadfin caught were more than one metre in length, now a staggering 63% exceed one metre – a size prized by recreational fishers.   

The Mackay and Cairns net-free zones have also recorded improvements in fish sizes: the average length of barramundi in Mackay increased by 13%, from 50.3cm to 56.9cm. In Cairns, the average length of recaptured (tagged) barramundi increased by nearly 30% from 57.1cm to 73.7cm.

Richard Leck, Head of Oceans for the World Wide fund for Nature-Australia, said the Net Gains report mounts a compelling case for further action on gill nets.

“Making the Reef free from commercial gill netting protects turtles, inshore dolphins, dugongs, sawfish and other threatened species from drowning in these destructive nets. There is strong evidence highlighting the severity of the problem. (Examples here, here, here and here)."

“A gill net-free Reef doesn’t just benefit threatened species – fish stocks are replenished, the ecosystem becomes healthier, and fishing tourism increases boosting local economies."

“For Traditional Owners, there are more opportunities for Indigenous-led conservation and tourism initiatives as they manage their Sea Country."

“We’re calling on the Queensland government to phase out commercial gill nets from the entire Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. Impacted commercial fishers must be properly compensated."

“A permanent, just transition away from gill nets is a critical reform that could help Australia retain the Reef’s World Heritage status,” 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.

Experienced Rockhampton rec fishers Stephen Purnell and Michael Powell say the removal of gill nets has been tremendous for both locals and fishing tourists. In 2015, the last year of commercial gill net fishing in the Fitzroy River, the nets took 85.6 tonnes of barra and 56.1 tonnes of threadfin, leaving little behind for rec fishers.

“Prior to the nets closure, we caught mostly undersized barramundi, if someone caught a metre barramundi it was pretty phenomenal. About a month after the closure my son caught his first metre barra in the town reaches of the river. Anyone who catches a fish that size, the next day they’re looking for exactly the same thing, it’s such a rush,” said rec fisher Michael Powell.

“When the nets were operating you’d hear about someone catching a 1.2 metre barra once every six months, now it’s a weekly occurrence. It’s the initial hit, the rod nearly falls out of your hand. That’s the addiction for me, it gets you excited,” said rec fisher Stephen Purnell, who doesn’t even eat fish.

Recreational fisher Stephen Purnell holding up a barramundi in Rockhamption
Recreational fisher Stephen Purnell holding up a barramundi in Rockhamption © Stephen Purnell

Anglers are also catching huge king threadfin.

“Previously, you would never get a 1.2 metre king threadfin, now we’re talking up to 1.5 metres. They look like big prehistoric dinosaurs. Knowing they’re out there and can be caught is a buzz,” said Mr Purnell.

In 24 years of rec fishing, Michael Powell has measured and tagged about 11,500 fish. It’s the information collected by Michael and other citizen scientists that confirms the increase in fish size.

“It’s not hearsay, it’s coming up in the data, it’s quite noticeable that people are catching a lot bigger fish,” Mr Powell said.

When barramundi and king threadfin become large they change from male to female. Stephen, Michael and the vast majority of rec fishers follow Rockhampton’s voluntary code of conduct which sees them release big fish.

“They’re our big girls, they’re the breeders. That’s what we want for the next generation,” Mr Powell said.

Malcolm Mann is a Darumbal Traditional Custodian and the business development manager for Darumbal Enterprises.

“With the nets out of the system we have certainly seen a natural bounce back with bigger fish,” Mr Mann said.

However, Mr Mann said Darumbal people take a wholistic approach, rather than look at one or two species in isolation.

“It’s connected into a bigger story about the richness of Country and species abundance. That’s where Yadaba comes in, Yadaba means respect. Respect means knowing about Country. To look after the barra and all the species we need to also look after the river,” Mr Mann said.

Help create a Net-Free Reef by adding your name to the petition at