News that seismic testing for oil and gas off Hunter waters will recommence on April 9 has raised concerns in the recreational fishing community about threats to the local environment and economy.
In a plan that was approved by the federal regulator (the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority’s) in early January this year, Asset Energy, a subsidiary of Advent Energy, is going to shoot acoustic pulses into the ocean floor over four days to see if there are any evidence of oil or gas reserves.
The last seismic testing was conducted in 2010 amid concerns about the negative impacts on whale migration, wildlife and flow-on effects for fishing, both recreational and commercial, and the local economy. Those concerns remain.
The state Liberal Party and the Greens are opposed to the testing and the idea of establishing an oil or gas industry off the local coast but federal resources minister Matt Canavan says seismic testing could be vital to protecting jobs in manufacturing.
Local recreational fishing identities, like Jason “One For” Nunn, who owns Fisherman’s Warehouse at Marks Point, and who has been involved with consultations with Assett Energy over the last two decades, wonders “at what cost those jobs will come to the local environment and economy.
“They’re going to drag a 900m cable behind a boat which has a 2km exclusion zone and send a sonic pulse every three seconds into 120m of water just off the North Farm off Swansea, one of our richest recreational and commercial fishing areas, and penetrate that into the core of the ocean floor,” Jason said.
“Last time they tested like that there was just no fish in the area after it for months. The whales and dolphins and pelagics, anything that operated sonically, cleared off.
“Other sea life on the bottom that couldn’t move – prawns, lobsters, marine life on the bottom – just got pounded.
“They are saying ‘possibly no environmental threat’ but ‘possibly’ isn’t good enough.
“Last time we met they agreed that before any further testing they would sound the bottom and find out what exactly is down there and the effects that the testing would have on it.
“Then next thing we know I get an email last week not suggesting we talk but rather that the testing is going ahead without the sounding and any further consultation. At a political level, I want to know who approved that, and why, and what our local pollies have got to say about it.”
Jason condemns what he sees as the “divide and conquer” approach of Assett Energy who he alleges are focused on financial gain rather than following correct procedures.
“All they seem to be worried about is the amount of money they’ll make,” he said. “They’re a Perth-based company, if they find gas it will be shipped overseas so the damage will come with no benefit to the locals. When I asked them last time what happens if they find gas, they said ’we’ll be rich’.”
Jason believes the testing is the thin edge of the wedge and was critical of the timing of not only the announcement of the renewed testing but the actual timing of the testing.
“The approval came shortly after new year when everyone was on holiday, and then they say the testing from April 9 won’t be disruptive because it comes after Easter and just before school holidays,” Jason said.
“They say it doesn’t fall on a public holiday, but guess what, fish don’t know when it’s a public holiday.”
Hundreds of people rallied at Nobbys Beach on March 18 to protest the testing and Jason said it was only through unified action that the community could generate the momentum required to get some clear answers on the environmental and procedural concerns.
“The only way we’ll have a voice is if we have unity,” Jason said.
“We need a single person representing everyone - the rec fishos, the commercial fishing industry, Ocean Watch, the Greens, councils, local government.
“Assett Energy are aware that seismic testing had an effect on sea life last time they tested and the anectodal evidence is strong.
“I remember when 3D testing was done back in 2004 from Catho up to Newcastle, during the Lake Mac Big Fish tournament no one caught a fish. I remember seeing a pod of dolphins heading south like it had a rocket up it’s arse. The fact is, acoustic explosions effect mammals.
“Where they are testing, in about 60 fathoms about 12 nautical miles off Swansea, is one of the most important commerical flathead fisheries in the area.
“The flathead feed on a translucent sea life out there that is prevalent in high numbers.
“Last time they tested, the Newcastle commercial fleet reported pulling up nets full of decaying bait fish.
“This testing will again threaten the viability of local commercial fishing.
“If they think its going to create jobs at the expense of the environment that’s poor because they’ll only be temporary jobs and profit but the environmental damage will be permanent.”