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Grim theory emerges after turtles wash up on Great Barrier Reef without flippers

Locals are being urged to report suspicious finds to Queensland authorities.

WARNING - CONFRONTING IMAGES: Endangered turtles without heads and flippers are washing up on a 10km stretch of the Great Barrier Reef, leading locals to form a grim theory about the occurrences.

Images of the carnage along the Wunjunga Beach area collected over the last decade have been catalogued by Simon Miller from Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS). The most recent shot is from February this year and it shows a sea turtle missing three of its flippers. There were similar finds recorded in 2021, 2020 and 2019.

Mr Miller has been investigating the impact on marine life from large gill nets used by commercial fishers on the reef. “We don’t know the true scale of this, but even what we can see in the images is pretty horrific,” he said.

A man wading into the ocean to look at a dead sea turtle.
Locals have supplied images of dead turtles to AMCS. Source: Supplied

AMCS is calling for the nets, some of which are 1.2km in length, to be banned by the Queensland government. It believes they’re causing needless deaths of large numbers of endangered species including sawfish, as well as dugongs.

Why are the turtle flippers being removed?

While it’s not illegal to catch endangered species in nets, all catches do need to be logged. "What is illegal is if they don't report it. And if they mutilate it," Mr Miller said.

While most fishing vessels do the right thing, locals speculate some rogue operators are trying to avoid scrutiny by not reporting their bycatch. They believe the flippers and heads are hacked off dead turtles to attract sharks and try to make the bodies disappear.

“These are just what locals are finding washed up on the beach after the gill net fishes have been through, there will be others that probably haven't been reported,” Mr Miller said.

Two images of dead marine turtles on the beach.
Turtles with mutilated flippers and heads photographed in 2023 and 2021. Source: Supplied
Two more images of dead turtles without heads and flippers on the sand.
Dead turtles without heads and flippers washed up in 2020 and 2019. Source: Supplied

While it's impossible to prove a direct link between the gill nets and the fishers, it is clear they are having an impact. In 2018, at least 13 sawfish were photographed in the shallows after they were allegedly killed after being caught in a net.

Locals urged to report suspicious deaths to authorities

Queensland Boating and Fisheries Patrol said it has only received two complaints about entanglement in commercial nets around Wunjunga Beach since 2011, and none concerning the dumping of corpses overboard.

Dead sawfish have also been found washed up in the area. Source: Supplied
Dead sawfish have also been found washed up in the area. Source: Supplied

It said it relies on the community for information about potential offences against the state’s “valuable fisheries resources”.

Anyone with information about illegal fishing activities can contact the Fishwatch hotline on 1800 017 116.

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