Recreational scuba divers have regularly been forced to euthanise banjo sharks that have been caught, mutilated and thrown back beneath the piers of Port Phillip Bay, Melbourne.
Members of Project Banjo – a 750 member strong action group – have begun to collate regular photo and film documentation of the treatment of ‘unwanted’ rays, an offence against Fisheries Victoria 2009 Regulation 101: Offence to fail to return fish to water without injury or damage.
Of particular concern is the treatment of ‘banjo sharks’ (aka fiddler rays). Often these animals are landed as ‘unwanted catch’ by fishers and thrown back into the water dead, which violates current regulation. An expanding body of graphic evidence shows that many of the animals are mutilated before being discarded back into the water whilst still alive. Many unwanted rays have their mouths torn out in order for inexpensive fishing hooks to be retrieved.
On Wednesday evening 3 May, four ‘banjos’ were caught by an unidentified fisher on Rye Pier before being dealt severe cranial splits, in addition to some having their mouths damaged. At least one of the animals was still alive after sustaining this injury. Divers who planned to euthanise the animal the following morning found it already dead, along with a fifth banjo that had been knifed in the head. Jane Bowman, a scuba diving instructor, had previously reported seeing 18 dead, discarded rays on a single dive at the same pier, including a less commonly seen eagle ray.
Another mutilated banjo was found and euthanised by a local diver, Ruth Betteridge, on 20th May. An active member of the Project Banjo group which is campaigning for a ban on the killing of rays in Port Phillip Bay, Betteridge explained, ‘I had to film it which I don’t like and then to end its suffering which was awful.’
AJ Morton of mobile scuba school Dive2U photographed a mutilated fiddler ray on 12th May: “Another Banjo…this time at Frankston Pier. Had its mouth ripped open and left for dead for the sake of a $2 hook. Wasn’t even at least put out if its misery. Just a blatant disregard for the welfare of the animal.” Scuba Instructor Jacqui Younger photographed a banjo that had met a similar fate at Portsea Pier the following day.
Melbourne-based Project Banjo are collating a growing body of evidence that such attacks against rays in Port Phillip Bay are not isolated events. Testimonials and photographic evidence supplied by the ray advocacy group are evidence that rays 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, Frankston and Flinders. Diver Zain Fimmel attests to having euthanised countless rays left for dead across many years of diving.
Port Phillip Bay is an enormously popular destination for local scuba divers with diversity of marine life in the bay rivalling that of the Great Barrier Reef, making it popular with dive tourists worldwide. Euthanising intentionally harmed animals is a far cry from what most scuba divers would feel comfortable with.
Underwater photographer and Project Banjo Coordinator PT Hirschfield explains: ’Recreational divers typically take up this hobby as they enjoy observing marine animals in their natural environment. It is disturbing and confronting for most divers to have to euthanise these animals. That’s something that our dive training definitely does not cover. We have begun to have reluctant discussions within the dive community about the best ways to put these poor animals out of their misery. No diver should ever be put in that position. No ray should ever be in that position.’
‘And it’s not just divers who are affected by this. Schools are taking snorkelling groups out over the top of trails of massacred animals. People who are walking or fishing on the piers can often look down and see the carnage in just a few metres of water. It’s a terrible look for tourism in a region. Even if it’s only a small number of fishers who do the wrong thing, it’s consistent enough to have been a regular problem over a long period of time across a broad range of popular fishing and diving sites. What’s happening here isn’t ‘fishing’. A lot of the time it’s blatant animal cruelty.’
‘The regulation is clear that unwanted animals must be released back into the water without harm, but we’re seeing breaches of the regulation occurring with alarming regularity. In the short term, we need much more stringent monitoring of fishing activity in areas where these offences are rife. Those who offend need to start receiving the fines outlined by the regulation: a maximum penalty of over $2000 in court or a $310 on the spot infringement notice. We’ve asked the question but it is still unclear to us whether anyone has ever been fined or prosecuted for these offences against rays in Port Phillip Bay. Offenders need to be caught and held accountable for their actions.’
‘In the view of Project Banjo and the 28,000+ people worldwide who have signed our petition to ban the killing of rays in Port Phillip Bay, the current regulations don’t go far enough. These rays have an important role in the ecosystem. They are much admired by locals, tourists, fishers, divers, children and adults alike. They are rarely considered a target animal. The large rays are harmless, curious, docile animals that have become somewhat maligned due to the tragic death of Steve Irwin in 2006 that was one of three fatalities in Australian history as a result of an incident involving a ray. Rays don’t attack humans but if feel threatened, they can defend themselves. There is no justification for the killing of these rays, either targeted or as bycatch.’
These offences against banjos are just some of the many incidents recorded both preceding and following the well-publicised slaughter of a huge resident smooth ray on 2 April at Rye Pier, which elicited global outrage in support of a ban on the killing of rays. 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).
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 also voicing their concerns and are supportive of the proposed bans. 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.’
Supporters of the Project Banjo petition have called for immediate interventions while mid to long term solutions are being discussed and developed. Virginia Sliedricht of Brisbane, Queensland says, ‘I know the wheels of progress move slowly but in this case it needs a little hurry up’. Rob Rowe of Western Australia urges, ‘The Victorian Department of Fisheries should be doing all in their power to monitor this situation and penalise those who are apprehended as a result. This is barbaric behaviour of the worst kind.’
Further information on the situation can be found here.