Following the well-publicised killing of a huge resident smooth ray on 2 April at Rye Pier Melbourne, that sparked a petition of over 26,000 signatures to ban the killing of rays in Port Phillip Bay, another attack occurred at the same pier on Wednesday evening, 3 May. Four fiddler rays (more commonly known as ‘banjo sharks’) were caught by an unidentified individual on the pier before being dealt a severe cranial split.
All four animals were returned to the water as ‘unwanted’ catch in this condition (an offence against Fisheries Victoria 2009, Regulation 101: Offence to fail to return fish to water without injury or damage). At least one of the animals was still alive after sustaining this injury, as caught on disturbing video by local scuba diving instructor Jane Bowman. Divers who entered the water the following morning to euthanise the animal found it already dead, along with a fifth banjo that had been knifed in the head.
While the slaughter of these rays was particularly brutal, Melbourne-based Project Banjo Action Group are collating a growing body of evidence that such attacks against rays in Port Phillip Bay are not isolated events. Testimonials and photographic evidence within the 700+ strong ray advocacy group are evidence that banjos have been slaughtered as unwanted catch regularly for many years across the piers of Port Phillip Bay and Westernport, including but not limited to popular fishing and diving spots Portsea, Blairgowrie, Rye and Flinders.
“This goes beyond the illegal slaughter of unwanted catch. Often it’s a matter of animal cruelty. Increasingly we’re finding rays that are thrown back in the water, cut in half, mutilated and maimed but still alive,” commented underwater photographer, Pink Tank Scuba blogger and Project Banjo spokesperson PT Hirschfield.
“Some have their mouths torn out to salvage a cheap fishing hook, then are thrown back in to die. Last week one diver filmed a ray that had been paralysed by a knife wound, then thrown back alive”
“Three days later another diver filmed the same ray still alive and had to put it out of its misery. It is not uncommon for recreational divers to see between four and six dead rays on a dive at the fishing end of the piers. One diver reports seeing 18 dead and discarded rays plus a less commonly sighted eagle ray on a single dive,” confirmed PT.
How can people help?
The Project Banjo Action Group is advocating a ban on killing rays in Port Phillip Bay, as per their petition which currently has 26,000+ signatures.
A clear precedent was set in Western Australia in 2015 when smooth rays and black rays were banned from being taken in Hamelin Bay after public outcry erupted after a much-loved resident ray was killed before horrified onlookers. This protection of rays was later extended in the West and South Coast Bioregions (Kalbarri to the South Australian border).
Representatives of Project Banjo have met with Fisheries Victoria Executive Director Travis Dowling and Director of Education and Enforcement Ian Parks to discuss ways in which the socially unacceptable treatment of wanted and unwanted rays might be addressed. The regulatory body has acknowledged the need for signage to be displayed at the fishing end of piers in response to clear community concern, and for further measures to be developed involving processes of community consultation. Discussion between the stakeholders has taken place around broader community awareness, educational initiatives, monitoring efforts, issuing of fines for offenders and potential regulatory reforms.
The large resident smooth rays and harmless, smaller ‘banjo sharks’ tend to be highly regarded by locals, visitors and tourists alike in the popular tourist region of the Mornington Peninsula. Despite occasional anti-ray sentiment in the broader community in the wake of Steve Irwin’s tragic death in 2006, most people recognise that rays are docile, non-aggressive animals that do not ‘attack’ but may act defensively if they feel themselves to be in any way threatened. They also have value in maintaining ecosystem health which ultimately benefits all water users.
In additional to scuba divers, snorkelers and free divers who are appalled by the frequent mistreatment of rays throughout the bay, many within the recreational fishing community of Port Phillip Bay are equally outraged by the senseless slaughter of rays and are advocating the proposed bans. While many anglers release rays rather than keep them, the smaller animals are very occasionally taken for food but more often are taken to use as bait for crab pots. Fishing forums reveal that the large smooth rays are often taken for shark bait, and it is widely held that ray wings are often shaped into circular discs and sold as ‘sea scallops’ and even ‘calamari’ in some restaurants.
The host of TV’s ‘Talking Fishing’ program David Kramer declared ‘I think we should stop people from taking (rays) … You’re allowed to take 5 per person which I think’s ridiculous. I’m sorry and we might need to drive some change. What is illegal is that there is a Fisheries regulation that says if you’re not taking a fish to keep you must return it as best you can live into the water.”
“Now these divers have got a point. They are finding small stingrays with a stab wound to the head, thrown back off the pier … that’s illegal you’re not allowed to do that. But you are legally allowed to take a 250 kilogram stingray, cut the wings off and tail off, take it home for a feed? Needs a tidy up doesn’t it? It’s a ‘social license to fish’ – we need to do the right thing.”
This sentiment is echoed in social media by many others within the fishing and broader communities. Local fishing charter operator Fish N Trips of Mornington commented on the Rays Awareness Facebook page that they ‘would love to see the rays and skates on the protected list of marine life in our bays.’
In response to recent evidence of banjo deaths, the CEO of peak Victorian recreational fishing body VRFish, Michael Burgess says “VRFish encourages all fishers to return unwanted rays to the water unharmed and comply with fishing regulations. We all need to work together to stamp out this unacceptable and illegal behaviour. Rays play an important role in maintaining healthy marine ecosystems and are like the vacuum cleaners of the ocean floor. If fishers observe illegal fishing activity, including the deliberate harming of non-target species such as rays, toadfish and native seastars, they should report instances to Fisheries Victoria on 13 3474 (13FISH)”
Sadly, the mistreatment of rays is much broader than the situation being spotlighted in Port Phillip Bay. Individuals and lobby groups across Australia such as ‘Supporting Sharks and Rays in SA’ are collating growing bodies of evidence of long-term abuses against rays and campaigning for regulatory responses. Too often, such lobby groups have found their concerns falling upon deaf ears. It is hoped that the current progress being made towards collaborative solutions in Victoria can be leveraged towards greater protections for these significant marine animals across the country.
‘We’ve all been seeing these travesties for far too long without taking action’, PT Hirschfield says. ‘We are now determined to see a win-win outcome for all stakeholders – for locals, visitors, tourists, fishers, divers and the rays themselves. Port Phillip Bay is a gorgeous place and the rays are a huge part of what makes the bay so special. No-one is willing to sit back and just watch more of them being senselessly slaughtered. It’s time to ‘rays awareness’ that these animals have so much more value alive than dead.”
“There’s nothing more amazing than seeing a huge smooth ray or a gorgeous banjo gliding beneath the piers or in the shallows, and nothing more tragic than seeing them chopped up and discarded like garbage. Port Phillip Bay is a beautiful Bay of Rays that needs to be protected.”