About the Reef Guardian Fishers program
The Reef Guardian Fishers program recognises commercial fishers who are fishing sustainably and maintaining the health of the Great Barrier Reef while building the future of their fishery and their business. Reef Guardian Fishers use operational and innovative practices and procedures to go beyond what is required by State and Federal laws.
- The role of a Reef Guardian Fisher:
- Set robust voluntary protocols for their operations
- Develop innovative practices to minimise impacts on the environment and non-target species
- Share knowledge with other fishers and their communities
- Assist with research and trialling new technologies
- Report back to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority on the health of the marine environment, e.g. coral damage, and sightings of rare or unusual species.
“Reef Guardian Fishers program recognises innovations and encourages us to implement safe, sustainable and smart fishing technologies and practices in our businesses.” – Caleb Cousland, Reef Guardian Fisher.
27 fishing operations across the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park are recognised under the Reef Guardian program.
Contact the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority for information on how to join the program.
Bruce and his brother Heath grew up in East London, South Africa, a small seaside town where their parents co-founded the East London Public Aquarium. It was a natural progression for the brothers to buy a commercial fishing licence for harvesting corals, aquarium fish and invertebrates.
Salty Pets was established in 2005, employs nine people, has a large 60ft collection vessel based at Rosslyn Bay, three smaller trailer boats and an aquaculture facility in Seventeen Mile Rocks in Brisbane.
“We’re very particular about how we collect – we have self-imposed size limits for certain species of corals; we do our best not to collect anything smaller than 40 mm or larger than 40cm, which ensures the best opportunity for spawning and new recruitment, we won’t dive the same location twice in one year which allows the corals to re-grow before we re-visit that same location, and we’re developing our own land-based aquaculture facility.”
Bruce has completed a Marine Resources and Ecosystem Management Diploma from the University of Queensland but says it‘s the 20-plus years of practical experience and the love of the Reef which ensures his business is sustainable and successful.
“Our industry is probably the most heavily scrutinised out of all the fisheries as we operate not only in Australia’s largest marine park but also a world heritage area, and we need to help educate the public about what we’re doing to protect the Reef.“The Reef is our way of life. Once you’re underwater, the clock stops, all the worries of the outside world disappear, and you can think clearly. It’s just you and the reef, it’s perfect.”
Coral harvester Caleb, who runs GBR Aquatics from Cairns, joined the Reef Guardian Fishers program in June 2020, cementing his commitment to protect the Reef.
Caleb believes it is important to be an endorsed Reef Guardian Fisher to demonstrate his dedication to sustainable and best practices and to show his support for the ongoing management and conservation of the Great Barrier Reef.
Since joining the Reef Guardian Fishers program, Caleb says he has witnessed a number of positive changes to keep the commercial fishing industry accountable to sustainable and best practices.
These include the introduction of quota reporting, advancement in aquarium technology, development of the Queensland Coral Fishery Harvest Strategy and the Pro-vision Reef Stewardship Action Plan, and harvesters’ increased knowledge regarding coral spawning and the need to allow for area regeneration.
“I am second generation aquarium harvest diver/collector and marine enthusiast. My father, Alan Cousland, founded his business in the coral harvest and marine aquarium fish industry in 1990.
"I have always believed the aquarium harvest fishery has a role in giving back and contributing to the ongoing conservation and protection of the Reef, rather than simply taking for commercial purposes.
“Environment always comes first over profit because if we don’t look after our ecosystem there will be no business and no profit.”
His line fishing business, Chris Bolton Fishing, has built such a reputation for fine, restaurant-quality catch that he takes orders in advance and only catches to meet those orders.
He has claimed numerous awards, including the ‘delicious’ Harvey Norman Queensland Produce Awards as a 2019 Queensland winner and 2020 national Gold Medallist.
“Being a Reef Guardian reflects my and wife Kim’s holistic approach to our business,” says Chris. “I first went out [to the Reef] when I was 8 years old with my uncle who ran a 19-metre trawler. I ended up working for him for a few years catching coral trout.
Then I went to the mines for five years to save money. I met Kim out there, a geologist who came from a fishing family. [Kim’s father was an abalone diver in Tasmania.] We decided to start our own fishing business together.
“We fish across a very wide area, so we don’t over-fish. We use steel sinkers (not lead), and four-stroke fuel, and our lifestyle is very holistic. Our daughter Evie attends a Reef Guardian School – another Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority program – so she is very environmentally aware.”
“More than 30% of our Reef is a green zone, and I’m proud of that. We provide food and an income for Australia. It’s a healthy food sourced from the wild and very natural. We need to protect that in every way we can.
“Look for ways to set the example; joining the Reef Guardian Fishers program is one way. Customers are reassured by that, and it brings you more business. Look after the environment, and it will look after you. Best practice is easy and more profitable.”
Daniel’s first foray into coral propagating and harvesting was in Darwin, where he established Monsoon Aquatics in 2008. In 2016 Monsoon Aquatics expanded into Cairns, harvesting corals and fish from the Great Barrier Reef.
Daniel now has more than 40 staff and three world-leading facilities, the latest being a 1200m2 undercover space using an old scallop farm operation on the Burnett River in Bundaberg.
It has 200,000-litre saltwater storage and four separate coral systems comprising of recirculating aquaculture systems using 6-metre raceways. Daniel recently installed a huge solar power system to slash mains power usage and costs.
“My three year goal is to aquaculture 30 per cent of product from coral spawn and fragging (asexual propagation). I am experimenting with natural light conditions to induce spawning of high demand aquarium corals, and consulting with Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) scientists on related programs,” says Daniel.
“I am particularly interested in reef restoration. My goal is to be at forefront of this technology and able to deliver and commercialise it.”
“We use vessel tracking units on all our craft and operate within National Standard for Commercial Vessels (NSCV) guidelines for pollution management. We are acutely aware of safe anchoring so as not to damage coral, and our dories are fitted with 'trips' on anchors so that anchors can be released if the anchor becomes stuck.
“These are just a few of the practices we employ in our business to ensure the on-going viability of our industry, and help set the standard for the rest of the world to follow.”
For Dan, commercial fishing is as much about sustainable practice and education as it is about generating income.
Dan and his crew employ a number of sustainable practices on his 14.6m vessel and five dories, including making sure bycatch is released; following safe anchoring procedures to limit coral depletion, including a ‘trip’ device, so the anchor pulls away if it gets stuck on coral; using a view bucket for selective fishing; anchoring in appropriate places; and inducting and teaching the crew how to fish properly to minimise their impact on the environment.
Although now based on the Sunshine Coast with his family, Dan still makes trips up north to fish with his crew.
Through his wholesale seafood business, Soulfish Seafoods, Dan is able to share his knowledge with consumers, who enjoy hearing exactly where their seafood has come from and are often surprised at the level of sustainable practices involved.
“I’m probably one of the longest-standing skippers in the Cooktown area. I have always taken a sustainable approach. When we were first up there 17 years ago, even if we had massive 250 to 300-fish days, we’d move on to the next reef and never fish that area out.
That meant that, when we came back there, it would still be producing great numbers. That’s the way it needs to be done: harvest and move on.”
Glen has always been passionate about ensuring the sustainability of the commercial fishing industry and the future of the Great Barrier Reef.
Most recently, though, Glen has developed an award-winning, innovative business, All Fish For Dogs, that takes unwanted fish and offcuts not suitable or desirable for human consumption and turns them into nutritious dog treats.
“I think a lot of people assume commercial fishermen take as much out of the oceans as we can, as quickly as we can, to make as much money as we can … But most commercial fishermen believe from the bottom of their hearts that fishing needs to be done in a way that will enable us to keep drawing on this precious resource year-after-year.
“With the pet treats, I’m using species that are often totally underutilised from a human consumption side, and now 95 per cent of the fish is being used; even the frame.
It’s a way for fishermen to maximise their earnings from their catch, but it also means they can catch less to be financially sustainable. If you are selling 70 per cent of a shark instead of 30 per cent, you can catch half the amount and make the same amount of money.”
Reef line fisher James Foster is a fifth-generation fisher who has managed a number of fishing operations, large and small and says, in his opinion, smaller businesses are more sustainable, simpler and have a low environmental impact.
In his business, Navigator Seafood, James manages one 11.4m line fishing vessel, one deckhand and one shore manager – a small operation in comparison with other fishing operations.
James says Navigator Seafood catches only very high-quality fish, for which he knows he can get a high price.
“We have geared this operation to fish in places that are soft or rubble bottom, this helps us mitigate interactions with fragile coral systems,” says James.
His operation also: targets depths between 80-400m to keep away from fragile shallow water reef systems; uses target methods that rely primarily on drift target fishing with electric winches, which means they are not dropping anchors on or around the habitats they harvest; and uses less-than-maximum regulation gear to line catch fish.
“As technology evolves and we can better equip our vessels, we are aiming to have a zero emissions fishing vessel operational within the next 10 years,” says James.
“We need to be working together for the greater good of our Reef, plus the greater good of our community natural food resource. The greatest part of the Reef has to be the biodiversity of life that is there all living together. It really is spectacular and a very special place.”
When Lyle Squire’s grandfather founded the first public aquarium in Cairns, he could not have predicted his grandson’s expansion to supply marine animals and coral across the globe. Lyle’s business, Cairns Marine, employs 80 staff, four contract divers, one 22m vessel in Mackay and two in Cairns.
His facility in Mackay is setting the benchmark internationally for live coral storage and growth, and he ships to almost all the large public aquariums around the world as well as to wholesalers in major trading partner countries.
Just as concerning is the damage done to the reefs from which the fish are taken – cyanide kills corals and invertebrates and prevents re-growth.”
Keenly aware of the responsibility he and his team have for stewardship of the Reef, Lyle regularly provides information to and works closely with, researchers and scientists in Australian universities, particularly from inter-reefal zones where researchers won’t dive due to murky water conditions and high-risk crocodile-habitats.
“We’re diving in areas which researchers know very little about and can’t easily monitor, so we do it for them,” says Lyle. “We’ve seen crown-of-thorns starfish marching at 20 metres, and we found the world’s deepest recorded Acropora species at 110 m deep using a re-breather.”
“We see the Reef not just as a resource, but part of our identity. We were the first fishery to develop a Stewardship Action Plan, and we work closely with marine park managers to ensure we’re following the guidelines and restrictions within zones, take sizes and ensure we contribute back to our industry.”
Matt and Bronwyn met back in 1999 on picturesque Hamilton Island and moved to Cannonvale, Airlie Beach, following 2017’s Tropical Cyclone Debbie.
The business supplies residents and tourists in Airlie Beach, surrounding islands, and restaurants. Importantly, Matt, Bron and their FISHI team educate customers about where their seafood comes from and why particular seafood isn’t always readily available due to closures, feeding behaviour, weather and spawning.
Matt and Bron also use a range of sustainable strategies, such as: using circle hooks instead of ‘J’ hooks, trialling different barotrauma treatment options, and promoting a lead-sinker phase-out in favour of enviro-weight sinkers. The couple is also involved in beach clean-ups.
“It’s a hard balance to protect something and make a business out of it, but we are passionate about doing things the most sustainable way possible… We live in one of the nicest places in Australia and we want it to stay that way; if everyone just stopped and picked up what they saw our wildlife would stand a much greater chance.” – Bron
“The most satisfying aspect of our work is being able to educate people about our product — where it’s come from and how it’s been handled. Our business really is the marriage of conservation and commercial fishing; it does go together. Everyone wants what’s best for the Reef – why wouldn’t we want to look after it?” – Matt
Neil Mogensen was the first commercial trawler accepted into the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s Reef Guardian Fishers program.
“It was an honour to be the first trawler fisher and business to be awarded Reef Guardian status; I’m still incredibly proud to champion the program now,” says Neil, who is a second-generation fisherman, part-owner of his family business and the skipper of a 20-metre east coast and Torres Strait trawler called the F.V. Avenger 1.
“Generally, people think we trawl the actual reef area, but this isn’t true — it’s not even possible as our nets would get destroyed by coral. Ninety per cent of the time, I am working north of Cairns trawling for tiger, endeavour, and blue leg and red spot king prawns.”
Neil also briefs his crew on species identification, Marine Park rules and zoning and runs daily briefings on green zone locations and fishing plans.
He spreads his trawling activities to reduce the risk of over-fishing, spent $100,000 modifying his boat to be more fuel efficient, and uses a new net material that is thinner and will cause less drag.
“The cost of our nets is a little higher, but the fuel savings offset that cost.”
“Providing a system for bycatch to get out while the net is still in the water is a win-win situation for the trawlers and the environment. The unwanted species are of no use and we genuinely want to look after the Reef, as it looks after us.”
Sean and Leonie Stiff have been operating their commercial fishing business, Product North, from Cairns to Cooktown for more than 25 years.
Product North catches Reef fish species like coral trout and Spanish mackerel to supply local wholesalers and retailers domestically and internationally.
Sean and Leonie, with their seven staff, five contractors, two main vessels and six dories, operate sustainably within a Total Allowable Commercial Catch (TACC) and in compliance with Marine Park zoning. Sean is also a line fishing committee member with Queensland Fisheries through the Fisherman’s Portal Inc.
“Our family-managed commercial fishing company is the result of a lifelong passion for the industry, educating and building on all levels required to manage a balance of sustainable commercial fishing and maintain strong growth in the food supply chain for local, domestic, and export fresh fish markets,” says Leonie.
One of the mainstays of the business, continues Leonie, is their ability to work within the supply chain of fresh, clean protein in all markets.
“The next generation of fishers, including our children who are completing year 12 in 2020 and wish to join the business, are coming through our industry and they have a passion for the environment which brings a refreshing change and growth to the industry.”
“If you want to survive and thrive in this industry, it’s imperative to work with government departments and be diligent in management practices within the environment you work in. If you have total respect for the Great Barrier Reef, it will provide for the future of commercial Fishing.” – Leonie
Reef Guardian Commercial Reef Line Fishers
The reef line fishing sector was the first to be included in the Reef Guardian Fishers initiative. In a normal operation, this is a selective fishery where a single doryman fishes with one line with one hook, catching one fish at a time.
All Reef Guardian Fishers have agreed to a set of robust practices that meet the desired outcomes of the assessment standard.
To protect the health of the Great Barrier Reef, Reef Guardian Fishers fish in the right zones and ensure fuel transfer procedures are followed to prevent fuel spills in the marine environment.
Participants fish in ways to maximise the health of fish populations. They use non-stainless steel hooks that rust quickly, allowing fish with retained hooks to recover quickly.
Unwanted fish are released close to reefs so they can escape predators and return to their environment safely.
- These fishers have also agreed to participate in additional projects such as:
- Trialling electronic data collection devices that collect finer scale data on catch, effort and fishing locations
- Trialling environmental monitoring forms will allow fishers to report to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority what they see happening on the Reef.
Reef Guardian Marine Aquarium Fish and Coral Collectors
Marine aquarium fish and coral collectors are active participants in the Reef Guardian Fishers program who fish sustainably using a highly selective hand collection method and maintain an extensive range of dive sites to spread fishing effort.
Collecting is a harvest fishery industry, supplying marine life for display in aquariums. Activities are licensed by Fisheries Queensland and are permitted by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority in the Marine Park in accordance with strict conditions and guidelines.
This includes highly detailed logbook reporting, quota monitoring, ecological risk assessments with input from scientific experts, and monitoring harvesting practices.
This fishery established the representative body Pro-Vision Reef, responsible for publishing a uniform standard for collecting fish and coral.
The standard addresses the impact of fisheries' operations on fish and coral populations and also includes direct links to triggers in the Response Plan for Coral Bleaching.
These Reef Guardian Fishers also operate their vessels safely and efficiently to minimise the chance of marine pollution. They are also seeking to maximise the energy efficiency of their onshore husbandry facilities.
Mitigating Ecological Risk in a Changing Climate
The Stewardship Action Plan 2013 was specifically designed to complement fishery and protected areas management arrangements and was developed by industry in partnership with government agencies (including the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority), world-renowned coral and fish scientists and conservation organisations. The initiative enabled the industry to contribute in a purposeful and practical way to the ecological sustainability of the fisheries at the individual fishery practitioner level.
Read the report: Stewardship Action Plan 2013 - Mitigating Ecological Risk in a Changing Climate