The dugong is a strange creature. Also known as the sea cow, it looks like a cross between a tuskless walrus and a giant seal. Lovesick sailors in the 18th century mistook them for mermaids - a testament more to the seafarers' desperation than to the animals' resemblance to the female form. Dugongs are found in warm waters around the world, including along the coast of Queensland. For hundreds of years, these gentle giants have been hunted by Aborigines and the islanders of the Torres Strait, the strip of water separating the northern tip of Queensland from Papua New Guinea. Under special laws, indigenous groups are still allowed to hunt dugongs, prizing the animal's meat and roasting it for feasts, birthdays and other special occasions. But research released this week suggests that the dugong is being hunted to extinction. A study by the Australian Fisheries Management Authority found that Torres Strait islanders are taking up to 1,000 a year - a rate which is no longer sustainable. The fisheries minister, Ian Macdonald, said 'urgent measures' need to be taken to stop the 'mass slaughter'. 'The time has come when there can't simply be an exemption for indigenous people,' he said. 'If we don't do something, there will be a catastrophe. I think many island leaders know it.' Similar conflicts are being played out around the world - in the Pacific northwest of the United States, for instance, where native American tribes are fighting for the right to hunt whales. Torres Strait islanders say commercial fishermen are also responsible for killing dugongs, which accidentally get caught in nets. Peter Guivera, a community elder from Queensland's Cape York Peninsula, said it was an 'unwritten law' that fishermen do not report accidental dugong deaths because they are afraid of having their licences taken away. Some Aboriginal groups have already stopped hunting dugongs voluntarily, concerned that the animals could die out. The government is now considering reducing the number of dugongs which can be killed each year to 100. Enforcement of any new law will be hard - the islands of the Torres Strait are among the remotest parts of Australia. Indeed, the authorities find themselves in a difficult position - on the one hand they must adhere to international conservation laws; on the other they must respect an age-old custom. The government acknowledges that dugongs are important to the people of the Torres Strait, but that will not stop the introduction of tough new laws. As Mr Macdonald put it: 'If there are no dugongs left, that's not going to do the islanders' culture much good.'