Woman And Son Die After Being Caught In Fishing Net Off The Tasman Peninsula
Abbey Stone | May 2, 2021
A woman and her son have died in south-east Tasmania after becoming caught in a recreational 'graball' fishing net.
The net, licenced to a recreational fisherman, was left anchored in Canoe Bay near Port Arthur on the Tasman Peninsula.
The woman was spotted fighting to escape the net on Sunday afternoon by bushwalkers, including emergency medicine doctor Jess Ling.
"We saw this big group of swimmers come in and out and into the bay and then we realised that the rest of the group had left," Dr Ling said.
"There was just one person thrashing in the same spot and we realised that there was two buoys either side, that it must be a gill nets and the person was trapped in the net."
She and fellow doctor Agnes de Voer swam out to help the woman, but because they were only on a day walk, they did not have a knife with them — only a small pair of scissors.
"We just thought 'we just have to go in and try to get them out of the nets'. We tried to find something sharp and the sharpest we could find was a little pair of scissors," Dr de Voer said.
The scissors were not strong enough to cut through the net's thick material.
"The woman was just really anxious and writhing and trying to get out... we couldn't get anything done because of those scissors not being strong enough," Dr de Voer said.
"We didn't see any net over the body but she was clearly stuck in it and was just trying to get up to get air."
Other members of their group ran to get help, and local fishermen went out in a boat to try and save the woman, but it was too late.
When they pulled the net in, the woman was dead and then they found the body of her young son also caught in the net.
"The woman actually drowned while we were still in the water," Dr de Voer said.
"It's horrible, you just feel completely helpless."
Although experienced with trauma in their work, Dr Ling said watching the woman die in front of them was "terrible."
"At work we deal with situations where we can either help people to keep them alive or we can give them pain relief so they're comfortable while they're dying," she said.
"So to be there and not have anything to help this person with was really, really terrible; we felt really helpless," she said.
No plans to ban nets
Graball nets are a gillnet made of a panel of mesh attached to weighted lines in such a way that the netting hangs in the water like a curtain.
The nets have traditionally been used in Tasmania to target fish species such as bastard trumpeter and blue warehou, which are not readily taken by rod and line.
Graball nets can only be used by licenced fishers in Tasmania and strict conditions apply, including not leaving them out for more than six hours and bringing them in at least one hour before sunset.
The nets have been banned in many Australian jurisdictions, with only West Australia and South Australia still allowing this type of gill net and then only in limited circumstances — but the Tasmanian government said there are no plans to ban the use of the net in this state.
A spokesperson for the Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment said reports of human entanglements in gillnets were rare.
The DPIPWE said the rules around the use of the gillnets attempt to strike a balance between traditional net fishers and advocacy groups.
"Traditional net fishers … consider a gillnet integral to their fishing enjoyment and to targeting specific species," the spokesperson said.
The DPIPWE spokesperson also said a range of measures have been progressively implemented since fishery management plans were introduced in 1998.
"[These] have included introducing a minimum mesh size and maximum length of gillnets that can be deployed by recreational fishers, establishing no-netting areas in popular swimming areas, banning night netting in most areas, reducing daytime setting times and limiting the amount of time a net is set in the water," the spokesperson said.
The Department said more than 6,000 recreational gillnet licences are sold each year — down from more than 9,000 in the mid-2000s — but so far this year, just under 5,000 licences have been issued.
'Need to progress past it'
Local nurse Laura Kelly said she does not understand why the nets are still able to be used by recreational fishers in Tasmania.
"Tassie has some of the weakest laws on gill net use in the developed world. I think it's just tradition, a lot of people grew up netting and it's hard for them to let go but we just need to progress past it," Ms Kelly said.
"There's not a lot of sport in netting and it's devastating for the marine environment — one-third of the bycatch is simply dumped, the nets are also entangling people and endangered species like little penguins and sadly this time a mum and her son."
Having witnessed the woman die in the net, Dr de Voer said she was not sure tradition is enough to justify their ongoing use in recreational fishing.
"This is not for a living, this is recreational fishing and you can do that with a line," she said.
"I think there's many other ways where you can fish, like how other people do it in the rest of the world, so I don't think that's enough of an excuse."
Dr Ling agreed.
"The bycatch that is destroyed, the protected marine species and people that get caught up in these nets and lost, it's unexplainable why they're still a legal option in Tassie," Dr Ling said.
Over 650,000 marine animals are killed by abandoned fishing nets each year. Nets are often tossed overboard by commercial and illegal fishermen where they remain in the ocean, trapping marine animals underwater and preventing them from getting air above the surface leading to them slowly drowning and dying.