OPINION: Rock fishing risk management flawed

UNDER a somewhat bizarre heading “Rock fishos to get a big hook”, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph reported last week on moves to undertake safety hazard assessments of rock platforms right along the coast. It noted the 10 riskiest areas had already been assessed. It also suggested that my local Council, Randwick, would conduct its own survey of “black spots” as its local area has had the largest number of rockfishing deaths over the last few years. It then speculated that one of the death prevention strategies could be area-specific lock outs.

Now rockfishing deaths have been a problem in Australia from about 10 minutes after Captain Cook got off the Endeavour … and maybe earlier. Strategies to reduce them have been proposed and implemented, but deaths continue. It’s obviously a terrible tragedy for affected families. But how much should governments and organisations such as ANSA have to do to protect people from themselves? They’ve produced educational materials across several media and in many languages, run seminars, set up websites, sent out big sea alerts and installed warning signs and angel rings.

While any fishing-related death is one too many, I think that the strategies have been working. The most controversial next step under consideration until this latest lock out idea has been the introduction of compulsory lifejackets, which seems to be caught up in inter-agency debates over equipment standards and enforcement issues. Personally I think it will come, but I still have two main reservations: first, it may give a false sense of security when the sea is just a little bit too big and you should really not risk fishing; and second, it may give weak swimmers the confidence to venture out onto rock platforms.

If it’s too rough it’s too rough, with or without a jacket. If you’re not a competent surf swimmer, don’t go rockfishing at all. And, as any ocean yachtsman will tell you, you can still drown in a lifejacket … it’s not some magic saviour.

I’d argue that lock outs, if they’re really on the cards and aren’t just a Telegraph “killer shark packs off Bondi” holiday scare story, are a poor, weak policy response to the problem. They penalise “safe”, experienced anglers as well as the inexperienced “unsafe.”

There were 14 reported rockfishing deaths in NSW in the 12 months to June 2012, out of 47 coastal drownings overall. There were 11 from swimming and wading. Do you also lock up swimming and wading areas where people drown?

The answer to reducing rockfishing deaths still further has to be in even more education and information provision … about safety gear, appropriate clothing, non-slip footwear, and reading the sea and weather maps. You’ll probably never get the rate to zero, nor could you for rock climbing, surfing, boating or sky diving.

The electronic media could lift its game on sea and wind information as part of its weather reports, particularly on Friday nights. I don’t think lock outs will work and would be unenforceable in any case without an army of rangers. Maybe there is some truly innovative step that those involved in this work are all missing. If you’ve got a great idea to help with this issue, please let us know.

John Newbery is Fishing World’s Environment Editor and a highly experienced rock fisherman.

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