Travel ban lifted, debate over duck season continues

Liz Bell

LAST week’s announcement hunters can now travel from their homes to go duck hunting has been a welcome call for some, but animal welfare advocates predict this duck season could be the state’s last.

Hunters have been waiting patiently for weeks for a decision by the state government on when, or if, they will be allowed to return to their favourite hunting spots, after social distancing restrictions handed down in March banned recreational travel.

To much fanfare around Gippsland on Tuesday, it was announced by Premier Dan Andrews that from 11.59pm people would be allowed to travel to hunt ducks in Victoria, although no camping or overnight stays would be permitted, and public health guidelines and physical distancing requirements must be adhered to.

While the already shortened five week season was never cancelled, it effectively opened on May 2 and will close at sunset on Sunday, June 8.

Delayed because of COVID-19, the shortened season prompted a two-month verbal tussle between hunters and animal welfare advocates who want the pastime banned.

Duck hunters eventually won out, with the state government capitulating, duck hunting was a recreation that brought much-needed income into rural and regional economies.

Earlier this year, Eastern Victoria MLC Melina Bath visited the Heart Morass wetlands in Sale with Gippsland South MLA Danny O’Brien and Field and Game representatives and called on the Premier to announce the start of the season.

She said duck hunting injected large amounts of revenue into regional economies, “which is no more evident than in Gippsland”.

According to a report commissioned by the Department of Health, Victorian hunters (of all species) contributed $638 million each year, including in flow-on activity.

But that argument is wearing thin, according to anti-hunting campaigners, with the Coalition Against Duck Hunting claiming it is a “con” that hunters have plied for years.

“It’s pretty silly, as hunters make up around 0.2 per cent of the state’s population, so the economic benefit argument is flawed and a con job,” coalition founder Laurie Levy told the Gippsland Times on Thursday.

Mr Levy said he did not believe even the state government accepted the argument any more, and would ban duck hunting after this shortened season.

“Public opinion does not support duck hunting and has brought it to an end, it is no longer acceptable and belongs in the 1950s,” he said.

The economic benefits argument is also contested by prominent animal welfare advocate and Animal Justice Party member Andy Meddick, who told parliament last August that towns where duck hunting takes place would be “paved with gold” if the economic argument was true.

He said an economic analysis by the Australia Institute in 2012 showed that claims duck shooting contributed significantly to the economy in Victoria were false.

“In monetary terms, revenue from non-hunting tourism is far more important and is negatively impacted by hunting,” he said.

“Nature-based tourism can bring real economic benefits to rural Victoria.”

Both sides of the duck hunting debate agree that the information used by the Game Management Authority to justify its decisions on duck hunting has been questionable for several years.

Mr Howard, a tireless volunteer at Heart Morass wetlands and a Sale Field and Game representative, said the shortened season was “disappointing”, and that the GMA had partly based its decisions on this year’s duck season on “wrong” forecasts by the Bureau of Meteorology that predicted no rain until the end of April.

Mr Meddick has also criticised the GMA, telling parliament the criteria the authority uses for assessing whether a duck shooting season should proceed does not consider the global climate emergency or species loss.

“In May, the UN handed down a comprehensive global report noting that over a million species around the world are at risk of extinction, overwhelmingly due to human activity,” he said.

“Locally, our record on extinctions is terrible, and every year duck shooters continue to shoot and kill threatened species, such as the freckled duck and blue-winged shoveler.”

Mr Meddick said throughout Victoria’s history surveys showed that Victorians did not support duck hunting.

In 2007, a Roy Morgan poll of randomly selected city and country Victorians showed 75 per cent wanted a permanent ban on recreational duck shooting.

A survey conducted in 2019 gave similar results. But the debate is set to continue, with the state government recently indicating there will be no end to duck hunting for at least 12 months, after extending game licences until the end of December 2021 because of the effect COVID-19 restrictions has had on the season.