DESPITE electronic media and web rough sea warnings, free instructional DVDs in multiple languages, warning signs, angel rings and print media advertisements, rock fishing as a sport still claims an almost unbelievable of victims each year. Last year in NSW alone, 13 anglers drowned. There are no statistics on how many anglers were swept in and subsequently got back out.
While newcomers to the sport and anglers from a non-English speaking background are over represented in the casualty statistics, a significant number of victims are quite experienced and have simply made a bad call on the sea conditions on a particular day or had a freakish accident.
The NSW Coroner is currently undertaking an inquiry into the latest round of deaths. There’s lots of speculation of what might be included the eventual findings and recommendations, but one issue creates the most debate amongst seasoned rock anglers: making the wearing of lifejackets/personal flotation devices (PFDs) compulsory for all rock fishing participants.
The big argument in favour: they’ll help you float, conscious or unconscious, injured or not injured. Sounds like a no-brainer…but in fact it’s not so simple.
1. False confidence. If you’re a weak swimmer, or a total non-swimmer, I’d argue you shouldn’t go rock fishing. At all. End of story. Putting a PFD on doesn’t mean you will suddenly become a competent surf swimmer. The PFD might give you that false impression, and even in a PFD, in rough water you can still drown.
2. Swimming in a PFD isn’t easy. If you’re swept from a boat in open water, you clearly want to be able to stay afloat long enough for someone to come and get you. You might drift a bit but that’s OK. If you’re swept from the ocean rocks, you’ll want to get back out as soon as you can if there’s a safe area adjacent and some other anglers to help you. If that’s not possible, you’ve either got to swim out away from the surge-swept, barnacle-clad rocks and pray for a boat or a chopper, or swim to somewhere safe (an adjacent beach, a protected platform) to land. Very hard in a PFD.
3. Cheap PFDs are bulky and restricting, and in themselves can be dangerous if they limit your mobility on a rock platform. When a big wave comes and you’re in the wrong spot, you want to see, hear and get out of danger really quickly.
4. Another level of enforcement, warnings and fines will be necessary. What agency realistically is going to do that? Maritime? Fisheries? Council rangers? Cops? You’re dreaming……
So, reducing deaths may be better addressed by even more focused angler education (cough up some $$’s, Premiers and Ministers), consistent and accurate reporting of sea conditions in every media weather forecast (get with it channel 10 and ABC), more angel rings at black spots, better 000 mobile phone coverage and some more introspection by anglers themselves. But you can’t legislate against stupidity: like pilots, there are old rock anglers and bold rock anglers, but not many in the dual old, bold category…
Having said all that, if PFDs become compulsory, I’ll invest in one of those natty little gas powered self-inflating numbers that clip on the belt … and hope I’ll never see it work.