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Environment and Climate Change – Maugean Skate

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Wednesday, 7 June 2023

Tags: Threatened Species, State Budget

Dr WOODRUFF - Thank for that update on the orange-bellied parrot. I think it's really important that you talked about the need to provide active support to take critically endangered species away from the brink of extinction.

I contrast that really starkly with the response you have had to the now highly endangered Maugean skate, which the latest biomass report, you would understand, predicts it's likely to go extinct in the near future without urgent action. Tasmania's most internationally eminent specialist on the skate, Neville Barrett, fears for the coming heatwave summer maybe taking it to extinction then.

What is required is not more monitoring, because it is devastatingly clear that the impact of fish farming in Macquarie Harbour has substantially been the cause for the low oxygen levels. Will you and the EPA, with director Wes Ford here, require the destocking of finfish leases in Macquarie Harbour along with the banning of gillnet fishing in the harbour to prevent the skate's extinction?

Mr JAENSCH - Thank you for the question. We've had a couple of opportunities to talk about this recently in the parliament. I'll just recap some of the actions that have been taken and are underway right now. As I've mentioned before, our Government has been investing in the research programs undertaken by IMAS and others since 2014 regarding the Maugean skate's status and recovery. Most recently, in July last year the NRE Tasmania published an updated listing statement which incorporates recent research findings and contemporary species and population data and advice on research, conservation and management needs of the species.

In August last year the EPA introduced a total permissible dissolved nitrogen output for the aquaculture industry in Macquarie Harbour, which reduces allowable dissolved nitrogen outputs by approximately 10 per cent compared to 2021 levels. In November 2022 NRE developed interim gillnetting actions which aim to protect the Maugean skate while still allowing some recreational netting access for local fishers. That's been done with feedback and consultation from the West Coast Recreation Association and I want to thank Brian Gardner and the members of that group for their constructive approach so that they can continue to catch flounder but at the same reduce the risk of harm to the skate from that activity. We're pleased to say that they remain engaged in work to review future planning and regulation of fishing in Macquarie Harbour.

NRE Tasmania has also supported Cradle Coast NRM in their delivery of a federally funded Maugean skate awareness program, which implemented a range of initiatives -

Dr WOODRUFF - So we can all be aware of how close it is to extinction.

Mr JAENSCH - I think it's really important to work with the local community, particularly kids in our schools, and engage people.

Dr WOODRUFF - Makes no difference. Just tell them that you're monitoring it to extinction. Actually, don't tell them; it'll just give them nightmares.

Mr JAENSCH - I won't have you disparage the work that's been done. I've just listed a range of actions that are being taken and have been taken and planned and delivered as recently as over the last year, in direct response to new information arising about the status of the skate, building on 10 years of research that this Government has been investing in and a relationship with IMAS that will continue, so we are taking action. You're wrong to characterise it as doing nothing or as monitoring it to extinction. I know that's your cheap line that you like to run but there's a lot of work going on by a lot of very dedicated people to get this absolutely right.

That work is continuing now. There is a series of workshops and partnerships involving researchers, the Australian Government and the Tasmanian Government which will be held over coming months where we aim to go to the next level of developing a conservation action plan for the species with a series of actions taken to support that, including examination of ex situ breeding programs so that we can potentially build up the ability to reintroduce species into the area to build their numbers up and support their survival. We are working with Hydro Tasmania as well regarding the role of their inflows into the harbour in securing ocean-generated recharge events that boost oxygen levels in the harbour. I won't have you say there is nothing being done or that nobody cares because there is a lot of people in this room and listening who do.

Dr WOODRUFF - Thank you, minister. A question for the director of the EPA.

Mr JAENSCH - Through me, please. That's how it works.

Dr WOODRUFF - Well, you might like to normalise the fact that independent statutory authorities have to go through the minister but if Dr Ford is in fact independent, as you have made the EPA, then why can't I address a question to him? That's what has always been done at this table before you tried to normalise the fact that the EPA is entirely shackled to your authority.

Mr JAENSCH - I'm just following convention. You should address questions through me.

Dr WOODRUFF - That's the convention your Government has put in. We've always sat here in the past and asked questions of independent statutory authorities, so I have a question for Dr Ford, whether it is through you or not.

Mr JAENSCH - Proceed - through me.

Dr WOODRUFF - Would you agree that for the environmental licences in Macquarie Harbour that are due to expire on 30 November you should look at declining their extension, given the critical state of the Maugean skate?

Mr FORD - In accordance with the processes and the legislation around renewal that's not a matter for consideration. I can only deal with renewal of licences in accordance with the provisions of the legislation.

Dr WOODRUFF - Don't you have powers to be able to establish new licence conditions on the basis of the changing environment?

Mr FORD - I have a power through a separate process to be able to impose additional conditions and that will be clearly the intent when the new environmental standard is implemented.

Dr WOODRUFF - Do you accept that there might not be time to save the Maugean skate if we do not act quickly, by the evidence of IMAS?

Mr FORD - The EPA is working as part of the consortium of people looking at this at the moment, so we are working with the department and IMAS in terms of looking at their advice, so we are part of the process.

Dr WOODRUFF - Do you agree that the proposal by Hydro to release more flows from the river into the basin might be beneficial for fish farms retaining their fish biomass being alive during a heatwave but will have almost no impact whatsoever on the lower part of the harbour and the oxygen levels there because there won't be any mixing of those waters? It is a sort of solution that would benefit fish farms keeping their fish in the water over a hot summer but it won't help the oxygen levels for the skate.

Mr FORD - I don't agree with that, and the reason is that the relationship in Macquarie Harbour around the Hydro dynamics is very complex. What is known is that the recharge in the harbour is driven by the strong north-westerly events and if you in fact reduce freshwater flow at the time of those strong events you allow more seawater into the harbour to be able to regenerate and allow the oxygen to rebuild. It's not about what happens in the surface waters, it's actually about the Hydro reducing their flow during periods of time to allow more seawater into the harbour.

Dr WOODRUFF - Do you agree that the primary reason that the oxygen levels have become so devastatingly low in the lower harbour is because of the contribution of fish farm nutrients into the harbour?

Mr FORD - In relation to what was happening when I took over the operation or took over control of the regulation of salmon, yes, there was a significant decline in oxygen levels, in most likelihood because of the activity of the salmon. Since I have been the regulator of the salmon industry I have reduced the biomass and therefore the effective demand on oxygen by more than half over a period of six years. Those actions have continued and at this point in time the oxygen levels are recovering through the process and there has been a reduction in biomass and that has produced a positive benefit.