Tasmanian First Nation peoples Plea to halt annual mutton bird hunt ignored

Mutton birding is far more important for Aboriginal people than just catching and selling them. It's about a continuance of the cultural activity.

Tasmanian Aboriginal Elder, Clyde Mansell

Danielle McKay ABC 2 April 2014

Dead birds were found on more than 130 beaches from the Sunshine Coast to Tasmania and as far afield as New Zealand

Tasmania's new Government has been accused of ignoring requests to halt the annual mutton bird hunt.

The state's Aboriginal community and conservationists have been lobbying to reduce quotas for the country's only shearwater, or mutton bird, hunt because of a mass kill last year.

Each year, Aboriginal people take part in the cultural practice, catching birds from 50 of the 209 colonies on Bass Strait islands and Tasmania's coastline.

The community wants the Tasmanian Government to cancel the recreational season, which opened last weekend and runs for two weeks.

A statement from the office of the Minister for Parks said the department was surveying the mutton bird population and had found a decline in breeding.

It said it would consider licensing changes when the survey was completed.

More than 600 recreational mutton bird licences have been sold, allowing the harvest of up to almost 250,000 birds.

The new Government is sticking to a quota system that has been in place for almost 25 years, despite hundreds of thousands of the migratory birds washing up dead across Australia last year.

Dead birds were found on more than 130 beaches from the Sunshine Coast to Tasmania and as far afield as New Zealand.

The recreational season might be proceeding, but the Aboriginal community has voted to largely abandon its commercial season.

Tasmanian Aboriginal Council's Clyde Mansell said just a handful of operators would catch a few thousand birds.

"Mutton birding is far more important for Aboriginal people than just catching and selling them,'' he said.

"It's about a continuance of the cultural activity.

Shearwater Fledgeling. (Image: Ian Hutton - Teach Wild)

"We're making a conscious decision to protect this cultural foodstuff, and there we have Parks letting non-Indigenous people continue to carry out activities that could be harmful.

"It shows a lack of proper management of a cultural resource, that's what it shows, whereas the Aboriginal community is only too willing to think of the future than be greedy at the moment."

Mutton birds the 'canaries' in marine environment

Birds Tasmania spokesman, Dr Eric Woehler, said there was strong evidence to suggest that, in the very least, a reduction in the daily bag limit was warranted.

"I think there's a very real, strong scientific need to revisit those quotas and revisit the whole management of short-tailed shearwaters in Tasmania," he said.

Muttonbirds diving to feed off small fish (top), They also wait for schools of larger fish to push smaller fish up closer to the surface (bottom).

"Tasmania's responsible for about 75 to 80 per cent of the world short-tailed shearwaters, or Tasmanian mutton birds, so clearly the onus is on us to clearly manage the species."

He said the Government should not ignore the signs that shearwaters were under pressure.

"Things are changing. The really important thing is that seabirds are the canary, the sentinel, that are telling us about the marine environment."

Speculation mounted last year over whether an oil spill, disease, overfishing or even nuclear fallout from Fukushima could explain the mass deaths, known as a wrecking.

But autopsies suggested the birds were severely malnourished after the annual 18-day migration from Alaska to the southern hemisphere.

Competition with salmon for food in Canada coupled with warmer than usual waters in Australia were linked with a decrease in food for the mutton bird.

Previously uncommon, there have now been four wreckings in seven years.

According to experts, the long-term impact has already been evident in the number of breeding pairs in burrows across Tasmania, which are currently being surveyed.

"Only about 20 per cent of the burrows are occupied, so we're seeing a 70 per cent or 80 per cent decrease on previous years," Dr Woehler said.

In a statement, the Parks Department says it would consider a change to the licensing rules once it has completed its survey of mutton bird populations.

The new Minister, Matthew Groom, declined to comment.