Fishers operating in Victoria’s east say their catch is down by as much as 80 per cent since the start of seismic testing in the area,
Tyson Pollard and his father Tony have been octopus fishing for three years and their catch is sent from Lakes Entrance to Melbourne and Sydney.
But in recent months, the pair’s haul has plummeted.
Mr Pollard said he noticed a change when two large ships started surveying for oil and gas in his usual fishing area.
“New Year’s Eve, the bushfires in our region meant we had to evacuate; New Year’s Day, the seismic ship activity started,” he said.
Several fishermen in the area have been compensated for their losses due to the testing, but the concerns of the industry go beyond money.
The controversial surveying technique has been used around Australia to look for oil and gas, but some environmentalists and scientists have warned the impacts on marine life could be deadly.
The region became the latest epicentre of the testing debate after a bid to map the Great Australian Bight faltered earlier this year.
French company surveying Bass Strait
French-owned company CGG is using sonar to make 3D models of seabeds.
Loud airwaves are pulsed down into the ocean and bounced back to uncover the presence of oil and gas.
Seismic testing has been proposed around Australia, including near Newcastle, Bass Strait and the Great Australian Bight.
CGG said its approach had indirect environmental benefits, in that it “reduces the number of wells required to produce the resources that are discovered”.
The company has a plan to survey 11,100 square kilometres of Commonwealth waters by the end of June.
The National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) regulates the conduct of offshore oil and gas companies.
It rejected CGG’s first application, due to a lack of consultation with fishers in the area.
CGG responded by devising a compensation scheme which saw fishers paid out for reductions in catches.
Five of 29 fishers compensated
Simon Boag represents fishers as the executive officer of the South Eastern Trawl Fishing Industry Association.
“We’re waving our arms now, saying we think catches are down a third, and we think that the scientific study that’s happening will show it’s a lot more than that immediately behind the survey area,” he said.
Mr Boag said he has had to fight hard to find out how many fishers have actually been paid under the compensation scheme.
By the end of May, five months into the six-month project, only five of 29 fishers who entered claims had been paid.
“The system CGG were using [to assess the claims] changed early on when they realised how much they were going to have to pay out,” Mr Boag said.
Fishers and CGG agreed trawlers should mitigate catch reductions by moving out of the affected areas.
“They’re now saying fishermen need to go back to the area that’s being surveyed, but doing that is dangerous and illegal,” Mr Boag said.
“So then they’re moving away and in that case CGG is saying ‘you’ve moved away so you’re not eligible for compensation’.”
No inspectors on the ground
NOPSEMA said it was investigating whether fishers’ compensation claims had been paid correctly, but was waiting on fishers to provide more information.
“NOPSEMA has not identified any significant non-compliances with the approved environment plan based on its investigation of CGG’s Gippsland Marine Seismic Survey activity,” the regulator said in a statement.
But NOPSEMA confirmed no inspectors had visited Lakes Entrance to investigate the claims nor consult with fishers in person.
A scientific advisory panel of fishers, consultants and an independent scientist was established to further the research into the effects of the surveying on sea life.
It is also responsible for the concurrent reporting of the environmental effects that are a key condition of CGG’s approval plan.
The scientific studies into octopus and Danish seine are set to be published at the end of 2020, months after the planned end of testing.
Scientists say seismic damages sea life
Associate Professor Jayson Semmens is a marine biologist at the University of Tasmania, and the only independent scientist on the government-required CGG panel.
His previous studies show the practice increased mortality among exposed scallops by up to 40 per cent compared to controls.
Another of his studies found seismic surveying damaged lobsters’ ability to right themselves if flipped upside down.
Associate Professor Semmens’ world-first research on the bodily effects of seismic surveying on octopuses is hotly anticipated.
He is studying 300 of Mr Pollard’s octopuses, but will not have hard data until the end of the year.
He said it was uncommon for surveying companies to accommodate research into the morphological consequences of seismic testing on sea life.
“It’s very rare, these ships are very expensive, so getting them to help with research can be tricky,” he said.
“But we’ve been really lucky with CGG, they’ve been really gracious with their information.”
The research is funded by CGG, the Government’s Fishing Research and Development Corporation and the University of Tasmania.
“The point is about having more information so oil and gas and fisheries can work together to make the right decisions about the timing of decisions, [and] which areas those will cover,” he said.
Big oil, small fish
The Greens chair a Senate committee set up in 2017 to investigate the science and Australia’s regulation of the practice.
It was due to release its findings earlier this month, but public hearings were delayed due to coronavirus restrictions.
Committee chairwoman Senator Sarah Hanson-Young grew up in East Gippsland, not far from from Lakes Entrance.
“There’s very little the fishing industry can do in terms of recourse … it doesn’t really help the fishers if they just get paid some money if their fish stock is down in the long term — the power imbalance is instantaneous.
Submissions to the inquiry are still open.