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Thursday, 25 February 2010
Page: 1973


Mr CHESTER (11:30 AM) —I thank the previous speaker for his very thoughtful contribution in relation to the Fisheries Legislation Amendment Bill 2009! This is regarded by the opposition as non-controversial legislation, as it provides for three main outcomes: improving the ability of the Australian Fisheries Management Authority to provide an efficient management service through the introduction of electronic decision making; ensuring that fisheries officers are properly equipped to perform their role while investigating suspected illegal fishing activities; and consolidating arrangements regarding holders of fish receiver licences in the Torres Strait. I note the presence of the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry in the chamber and also his second reading speech, where he concluded:

… the bill supports AFMA’s obligations to reduce industry costs while continuing to offer a high standard of service and ensures that AFMA’s officers possess the requisite defensive equipment in order to conduct their duties in a safe and effective manner.

In supporting the bill, I would like to take the opportunity to brief the House on the commercial fishing industry in the electorate of Gippsland and the importance of continued government investment in infrastructure to meet the industry’s long-term and short-term needs. I thank the minister for his visit to the Gippsland electorate to meet with the local fishing industry, and the government’s commitment to the development of a deepwater jetty off Bullock Island. It has been very well received by the local community.

Lakes Entrance has a very long and proud tradition as a commercial fishing port, dating back to the 19th century. Generations of Lakes Entrance, particularly the men and sometimes women, have gone to sea or fished the lake system. It is a very proud tradition that our community has. The Lakes Entrance Fishermen’s Co-operative Society Ltd is the largest supplier of fresh fish to the Melbourne Wholesale Fish Market and a major supplier to the Sydney Fish Market. Just as a bit of history, while I was not around in the days of the formation of the co-op—I am relying on the information provided by their website—it was created in 1964 in response to a period of very low prices, an ‘uncertain and unreliable ice supply’ and a lack of cool room storage facilities in Lakes Entrance. As a result, several trawler owners got together and decided that these problems could be overcome by providing a cool storage facility in the town, assuring an ice supply and developing a co-ordinated and orderly marketing system. A new plant was built on Bullock Island and officially opened by Sir Henry Bolte in 1968. As their website says:

The commencement of operations at Bullock Island ushered in a new era in the handling and marketing of fish—

in East Gippsland, and the co-op went from strength to strength in subsequent years.

Various improvements have been made over the past few decades, and Lakes Entrance remains a critical part of the commercial fishing industry in Australia. The co-op handles over 80 different species of fish, the most predominant including flathead, school whiting, trevally, morwong and shark. If you are in Lakes Entrance at the right time of year, like now, there are always some fresh prawns on offer, and the scallop industry is also doing well again after some very difficult years. The co-op itself employs about 20 permanent staff and up to 40 or 50 casual staff. If you add the co-op employees to the fishermen, the owners of the vessels and those working as deckies, it is easy to see why the commercial fishing industry is such a vital part of the East Gippsland regional economy and the state of Victoria more generally.

I provided that history in the context of some of the challenges facing this important industry and the role of governments at both state and federal level in the future. One of the greatest challenges to the future of the commercial fishing industry in Lakes Entrance is the ability to maintain safe and reliable ocean access. For a bit of background, I am relying on a study paper done by Mr Peter Wheeler, who outlines the history of ocean access at Lakes Entrance, which is quite remarkable. There was actually a natural entrance to the Gippsland Lakes, dating back to the early 1830s, which was used by the shipping industry at that time. Due to the fact that it was quite unreliable, being subject to seasonal closures, the townspeople decided that it was important to develop an artificial entrance. That was first considered in the 1850s. It was quite a remarkable engineering idea for the times, considering we are talking about developing an artificial entrance into a lake system 160 years ago. The works began in 1870 but they were never actually completed. As is the nature of the Victorian climate, they relied on a large storm to come and burst the entrance through. So a storm did the final job for the engineers of the day.

What we have now is an artificial entrance into what was previously a freshwater lake system. I am relying on log reports of the early seafarers, which indicate the challenge faced by our modern-day seafarers. For example, in 1855 WT Dawson reported:

… the water rises to a great height in the lakes and the country for a distance of 100 miles back is flooded … the rush of waters very quickly cleared a channel through which even larger vessels could sail in.

Another report, by Sir John Coode in 1879, says:

During heavy land-floods the stream runs continuously seawards [through the natural entrance] for weeks; this fact was communicated to me both by Captain Limesechow and Captain McAlpine who appear to have had greater experience of the navigation through the entrance than any other persons. The former mentioned an instance which occurred about six years since, when his schooner was anchored about half a mile to seaward of the entrance; he stated that on this occasion his vessel lay for eight days and nights with her head to the outgoing current, and that the water running past, being quite fresh, was taken up daily for ship’s use.

The point is that the conditions at Lakes Entrance are subject to some very severe natural forces, and nature has often helped to clear the way for that artificial entrance to remain open.

Over the hundred years or so since the entrance has been open, there have been a lot of changes in the catchment of the Gippsland Lakes, which has had a major impact on the commercial fishing industry. The construction of the Thomson Dam ended up reducing flows into the Gippsland Lakes system, which has contributed to the build-up of sediment at the artificial entrance of the Gippsland Lakes. Regular dredging has been required over the past 40 or 50 years, and in the mid-1970s a side-casting dredge known as the April Hamer was commissioned. Its role was to keep sweeping clear the channels so the commercial fishing fleet could access the sea. As a side-casting dredge it can only throw the sand and the sediment about 30 metres, which really does not achieve the endgame that is required by the fishermen. So the bar at Lakes Entrance where the lake meets the sea has had a notorious reputation over many years. A lot of seafarers, both recreational and commercial, have come to grief there, and its reputation has discouraged passing recreational vessels from entering the port at Lakes Entrance.

The build-up of sand reached a crisis point in the late 1990s. So much sand was building up in the entrance that new islands were being formed in the channels to the Gippsland Lakes. Jeff Kennett was the Premier of Victoria at the time. A local real estate agent, Ross Bennett, may know something about the naming of one island which we call Kennett Island. He may know how the sign got there. Anyway, all the sand that had built up was credited to Jeff, and no-one was prepared to remove it. It created enormous problems for the community in terms of safe navigation in the area. At that time there were community protests, petitions and rallies to highlight the fact that the commercial fishing fleet was in jeopardy of being shut down completely. There was a threat to the tourism industry because it was more dangerous for recreational vessels to access the entrance, and it was only the major flood of 1998, a fortuitous event as it turned out, that served to blast away a lot of the sediment. While the flood caused damage in other parts of the electorate, what it did at the entrance to the Gippsland Lakes was much appreciated by the commercial fishermen.

But we cannot rely on those sorts of events to keep the entrance clear. Gippsland Ports has a primary responsibility to maintain a safe and navigable entrance. They have developed over a period of years a sand transfer system which has been able to pump sand away from the entrance, and they have been able to tinker at the edges to reduce the amount of sand that has built up there. Unfortunately for Gippsland Ports, conditions have deteriorated again over a period of years. About five years ago there was another community campaign, as the entrance was threatening to close once again. At that time I was the president of the Lakes Entrance Business and Tourism Association and I worked with several state MPs to raise awareness of the issue. As the minister knows, I am always prepared to give credit where it is due, and I give great credit to the state government for coming to the party and providing $31.5 million to develop what was called at the time a ‘trial’ to see what could be done to maintain a safe and navigable entrance. I reflect on the media release at the time from the minister John Thwaites. He pointed out:

This project will create clear navigable channels to Lakes Entrance and ensure that they’re kept open over coming years.

The trial involved bringing in a suction hopper dredge, a replacement of the sandpiper dredge, monitoring of the sand movements inside and outside the entrance, improvements and repairs to the existing sand management system and installation of sand pumps. That trial has been very successful. The Premier of Victoria himself, as recorded in Hansard in October 2008, said that the trial had removed:

… 290 000 cubic metres of sand … in four months and a further 300 000 cubic metres from inside the entrance.

So it has been successful. I appreciate the indulgence of the House as I build the case for the main point I am trying to make regarding the future of the commercial fishing industry in Lakes Entrance. From the work that has occurred over many years—and in my own personal observations over the last 18 months—the entrance now is in the best condition it has been in for decades. The commercial fishing fleet particularly welcome the opportunity to access their port more safely. For them to come and go safely from their place of work on a daily basis has been a godsend for our community. There is a lot less stress involved in accessing the harbour now than there was as little as five years ago. It has certainly been welcomed. The funding from the state government has been welcomed. As I said, since the commencement of that trial about half a million cubic metres of sand have been removed from inside the channels. Under a range of permits—that is, sea-dumping permits and that type of thing—from federal and state authorities it has been done under strict environmental conditions and there is support in the broader community to maintain the entrance in a safe and navigable state going forward.

The point I am trying to make today is that the state government has clearly acknowledged its responsibility now, and the challenge is to make sure that we are committed to a long-term solution. Letting the sand build up and close the entrance, as is suggested occasionally by some people who are concerned about the cost, is simply not an option. It is not an option for the commercial fishing fleet, which is so important to the future of our region. It is also simply not possible with the infrastructure that is already in place in Lakes Entrance. You cannot move that fishing fleet to another port. The establishment costs would be enormous. It is often said that perhaps you could move the fishing fleet to another port. That just would not work. You have the infrastructure in place. You have families in place who are ready to work in the industry. It just would not work. It just would not be viable. Also, closing the entrance or allowing the entrance to naturally close would result in an inundation of towns such as Metung, Paynesville and Loch Sport around the Gippsland Lakes. You would have a situation where the water would build up, those towns would be inundated, a natural storm would occur and the entrance would bust out again—as it did in the 1830s and the 1840s. It is simply not a plausible option to allow the entrance to close.

Maintaining the safe and navigable channels is the only option for us. Funding will be required to secure the future for both the fishing industry and the tourism industry in the region. I note that the state minister, Gavin Jennings, visited Lakes Entrances as recently as eight or nine months ago and inspected the work that was done. I understand there is an application being put to the state government from Gippsland Ports for possible options to secure the future of the fishing industry. There are a few options on the table for governments to consider. There is the possibility of developing our own purpose-built trailer-hopper suction dredge for use in Lakes Entrance and then to be contracted around Australia, but I am not sure that that is necessarily going to be the option that governments will commit to. There are a lot of questions about whether it is the prime role of governments to build, maintain and operate their own dredges. There perhaps will be a commitment to funding for an annual visit by a contract vessel, such as the Pelican, on the occasion that is required.

Such options will naturally come at a considerable price, but the stakes are very high for our community. I am certain that the state government is aware of its responsibilities. I am certain that the federal minister is conscious of the need to make sure that this $200 million fishing industry is maintained in the longer term. The value to the tourism industry of a safe and navigable entrance is estimated to be about $200 million a year as well. The stakes are very high for the local community, but I am confident that Gippsland Ports, in cooperation with the state government, is heading in the right direction. There is a lot of interest in what is going to come about in the next few months, but I am very confident that we are moving in the right direction. I urge the state government to continue the work it is doing with Gippsland Ports, the fishing industry and the wider community and to commit funding to the long-term dredging program. That will ensure the good work in recent years is continued into the future.

There are some broader issues of concern to the fishing industry that directly concern the federal government. I know the Minister Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry has been made aware of them, and I use the opportunity now, while the minister is at the table, to remind him of some correspondence from the General Manager of LEFCOL, Mr Dale Sumner. He sent me an email two months ago indicating his concern about the closure of the Australian Seafood Hotline. Mr Sumner wrote:

I have found out with surprise and disappointment that DAFF dropped the above hotline in June of 2009 …

The ability for consumers to quickly report suspected mislabelling of seafood is critical in times when seafood imports exceed our production.

Our industry is being placed on an unfair playing field against imports and consumers are consistently being urged to report issues and now find that the Government has dropped this critical tool.

I do not want to cause great embarrassment to the minister by any stretch, but it is an issue that Mr Sumner has raised in good faith. He is asking questions about it as he is a man who is very passionate about the labelling of seafood. Australian seafood, naturally, has a reputation as being of high quality and fresh, and coming from a sustainably managed fishery. That is a competitive advantage we have and he is concerned that, if consumers are not aware of where seafood has come from, they will not be able to make complaints in a swift and efficient manner, such as through the Australian Seafood Hotline.

I have no idea how popular the hotline was in the past and I have sought information from the minister in that regard. As I have said, this is not intended as a point-scoring exercise; it is a genuine inquiry from the general manager who is just wondering what other opportunities are available for consumers to have confidence in the Australian product and also to have the capacity to make complaints if they feel they are being ripped off. That is an issue that the seafood industry has had to deal with over many years. It is very hard for the layman to tell whether the snapper advertised in the fridge at a retail outlet really is snapper. It is hard to tell if you are not aware of how individual fish fillets will look. There is a concern within the industry that the labelling is sometimes misleading, and they are very conscious of the need to keep promoting the Australia product. It is a great product that we have here in our country.

The other area of concern to the industry, and I think it is one that the minister has been made aware of as well, is the competing interests of the oil and gas sector in Bass Strait. I fear this matter will be very difficult to resolve. It is difficult to manage and the potential for future conflict between the industries will take some careful negotiation. Everyone in the fishing industry recognises the critical role of the oil and gas industry in Bass Strait, and in fact the Gippsland region would not be as successful and vibrant as it is without the oil and gas industry. The two industries have seemed to be able to cooperate and operate quite amenably over the 40 years that oil and gas exploration has occurred in Bass Strait, but with increased activity there is an increased requirement from the oil and gas industry for exclusion zones around their operations. That is making life difficult for individual fishermen.

I am not sure that there are easy resolutions. I know the fishermen are talking in good faith with the oil and gas industry. I have written to the oil and gas industry and urged them to come to Lakes Entrance and to be up-front with the fishermen. These men going out to sea are smart operators. They know how to handle their vessels, they know how to navigate close to other structures, and I think there will need to be some flexibility in terms of where these exclusion zones are. When you start taking these shots away from the fishermen, you start directly affecting their livelihood. How we get the balance right is a real challenge for us. There is certainly goodwill on both sides and it is something I think we need to manage at the industry level, but we also need to make sure that state and federal governments, when they are issuing licences and allowing these competing interests to operate in the same environment, are respectful of the rights of both industries. Again, this is not intended as a criticism of anyone; it is just a reflection of the fact that the commercial fishing industry has a legitimate right to access fishing grounds as much as the oil and gas industry has a right to exercise their licences. We just have to make sure there is a way that we can get the two industries working together so that both can operate successfully into the future.

In conclusion, I thank the House for this opportunity to provide an update on some of the issues facing the commercial fishing industry in Gippsland, and express my support for the bill.