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Wednesday, 5 December 1973
Page: 4288

Mr Lionel Bowen (KINGSFORD-SMITH, NEW SOUTH WALES) - by leave - For the information of honourable members I table 2 reports which have been prepared by consultants retained to advise the Special Minister of State on the turtle farming project which has been initiated in Torres Strait and elsewhere in northern Australia. These consultants were retained following a letter which the Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam) wrote to Senator Willesee on 23 August asking him to arrange for various aspects of the project to be studied. The report on the ecological implications of the project was prepared by Professor A. F. Carr of the University of Florida in conjunction with Professor A. R. Main of the University of Western Australia. Professor Carr is an acknowledged world authority on sea turtles and a conservationist of note. Professor Main, a zoologist, is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and a member of the Council of the Australian Institute of Marine Science. These 2 experts were retained on the advice of the Secretary of the Department of the Environment and Conservation and other expert sources. The report dealing with the organisation management and market prospects of the project was prepared by Mr L. P. Smart, a partner in Marquand and Co., the Melbourne firm of chartered accountants. He was engaged in the light of his outstanding record as a business consultant and his background of relevant experience in the meat industry.

Mariculture, including turtle farming, is a relatively unexplored field of knowledge fraught with complexities. There is only one other significant commercial enterprise in the world and that is a capital-intensive operation by a company called Mariculture Ltd, which was launched about 5 years ago at Grand Cayman Island in the West Indies. It is based on an approach different from that adopted in the project in northern Australia. Against this background it is apparent that every effort should have been made at the outset to ensure that the project was launched on a sound basis. It is clear, however, from both reports that the turtle farming project has been allowed to develop without there being a proper basis of adequate research and sound administration. Because of this it has made little discernible contribution to research, to the conservation of the species involved or to the development of a sound commercial industry. For this situation the previous Government, in whose term the project was initiated, must bear prime responsibility. In commissioning these studies Senator Willesee sought to discover whether the project, as it now stands, can be developed on a basis that is ecologically and commercially sound.

In summary, Professor Carr and Professor Main consider that at present the project is not having an adverse effect on the wild turtle populations or on other resources in the area. They observed no great adverse effect on farmed turtles from existing husbandry procedures, although some stunting of growth was apparent, and a worm infestation affecting turtles on at least one island in Torres Strait has subsequently been discovered. It is their view, however, that several years' research should have preceded the establishment of the project on a production basis and that further growth should be held back until a research program has provided answers to some of the biological and ecological uncertainties encountered. The consultants have stressed the absence of an adequate impact statement and recommend that such a statement be made a minimum requirement for any future growth. They also recommend a comprehensive program of research including the development of large enclosed areas in the sea - sea crawls - for growing turtles and the establishment of a breeding program to make the project independent of eggs taken from wild populations. A major theme in their recommendations is the need to allay the fears of conservationists about the project's implications for the conservation of turtles throughout the world.

Mr Smartrecommends that the growing of turtles for meat and shell should proceed as a commercial undertaking. The step to commercial production would involve establishing a large sea crawl in which turtles would grow from their 2-3 year weight of 15 lb reached on the individual farms to slaughter size of 100 lb-plus at 5-6 years. This step need not involve - and for the present should not be allowed to involve - any increase in the present base of the project, that is, the annual intake of hatchlings by present farmers. Mr Smart recommends re-organising the management of the turtle project to establish producer co-operatives and a processing/ marketing company. The present company organisation would be abandoned, although the company Applied Ecology Pty Ltd would be retained with a new and limited role as a purely research and advisory body to serve the turtle project - and possibly other projects envisaging utilisation of particular native species by Aboriginal and Island people.

After consideration of the various courses open to it in the light of these reports, the Government has decided to approve the continuation of the turtle farming industry as a pilot experimental project in which research is emphasised, as recommended by Professors Carr and Main, to determine the feasibility of developing it on the lines described by Mr Smart. In view of the many complexities which the reports have revealed, a final decision on the commitments of the capital funds required will be deferred pending the preparation of an adequate environmental impact statement, study of the constraints identified by Mr Smart in his report, and pilot research into the space and feed requirements of large turtles. The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs will see to it that these studies are put in hand. At the same time other research of a longer term character which has been recommended by the consultants will be commenced. The Premiers of Queensland and Western Australia, where the project is operating, have been advised of this decision by the Prime Minister. The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs will arrange for the Government's position to be fully and promptly explained to the turtle farmers and for appropriate consultations to be held with the National Aboriginal Consultative Council.

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