Three dugong killed in fishing nets off the north Queensland coast may have been the target of illegal poachers, authorities say.
Federal authorities are investigating the origins of the net, which trapped and killed the marine mammals off Cairns.
Sailors aboard HMAS Labuan made the gruesome discovery on Friday.
They were able to release one live dugong, but the remaining three mammals had already died.
State opposition environment spokesman Glen Elmes said the dugong were most likely destined for the black market had the navy not found them.
“The net picked up by the navy appears to be black cotton of the type used in the illegal trade of dugong meat,” Mr Elmes said.
“That net needs to be produced and examined by local experts who will be able to tell who made it and where it came from.”
Mr Elmes said said the illegal trade in dugong and turtles was rife in far north Queensland.
“The illegal trade in dugong and turtles is out of hand and it needs to be stopped,” he said.
Queensland Seafood Industry Association president Michael Gardiner said the net appeared to have been made specifically to catch dugong.
“I think most people in the Cairns region probably realise what’s going on with the deliberate killing of dugong, but whenever an incident like this involves a net, commercial fishermen can still suffer some collateral damage,” Mr Gardiner said.
“I want to make it very clear that this net and these dugong have nothing whatsoever to do with commercial fishermen.”
Climate Change and Sustainability Minister Kate Jones said several government departments were attempting to trace the origins of the net.
“The investigation into the incident is continuing with a number of government agencies involved,” Ms Jones said.
“If there is any evidence that there is a breach of the legislation then we will be using the full force of the law to take action.
“The investigation includes analysing the net and testing the dugongs as well.”
Darren Kindleysides of the Australian Marine Conservation Society said the shocking incident should prompt the state government to reconsider fishing regulations.
“Three being killed at one time – that’s a really significant number,” Mr Kindleysides said.
“Unfortunately this is not as uncommon as it should be.”
Mr Kindleysides said the protected species faced a range of threats, including entanglement, and needed formal protection under fishing laws.
“What we need to do is really make sure we’re not putting fishing nets in areas that are critical habitat for Dugongs,” he said.
“Some regulations have been introduced, but it’s not enough.”
Australia has been considered a refuge for dugongs, with Queensland waters believed to home the largest population of the marine mammals in the world.
It is believed no more than 7500 of the vegetarian mammals remain off the Queensland coast.