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Sharks hooked after fishing ban lifted

Aug. 21/11

TELL this grey nurse shark that it's a protected species in NSW and it may find the news hard to swallow.

''For every hook you see in the mouth there are generally five or six in the stomach

Mr Peter Hitchins, who works with NSW Fisheries at Fish Rock

The Greens MP Cate Faehrmann, also in the frame, found the shark with a fishing hook in its mouth during a dive last week on the north coast.

It was one of 24 sharks spotted at Fish Rock near Kempsey. Five others had hooks in their mouths.

Conservationists believe hook injuries to the critically endangered grey nurse population have increased since the O'Farrell government lifted fishing bans at a number of critical breeding sites.

Also on the dive with Ms Faehrmann was Peter Hitchins, who works with NSW Fisheries at Fish Rock, the largest aggregation site for grey nurse sharks off the east coast. He says autopsies reveal that about 70 per cent of grey nurse deaths are caused by hooks lodged in their stomachs and throats.

''For every hook you see in the mouth there are generally five or six in the stomach,'' Mr Hitchins said. ''Grey nurse sharks swallow their food whole. If a shark swallows a hook it will die from it eventually because the spiral shape of their stomachs make it impossible to pass the hook.''

Mr Hitchins and other divers try to remove hooks and other fishing gear from the placid creatures when they can. Often, grey nurses will come and rest near divers, somehow aware that they may be able to help with injuries.

According to the government's own research, the east coast grey nurse population is about 1500. A population of 5000 is considered vital to the survival of the species.

Late in the last term of the Labor government, bait fishing, live bait fishing and fishing with jigs were banned at Fish Rock.

But the new Minister for Primary Industries, Katrina Hodgkinson, has had the ban lifted until a scientific study is completed after a period of public consultation that ends this week. More than 800 submissions have been received, she said.

''Government wants to ensure the public as well as the scientific community are properly consulted before any final decision is made,'' she said.

Mr Hitchins said fishermen had returned to Fish Rock in droves since the ban was overturned. ''The fishers know they are going to be kicked out,'' he said.

Ms Faehrmann described seeing injured sharks as ''distressing''.

''You have to fight the urge to try to help them,'' she said. ''All the evidence that the government has before it suggests that grey nurse sharks take bait and that they are critically endangered.''