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Wednesday, 14 November 2018
Page: 8200


Senator WHISH-WILSON (Tasmania) (18:14): I, and on behalf of Senator Hanson-Young, move:

That the following matter be referred to the Environment and Communications References Committee for inquiry and report by 30 March 2019:

The impact of seismic testing on fisheries and the marine environment, with particular reference to:

(a) the regulation of seismic testing, and the responsibilities of federal and state governments;

(b) the consultation process regarding the approval of seismic testing;

(c) how potential impacts are taken into account during the consultation process;

(d) applications for seismic testing in the Otway Basin; off the coast of Newcastle, New South Wales; and the waters surrounding Kangaroo Island, South Australia;

(e) recent scientific findings; and

(f) any other related matters.

Of course, senators care about the ocean and marine life and protecting our commercial and recreational fishing industries. Seismic testing—the use of sonic guns to propel sound waves through the ocean to the depths of the ocean floor—and the potential impacts that is having on marine life and on the productivity of our fisheries is a very significant issue for a lot of communities around this country. I proposed a Senate references committee that would look at the impacts of seismic testing. In fact, I'll read this out to senators who are interested in this subject. I know they would all want to stand up for their coastal communities and the industries in those communities. I asked:

That the following matter be referred to the Environment and Communications References Committee for inquiry and report by 29 March 2019—

I put this motion to the Senate two days ago and, sadly, not only did it get defeated; Labor denied me leave to have the chance to talk about the motion they voted down, even though I know that fishing interests in Tasmania have contacted Senator Urquhart and others and urged them to support this inquiry, as I know stakeholders around the country have phoned their senators and urged them to support this inquiry. It was going to look at:

The impact of seismic testing on fisheries and the marine environment, with particular reference to:

(a) the regulation of seismic testing, and the responsibilities of federal and state governments—

There have been some pretty big barneys going on between state governments and the federal government over new permits that have been released for the oil and gas industry. I know Senator Canavan will contribute to this debate, and I promise him that I won't cut him off like I did in the last one. My inexperience led me to jump to my feet and wrap up debate. I will be very interested to hear what he has to say, because I know, to use a quote, he has been 'under the pump'. Fishing interests have contacted his office, as no doubt they have many of his colleague's offices, and raised this issue with him. Keep in mind that a Senate inquiry is a chance for everyone to have their say. It is a chance to call witnesses and look at the evidence. There should be nothing to hide if you have nothing to hide. Nevertheless this inquiry has been shut down. Both Labor and the Liberal Party, I suspect, have been got to by big oil and gas and won't be supporting this inquiry. Let me go back to the terms of reference: we want to look at the regulation of seismic testing, and the interplay between state and federal governments.

There have been considerable concerns over this. I will shortly read from a summary where the New South Wales fisheries and environment minister was very angry that the federal government had thumbed its nose at his recommendations around new seismic permits off Sydney and Newcastle. Why not thrash that out in a Senate process where we can all participate, hear what different parties have to say and look at whether the balance is right? That is all that is. This is why I tried to initiate this inquiry:

(b) the consultation process regarding the approval of seismic testing—

The rock lobster industry in Tasmania approached me and said, 'Senator, in this consultation process we basically have been given a week to provide our industry's feedback through NOPSEMA on new seismic surveys that are being allocated in Bass Strait and off the west coast of King Island.' King Island is one of my favourite places on Earth, it is absolutely amazing on so many different levels. The fishermen are worried about new seismic testing there. The commercial crayfishing industry are worried about new seismic testing. They had a week.

Don't take this from me; the rock lobster industry have been on the record and have spoken to the media. They want this inquiry. They have been asking senators and MPs to support this inquiry, because they are not happy with the consultation process. They believe—in their own words—that it has been a 'box-ticking exercise'. I understand that Senator Urquhart apparently doesn't support this inquiry, because she doesn't believe that the seismic testing is going to occur until next year, but the consultation process has occurred now. That is part of this inquiry. That is why we are doing it. She clearly isn't standing up for the local fishing industry, who want this inquiry, which is very disappointing. The next terms of reference are:

(c) how potential impacts are taken into account during the consultation process;

(d) applications for seismic testing in the Otway Basin; off the coast of Newcastle, New South Wales; and the waters surrounding Kangaroo Island, South Australia—

This relates to the new, controversial permits that have been issued to big oil and gas. The terms of reference continue:

(e) recent scientific findings …

I want to tell a story about this. This is a true story—of course, all of the stories I tell are true. When I started as a senator in 2012, a friend of mine that I went to school with contacted me over in Western Australia. He is a commercial snapper fishermen. He has a boat and he goes out and catches snapper, and that's how he makes his living. He contacted me and said, 'Peter, I've got big problems with seismic testing in my fishery—not just problems of nearly getting mown down and run over by seismic boats but not having a say in when these seismic boats fire their massive sonic guns down into the ocean and the ocean floor.' He actually had a Mexican stand-off with a seismic boat that could have been really ugly. That's how desperate he's become, because he was being pushed out of his fishery. But he had mapped, through his own fisheries data, the massive decline in his fishing productivity when the seismic testing had occurred, in the years that the seismic testing had pushed him out of his fishery. He was told when and where he could fish by the oil and gas industry. That was his view. It was interesting at the time, because I said to him: 'You know what? In my home state of Tassie, the commercial fishing industry can open doors in state parliament and in federal parliament.' They get supported by a lot of senators in this place, and I've had my share of barneys with them over the years.

Senator Canavan: I thought they were your friends.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I've had my share of barneys with them over the years, Senator Canavan, around supertrawlers and the impacts of salmon aquaculture on the pristine waters of Tasmania. I have had my barneys with the commercial fishing industries over the years. I know how good they are at getting what they want in this place. But do you know what I said to my mate? The pun wasn't intended. I'm not going to name him in here today, because I know he's actually had threats of violence against him because of the stance he's taken against seismic companies. I said: 'You know what? There is a bigger fish in the pond than you in Canberra and in your state parliament, and it is the oil and gas industry.' Senator Canavan knows that very well. They are the ones who will rule the roost here. I said, 'So, even though your commercial fishing interests may have support in parliaments, you are not going to get what you want if you cross the oil and gas industry.'

Senator Canavan interjecting

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I would very much like to call my friend under parliamentary privilege to give his evidence—a real businessman with a real business impacted by seismic testing. This is the point I was getting to before Senator Canavan so rudely interjected—something I would never do in this chamber! I said to my friend, 'I will look into this for you,' and in 2013 I spoke to Senator Colbeck about seismic testing in fisheries, and Senator Colbeck said to me, 'There's no evidence that seismic testing impacts the productivity of fisheries.' So I said, 'Okay.' I went and looked and, lo and behold, Senator Colbeck was right in one sense: there had been no studies. Considering how big this industry is—a multibillion- or trillion-dollar industry around the world—there had been virtually no studies.

I've got the reports here in front of me, and I haven't got time to go through them today. There was some data used from 1984-85 that was quoted in a report in 2002, which I'm happy to table, that looked at some impacts off US coastal areas. Recently there have been some reports and some studies done, including a study done in 2015, which I have here, on the impacts on the scallop industry, another industry that has been very concerned about the impacts of seismic testing. But very little has been done. It's completely underscrutinised, considering the size and importance of our commercial fishing industry.

I spoke to the new head of AIMS, the Australian Institute of Marine Science, at a Great Barrier Reef Foundation briefing recently. He said to me, 'I know you are trying to get an inquiry up on seismic, Senator Whish-Wilson. I want you to know that we have just received funding to do a proper study, an independent study, of the impact of seismic testing on fisheries.' I asked him how long it would take and he said about 18 months. So, some funding has been given to this industry. Through you Chair, I ask Senator Canavan: considering the uncertainty and the precautionary principle, why are we proceeding with giving out tens of thousands of kilometres of acreage to seismic companies without a proper study of its impact on marine life?

You all know that I care about cetaceans and ecosystems, and I do care about the livelihood of people like my mate in WA who is a commercial snapper fisherman, and I care for the rock lobster industry in Tasmania, and the scallop industry. Everything has to be in balance and this issue is one that we need to scrutinise. So, why has this Senate rejected a references inquiry? Once again, all I've got out of Labor is that they don't think it is a priority and they can deal with it next year, if they get into government—and I, of course, have no guarantee that they will. They don't believe that the seismic testing is occurring off the west coast of King Island until next year, even though the consultation process, which is the key issue the industry has, has just occurred and is not good enough. I know NOPSEMA has started to take a bit of extra action on consultation, since we have shone a light on it already. But this needs to be looked at thoroughly, including the regulation of this industry.

I make no bones that I don't want to see more oil and gas exploration off the coast of Tasmania, in our pristine waters and in our fisheries, which, let me tell you, are under so much pressure. Our oceans right now, with warming waters, with ocean acidification and with plastics, are under pressure that is unprecedented in our history—I am talking about anthropogenic history. Off the east coast of Tasmania, 90 per cent of our giant kelp forests are gone. That evidence was presented to my Senate inquiry in Hobart by a diver, Mick Baron, from Eaglehawk Dive Centre. In the December before the March inquiry, he said, ''Whishy', I want you to come out and bring your cameras and I want you to dive on these kelp forests before they are gone.' Then, when he presented at my inquiry in March, he said: 'You're too late. The last ones have gone.' They were an ecosystem that stretched from north-east Tasmania, from Mount William, all the way down to the south-west wilderness area. They were 10,000 years old and as important to the ecosystem of Tasmania as the Barrier Reef is to Queensland. They are gone. I'll tell you, Senator Canavan, there will be information out shortly—which IMAS currently has, and we have been waiting for for some time—about the impact of urchin barrens, Tasmania's version of the crown of thorns starfish, which is killing the reef. I know that nearly a third of Tasmania's reefs are dead from urchin barrens, the infestations that have occurred through warming waters and pressures on our reefs from overfishing. The only thing that kills the urchin barrens is lobsters. There is a lot of pressure on our fisheries. This year, our abalone industry, for the first time, voluntarily didn't catch their quota. In fact, they didn't even catch a single abalone off the east coast of Tasmania. They are under that much pressure. We have seen Pacific Oyster Mortality Syndrome cripple our oyster industry in Tasmania, because of warming waters and new diseases and new viruses. We have seen algal blooms shut down our recreational fisheries, including scallops, and we have seen declining catches in just about every fish species in state waters, including the sentinel species that used to be held up as the robust example of how our fisheries management is working—that is, flathead.

I don't think anyone I speak to on the east coast of my state would disagree that the oceans are in trouble. So why are we adding extra pressure to our oceans unnecessarily by firing massive sonic guns for the oil and gas industry down into our waters when preliminary studies done by IMAS on the scallop industry show they have an impact? They do have a productivity impact on the larvae of scallops. That's only a preliminary study.

This is a very, very serious matter and it's not just an issue in my state. Senator Hanson-Young is going to talk about South Australia, and I know there will be a lot of New South Wales senators or MPs, if they could, who would like to talk about their serious concerns that off North Sydney and Newcastle is the biggest area that has been opened up to seismic oil and gas exploration and potentially oil rigs—you name it. It's coming at a time when our ocean is broken. We have to take a stand. All I am asking the Senate to do today is support a Greens inquiry to provide some transparency on this. Everybody gets their say—the oil and gas industry, the seismic industry, NOPSEMA, the commercial fishing industry—and we do the job that we were elected by the Australian people to do: to look at this. There's no reason not to support this inquiry. I implore all senators to rethink the position they took two days ago of voting down this inquiry.