COMMERCIAL fishing closures in Port Stephens will be lifted from October, the Department of Primary Industries announced on Tuesday.
The closures were put in place in September last year after it was revealed that toxic fire fighting foam used at the nearby Williamtown RAAF Base had for years been contaminating the surrounding environment.
Similar voluntary bans were put in place in the Hunter River.
On Tuesday the deputy director of primary industries, Geoff Allan, said the closures would be lifted after advice provided by the Williamtown Contamination Expert Panel.
“Reopening Tilligerry Creek and Fullerton Cove to both commercial and recreational fishers was recommended by the Williamtown Expert Panel and follows the Commonwealth’s Human Health Risk Assessment and the enHealth Guideline review,” Dr Allan said in a statement.
“These fishing closures have been in place since September 2015 and were implemented while testing and analysis of seafood in the vicinity was undertaken, to determine the level of impact in the Hunter and Port Stephens waterways.”
An ongoing restriction will be placed on dusky flathead caught in the Hunter River for commercial fishers.
“The public can be confident that seafood for sale is safe to eat,” he said.
Head of the Newcastle fishing cooperative Robert Gauta said the decision was good news for fishers, but there was “lots to be done” to repair the area’s reputation.
The news comes a month after the release of the long-awaited Human Health Risk Assessment into the long-running contamination crisis.
Following the release of the report the NSW Environment Protection Authority expanded its warnings to residents within the Williamtown contamination “red zone” to include consumption of meat, fruit, and vegetables.
However Defence, in the report, suggested that only residents in certain parts of the zone needed to adhere to greater restrictions, and suggested existing fishing bans were unnecessary.
The majority of the testing on the fishers was done late last year or early in 2016 and while Mr Gauta said he was confident in the conclusions reached from those tests, he said the cooperative would push for regular testing of the area’s waterways.
“We want something that's realistic and affordable, maybe every quarter or six months so we known what these chemicals are doing,” he said.
“But people smarter than me put those [tests] together and we’d like to think the contamination ... seeing as they stopped using, it will go down, we'll go by the decisions made by the expert panel.”
Chantel Walker said her husband John Hewitt looked like he had "won the lotto" when he was informed the ban would be lifted.
The couple will now spend a frantic five weeks preparing their trawler for the start of the prawning season on November 1.
“To see the relief and the happiness and the joy, he's excited to get back to what he's been doing for more than 20 years,” she said.
However the 12 months the family spent living on the breadline would not be easily forgotten and the rebuilding process would take time, Ms Walker said.
“It was living hell. I hope I never have to go through anything like that again. My life and my family's life has changed because of it.
“The one thing I'm probably worried about now is that this community needs to get behind us and buy the seafood. It's a dying industry so they need to help keep it going.”
Lucinda Hornby, spokesperson for the NSW Wild Caught Fishers Coalition South Region Four, said the fishers who were called to a meeting on Tuesday were both shocked and relieved by the decision.
“I don't think anyone knew that was coming, honestly we thought it was going to be extended,” she said.
But while the fishers were now confident their product was safe, they were anxious to reverse the brand damage inflicted by the contamination scare.
“If we can't sell our product, then we're not better off than when the fishery was closed,” Ms Hornby said.
“Hopefully we can just get a positive message out there to the consumers.”
Port Stephens MP Kate Washington said that while the announcement was good news for fishers, it raised questions for residents within the contamination red zone.
“The question is what’s changed between when it was announced a year ago and now,” she said.
She said there was “mixed feelings” among fishers.
“It’s good that they can get back to work but there’s going to be enormous challenges in terms of recovering reputation of their product and they’re going to need a lot of support in recovering that,” she said.
“It’s not going to be as simple as get in your boat and go fishing … there are still enormous question marks over what compensation is available.
“These guys have suffered enormous losses [and] like everything, it’s hard to have comfort in decisions being made if we don’t understand them.”