King Island lobster fishermen fear seismic testing plans could harm local industry

Soaked in seawater, the fishermen climb around their floating boat moored to a jetty.

They lift the wooden planks of the boat to reveal a cage hidden under the deck.

Inside there are hundreds of lobsters.

Pulling the cage onto the deck, they tip it onto its side and the creatures come out from behind the bars, trying to escape into the choppy waves below.

But before they have a chance, a gloved hand grabs them and places them in a plastic box which will then be weighed and sent to the market.

It’s a regular working day for Wayne Coombe, who has been fishing the waters around King Island, northwest Tasmania in the Bass Strait, for 24 years.

Mr Coombe remembers about 15 years when seismic tests were carried out in the southwest of the island.

“The lobsters just disappeared, they didn’t crawl, they weren’t there.”

Wayne Coombe saw firsthand the impact of seismic testing on the lobster fishery.(

ABC News: Sarah Abbott

)

Concerns about future test plans

Gas giant ConocoPhillips hopes to conduct seismic tests in mid-August in the Otway Basin west of King Island to assess its natural gas reservoirs.

To perform the tests, the air cannons emit large explosions of low-frequency sound to the bottom of the sea.

As the sound bounces back, it is used to create a map of areas of potential underwater reserves.

Although lobsters have returned in healthy numbers since the last test, Coombe is concerned about what the planned tests could mean for the region’s fishing industry.

“I don’t think the scientists I spoke to would be happy to put on a wetsuit and breathing apparatus and go swimming with our next generation of fish while they do a seismic survey,” he said. -he declares.

Last month Senate committee tabled report on seismic surveys with 19 recommendations, including the need for further research into damage to marine life from seismic testing.

A man wearing glasses holds a specimen jar in a science laboratory.
Dr. Ryan Day studied the impact of seismic testing on lobsters.(

ABC News: Andrew Cunningham

)

Ryan Day, a researcher at the Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania, studied whether signals produced by air guns have an effect on marine life.

“If you look at individual species, we can say with enough confidence that there is some impact,” Dr Day said.

“There has to be a lot more research done at the system level to really understand what the broader effects are.”

In his research, Dr Day found that lobsters suffered from long-term effects on their immune function, condition, and the way they got their energy from food after a seismic survey in the area.

“Lobsters have an organ called a statocyst, and it’s a balancing organ that gives them the sense of movement, and it’s very similar to the human inner ear in its function,” he said.

“This organ was damaged as a result of seismic surveys in lobsters.

“On top of that, their ability to roll over, if you put them on their backs in a little water, it took longer for them to roll over normally after this damage.”

Close-up of the lobster held by a gloved hand.
Dr. Day’s research found that seismic testing had long-term impacts on lobsters.(

ABC News: Andrew Cunningham

)

Call for a moratorium on testing

King Island Mayor Julie Arnold wants a moratorium on seismic testing in Bass Strait.

A middle aged woman standing in front of a window wearing a black shirt and red jacket.
King Island Mayor Julie Arnold wants seismic testing to be suspended until further research is done.(

ABC News: Sarah Abbott

)

“Our attitude is that seismic testing should only take place if there is real evidence that it will not damage our fisheries,” she said.

“If a large multinational wants to enter a region, it should do the research first.

Earlier this year, the Senate backed a Green motion calling for a halt to planned seismic testing off King Island until ConocoPhillips can prove the work will not harm lobster stocks.

The company is waiting for its environmental plan to be accepted by the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA), which is the national regulator.

Lobster fishermen with yellow bins and many lobsters lying on the ground.
Fishermen and environmentalists want ConocoPhillip to ensure the lobster population will not be affected by the tests.(

ABC News: Sarah Abbott

)

Gas company says its plans are informed by science

The federal government recently released 21 Commonwealth-owned sea beds for oil and gas exploration, including areas near King Island.

Cr Arnold fears this will force locals to make the business decision to leave the island at a time when the community is in desperate need of more families.

“They have millions of dollars tied up in their boat, their quotas, their leases and their licenses,” she said.

“So they look at it and they say, ‘Okay, well, we don’t know the seismic testing will damage it, but it could.’

“Therefore, will I consider – instead of fishing from King Island – perhaps fishing from South Australia or perhaps fishing from Tasmania?”

Lobster traps in foreground with moored fishing boat nearby.
King Island is home to more than a dozen families who depend on lobster fishing.(

ABC News: Sarah Abbott

)

A spokesperson for ConocoPhillips Australia said it was continuing its dialogue with key stakeholders, including the fishing industry.

“As a result of this consultation, a number of controls were put in place to mitigate and minimize the impacts, including the reduction of the operational area, the selection of the time of year to acquire the seismic data that has the less impact on marine species and commercial fishing. , and redesigning the seismic study to remove an area of ​​giant crab habitat, ”the spokesperson said.

“The research and assessment process that ConocoPhillips Australia has identified and detailed in its environmental plan, based on input from outside experts and scientists, has not indicated a cause-and-effect pathway that could impact at the level of the stock on the sustainability of fishing. “

But for Mr. Coombe, his concerns remain for the 15 fishing families who inhabit the island.

“The sustainability of our industry is critical to the economy of this island.


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