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Upper Catchment Issues Vol 3 No 2 - Introduction

Author: Tasmanian Community Resource Auditors Incorporated

Introduction

The following Community Based Audit reports on progress and emerging concerns surrounding the development of a joint federal and state Recovery Plan for the nationally listed vulnerable species Astacopsis gouldi, the Tasmanian Giant Freshwater Lobster.

Astacopsis gouldi, the world's largest freshwater crayfish (commonly called a lobster and officially adopted as such for the purpose of the Recovery Plan), is found only in select catchments in Northern Tasmania, an island state situated approximately 250 km off the south eastern tip of Australia, located at 42 degrees South (see Figure 1). Covering approximately 68,000 square kilometers, the island has a rich diversity of fauna and flora, supported by unique habitats including alpine regions, grasslands, temperate rainforest and isolated coastal tracts to name a few.

Tasmania's environmental assets of areas of high rainfall (from 500 mm p.a. to 2500 mm p.a.) and abundant waterways have also shaped the development of the states economy with agriculture, forestry and tourism recognized as leading economic industries.

Tasmania wasn't always an island. At intervals throughout history, a land bridge link existed between what is now Tasmania and mainland Australia. Many uniquely Australian species ranged across this land bridge until some 10,000 years ago when rising seas cut off this access and formed the island of Tasmania and the Bass Strait Islands.

Tasmania's ensuing isolation from the Australian mainland landmass has given a distinct advantage to survival rates of many endemic species. In the last 200 years introduced pest species such as the fox, cat and rabbit, brought to Australia by white settlers, have out-competed native fauna for food and shelter, decimated habitat and caused the extinction of numerous species through predation. Until recently, Tasmania has remained fox free, assisting to maintain an environment which has delivered a host of iconic species including the Tasmanian Devil, Sarcophilus harrisii, the Tasmanian Tiger, Thylacine and the Tasmanian Giant Freshwater Lobster, Astacopsis gouldi.

Not all is well in the idyllic island state, however. The Tasmanian Devil is currently under serious threat from an as yet unidentified facial tumour disease first discovered in the 1990's, which has decimated Devil populations by up to 75 percent in many areas. The Tasmanian Tiger is now believed to be extinct, the last confirmed living specimen having died in captivity in 1936. Through anecdotal information and historical records it is evident that the population of Tasmanian Giant Freshwater Lobster has experienced large population declines due to several factors discussed in this paper.

The Tasmanian Giant Freshwater Lobsters large size (up to 6.5 kg), armoured carapace and powerful, claws have earned this species its iconic status as well as respect, from those who have come across this creature. Sadly, populations of the very tasty but slow growing Astacopsis gouldi, (reaching sexual maturity at up to 14 years of age,) have suffered greatly at the hands of legal fishing prior to a fishing ban imposed in 1998. Exceedingly large specimens, reportedly up to one metre in length, are now considered a thing of the past. While the current fishing ban carries a penalty of up to $10,000 for the taking of the species, continued poaching remains a real threat to populations.

Habitat destruction is considered to be another large contributing factor in the decline of Astacopsis gouldi numbers, brought about primarily by land clearing in the prominent agriculture and forestry industries (Threatened Species Unit 2005). This species, a bottom feeder relying primarily on decomposing woody debris for nourishment, has a low tolerance to siltation, water temperature fluctuations above 20 degrees and some herbicides associated with agriculture and forestry (Threatened Species Unit 2005).

In an effort to halt and reverse the decline in Astacopsis gouldi populations, a Recovery Plan process was begun in 1997, funded under the Threatened Species component of the Tasmanian Regional Forest Agreement (1997) (see footnote 2, page 22). At that time a Recovery Team, including community group representatives, was appointed to assist in the development and implementation of the Recovery Plan. Astacopsis gouldi is currently protected under the following state and federal legislation: Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999; Tasmanian Threatened Species Act 1995; a "protected fish" under the Inland Fisheries Act 1995; and listed as a "Priority species requiring consideration" under the Tasmanian Regional Forest Agreement 1997 and, as such, is to be protected through the CAR (Comprehensive, Adequate and Representative) reserve system and/or through the application of relevant management prescriptions.

This paper, in two parts, deals with the development of the Recovery Plan, now in its ninth year and yet to be endorsed by the Tasmanian and Commonwealth governments. Part One of this paper, (re-edited for this publication) first published in March 2005, leads the reader through a history of the Recovery Plan process up to that point. In it, the authors (Community Group Recovery Team members), highlight their concerns regarding Recovery Team process, effective expenditure of taxpayer funds, and the inordinate length of time taken by the Tasmanian Government to progress a Recovery Plan for a listed vulnerable species.

In Part two of this paper, the reader is brought up to date with the progress of the Draft Recovery Plan, including its release in June 2005 followed by a public comment phase of the process. As well, many previously poorly documented factors that have contributed to the current failure to have the Recovery Plan endorsed after 9 years, are carefully examined. The authors critically evaluate important aspects of the Recovery Plan process and discover systemic process failure, lack of demonstrated rational and coherent risk assessment, and potential failure of State and Federal Governments to meet their respective obligations to Astacopsis gouldi under the Regional Forest Agreement 1997.

Finally, Part Two contains an analysis, commissioned by the Authors of this paper, of the independent review of the Draft Recovery Plan, which had been commissioned by the Tasmanian Government. The analysis was conducted by leading Astacopsis gouldi expert, Dr Pierre Horwitz. His report raises serious questions regarding streamside management prescriptions advocated in the Draft Recovery Plan.

As of the date of publication of this Community Based Audit (May 2006) the contents and recommendations contained in the Draft Recovery Plan remain undisclosed to the public, unseen by Community Group Recovery Team members and unsigned by the relevant Tasmanian Minister. Meanwhile, the fate of the Tasmanian Giant Freshwater Lobster, much like its iconic counterpart, the Tasmanian Devil, continues to hang in the balance.


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