The shooting lobby has called for a five-year moratorium on new duck hunting restrictions in Victoria, saying it would allow regulators to study the impact of hunting on duck and other waterfowl populations.
The RSPCA has described the suggestion as “unbelievable” given the wealth of data, collected by the University of NSW annual aerial bird survey, which shows a 33-year decline in the abundance of waterbirds in south-eastern Australia.
But the Victorian president of the Shooters Association of Australia, Jack Wegman, said the proposal would provide a sizeable dataset from which to make decisions about hunting restrictions.
“This is not about some tricky clever way to get hunters unlimited access for 10 years,” Wegman told Guardian Australia. “That might be a side effect [but] this is about the science of it. It’s not about a hunting expansion under the guise of a trial.”
The suggestion was put forward by Field and Game Australia (FGA) in a submission to the Game Management Authority’s annual preseason consultation in December.
It said “simplifying” the duck hunting regulation by allowing a 12-week season with a daily bag limit of 10 ducks for a set number of years would “permit the collection of more accurate data”, which could in turn inform the need for more restrictive hunting regulations.
“This continued application of modifications to the 2015 hunting season has again prevented conclusions being drawn on the impact of hunting on sustainable waterfowl populations,” the FGA’s submission said. “This leaves conjecture as to whether environment, habitat or hunter participation contributed to the reduced harvest in 2015.”
Daily bag limits in the 2015 season were set at eight ducks on the opening day and five every day thereafter.
The bag limits for the 2016 season have been knocked down once more – eight birds on opening day, 19 March, and four a day for the rest of the 12-week season.
Announcing the duck season dates last month, the Victorian agriculture minister, Jaala Pulford, said reduced bag limits were based on the GMA’s advice about historically low bird numbers and low rainfall, which affected waterbird habitat.
According to the GMA’s briefing document, released in December, the wetland index was at its lowest ever level due to successive years with below-average rainfall and waterbird and game duck populations were at their second lowest levels on record.
The RSPCA, in its response to that briefing, said the combination of factors made this year “one of the worst possible environments on record in which to hold a duck shooting season”.
Victoria’s 26,000 licensed duck hunters reported killing 203,935 ducks in 2015, most of which were bagged on opening weekend. That figure does not include ducks that were injured but not retrieved, which the RSPCA suggested could be as high as one wounded for every one killed in some areas.
The chief executive of the RSPCA, Dr Liz Walker, said the organisation’s position on the 2016 season went beyond its long-held opposition to any form of recreational hunting, saying “we have put the long-term survival of the species at risk”.
The Victorian Labor party is also reportedly angry about the decision, which runs counter to the ban on all recreational wildlife hunting proposed by the party’s environment policy committee before the 2014 election.
The Victorian Greens leader, Greg Barber, accused the Andrews government of political cowardice for refusing the cancel the duck hunting season, as happened in 2008 after a similarly dry winter.
“They are more scared of the concentrated anger of 20,000 duck hunters than they are of the broader public opinion, which has said, again and again, that duck hunting should be banned,” he said.
He said the economic benefit of the sport, mentioned by Pulford in her statement about the 2016 season dates, was overstated. According to a government report, duck hunting was worth $439m to the Victorian economy in 2013, a figure Barber said was based on the assumption that those who spent their money on a hunting trip would not spend it at all if shooting ducks was not an option.
Barber said minutes of the GMA’s meetings, obtained by the Greens under freedom of information, showed it was acting “like a lobby group”. The minutes, seen by Guardian Australia, show the GMA requested an “active role” in decisions about whether water released for environmental flows aligned with hunting opportunities; mention the chief executive writing to Victorian police after hunters complained of their treatment by officers; and voted to recommend an extensive review of all state game reserves “to determine by exception why all legal game and best animals cannot be hunted”.
“You can’t be a regulator and a promoter,” Barber said.
This article was first published by The Guardian on 01 Feb 2016.