Academic questions Victoria GMA motives

Rachael Oxborrow

Restriction of Victoria’s 2021 duck season is being labelled as a political move which ignores scientific evidence. In a document sent to the Victorian Minister for Agriculture, renowned wildlife management expert Professor Grahame Webb warns of long-term motives to ban duck hunting in Victoria. His report was prepared for Field & Game Australia to assess the conclusions reached by the Victorian Game Management Authority (GMA) regarding bag limits and season length this year.

In 2021 the GMA recommended a 20-day duck hunting season starting mid-week, with a bag limit of two ducks per day which was increased to five (this follows the 2020 season lasting only a fortnight due to COVID-19 restrictions). Victorian regulations allow the season to run from the third Saturday in March, a bag limit of 10 ducks a day, an 87-day season and hunting in daylight hours allowing for half an hour either side of sunrise and sunset.

The GMA says the duck season needed to be modified based on analysis of habitat availability and waterbird surveys, and the bag limit was reduced to protect duck population from overharvesting during a period of low abundance as a result of poor environmental conditions. Similarly, the midweek start date was enforced to “help with bird identification, recovery of downed ducks and enforcement of hunting laws”.  These recommendations were approved by the Minister for Agriculture based on GMA advice.

Professor Webb labelled the reduction as “excessive and unwarranted” without taking into account local duck population data. In 2019, Victoria’s Arthur Rylan Institute created an Adaptive Harvest Management plan with the support of government funding. This scientific authority on waterbirds worked with national experts to develop a best practice mechanism to measure populations and set seasonal hunting regulations. According to Professor Webb this report has not been published and has possibly been dismissed.

He also raised concerns the GMA was dismissive of a widely-accepted assessment of aerial waterbird populations and health of rivers and wetlands known as the Eastern Australian Waterbird Survey. The EAWS is one of the largest wildlife surveys in Australia and has been running for almost 40 years though is yet to be conducted in 2021.

Professor Webb said while this survey has its flaws, he expected it to show an increased abundance of game ducks and wetlands in 2021. He said this suggests the catchcry of anti-duck hunting groups that duck numbers are on the decline is inaccurate. “The Victorian hunting of ducks over past seasons has clearly been within sustainable levels,” he said.

“The ability of wild duck populations to sustain a level of mortality due to hunting has been demonstrated over decades within Victoria and other states and is fundamental to the results of the EAWS over time. They definitively have sustained hunting and there’s no real monitoring or evidence that manipulating the hunting regulations each year, based on limited monitoring, has been a significant factor (relative to climate and wetland status) affecting abundance or distribution.”

Despite the significantly reduced season, anti-hunting groups still found issue with the bag limit change from two to five game ducks per day and lifting the ban on hunting of teal species. The increase occurred after an aerial survey – commissioned by the GMA and conducted by helicopter – subsequently conservatively estimated there were 2.5 million game ducks present in Victoria without counting rivers, creeks and irrigation channels. The Coalition Against Duck Shooting claimed its own population surveys had shown “dangerously low” numbers of waterbirds.

Following completion of the 2021 season, SSAA Victoria lodged a submission as part of an independent review into Victoria’s Wildlife Act 1975. Submissions have now closed and a Consultation Summary Report is expected in September before a final report later this year. SSAA Victoria Hunting Development Manager David Laird said he previously raised concerns with the Minister for Agriculture around setting the season length, bag limits and population surveys. The Association will continue to advocate for positive change to the process and a truly scientific basis for game management decisions.

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