Mark Argyle writes: Victoria’s 2011 duck shooting season finished on Monday. By allowing a twelve week season this year, the Baillieu government unnecessarily risked the future of our vital wetlands regions.

The purported justification for reinstating a full season was that above-average rainfall in the preceding year had led to improved breeding conditions for Victorian waterbirds. However, these ‘improved conditions’ must be viewed in the proper context.

The last significant breeding period in Victoria was 2001, and waterbird numbers remain historically low throughout the eastern states of Australia. Estimates vary, but well-respected aerial studies by Professor Richard Kingsford from the University of New South Wales have shown an approximately 70% decrease in total waterbird numbers throughout eastern Australia since the early 1980s, with a particularly large drop between 2007-08.

Any recent overall increases in eastern Australia are only marginal, when seen against this broader historical pattern of declining numbers. There are, of course, a variety of environmental factors that have contributed to this overall downward trend, other than hunting: the diversion of rivers for irrigation purposes, extended drought, and loss of habitat.

The recent upswing in population numbers throughout the eastern states should not be seen to justify Victoria’s season. Not all birds targeted in Victoria are migratory; about half of the targeted duck species are Victorian residents. We cannot just assume — or hope –that recent overall increases in waterbird populations in eastern Australia necessarily translate neatly into increases in Victoria’s duck population.

After over a decade of drought, the Baillieu government jeopardised this opportunity for Victorian wild waterbirds to substantially repopulate. Indeed, given the especially large bag limits this past season (ten game ducks per day), the deaths of many adult ducks will have left behind starving young. The full environmental impact of this hunting season will be unknown for some time.

Those species of duck that have been legally hunted over the past twelve weeks will now return to their usual protected status, at least for another nine months. There is something counterintuitive about this. Surely, the burden of proof must lie with those hunting groups who regularly seek exemptions to these native waterbirds’ usual protected status. It is these groups who should be forced to make a compelling environmental case for what seems like foolhardy behaviour: shooting ducks for recreation, when overall numbers are still historically low.

There have been sensible, and welcome, regulatory developments in Victoria. The introduction of a compulsory Waterfowl Identification Test in 1990 was a positive development. Unfortunately, hunters are fallible, and protected species will always suffer collateral damage during duck shooting season. In 1993, half of the rare freckled duck population in Victoria was killed.

It is unfair and counterproductive to demonise hunters. Hunters can play an important role in protecting the native habitat –especially by controlling species that can be both environmentally detrimental and costly for farmers, such as foxes, rabbits, wild cats, wild pigs, buffaloes, wild goats, wild dogs and a variety of introduced pest bird species. These species, if uncontrolled, can cause severe damage to waterways, crops and dams.

But it is time for Victoria to change its regulatory approach to duck shooting. States such as NSW operate under an altogether more rational scheme. The onus is on those farmers affected by the pest behaviour of ducks to request licensed hunting, on a case-by-case basis.

This approach has not worked perfectly in NSW, but it would ensure that the hunting that does take place in Victoria has generally positive environmental outcomes, helps to eliminate pests, and does not unduly disturb fragile wetland ecosystems. More broadly, this move would be an important shift of emphasis — and therefore depoliticise the yearly decision about whether or not to have a recreational shooting season.

Hunting lobbyists — groups such as Field and Game Australia — often spruik the economic benefits of recreational hunters visiting the wetlands in Victoria’s northwest.

However, surely this line of argument exhibits a failure of imagination. There is no reason why regional centres like Boort, Donald and Kerang, located amongst these significant wetlands, couldn’t mimic the marketing strategies used to encourage lucrative eco-tourism in places such as Phillip Island and Warrnambool. Victoria has world-class wetlands — let’s be proud of them.

Mark Argyle is a Melbourne-based freelance writer.

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