Fishing industry and financial assistance
This chapter will examine the impact on the fishing industry arising
from the fishing closures of Fullerton Cove and Tilligerry Creek and the financial
assistance package which has been provided to affected commercial fishermen.
Precautionary temporary fishing closures were introduced at Fullerton
Cove and Tilligerry River on 3 September 2015. At its first meeting, the Expert
Panel noted that one of the most likely primary pathways for human exposure,
apart from drinking water, is the consumption of fish. The fishing closures
were based on a preliminary risk assessment which indicated there were
'pathways to tolerable daily intake exceedances'.
On 27 October 2015, the fishing closures for Fullerton Cove and Tilligerry
Creek were extended for a further 8 months to June 2016.
In September 2015, NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI)
(Fisheries) undertook preliminary sampling of fish, prawn and mud crabs in the
Tilligerry Creek and Fullerton Cove areas:
The preliminary results showed PFOS to be present in the
samples taken, no PFOA was detected in any sample.
The analysis of the results showed that based upon dietary
exposure as determined by health based guidance values of Tolerable Daily
Intake (TDI) there was low health risk concern for the general population...however
for people who may consume large amounts of seafood from the areas, there is a
potential to exceed the health based guidance values. Further, while health based
guidance values are not exceeded for the general population, some species of
fish and crustacea have the potential to significantly contribute to a person
exposure to PFOS.
On consideration of these results the Williamtown Expert
Panel has identified need for further analysis of a wider selection of seafood,
as part of the Human Health Risk Assessment.
During October 2015, the NSW DPI (Fisheries) collected prawn samples
from Fullerton Cove and the Hunter River with the assistance of commercial
fishers. The Expert Panel preliminary risk assessment of the samples indicated:
The levels of PFOS detected showed there was no significant
food safety risk for the average consumer of prawns in the areas outside of the
existing closure zone. There is the potential for higher exposure to PFOS for
fishing communities, to consume prawns more frequently and in greater amounts
than the average consumer, at two locations outside the closure area and this
requires further investigation and evaluation in the form of a human health
Upon consideration of the findings commercial prawn fishers
from the Hunter region have collectively agreed to extend their voluntary ban
on trawling over the whole the Hunter River until further assessment is
Fishing industry impacts
Ms Tricia Beatty from the Professional Fishermen's Association (PFA)
noted that the area mainly impacted by the contamination and closures was the
Estuary General Fishery:
That is a very diverse, multispecies, multimethod fishery
that can operate in 76 of the New South Wales estuary systems. It is a very
diverse commercial fishing industry with approximately 600 fishing businesses
authorised to use 17 types of fishing gear. This fishery is a significant
contributor to the regional and state economies by providing high-quality
seafood and bait to the community...The Newcastle region is classified as region
4 and extends from Tuggerah Lakes to Crowdy Head. There are approximately 200
estuary general fishers in region 4 who hold an entitlement to fish the Hunter
River and there are 24 estuary prawn trawl Hunter River endorsements.
In terms of the impact of the closures to the broader fishing industry,
Ms Beatty stated:
We cannot quantify
the damage at this point in time of the contamination to our industry. The main
impacts have been the access to our fishing stocks by the fishers, the
devaluation of our fishing businesses, the additional stress to available
stocks that are not available, the financial assistance difficulties our
industry has faced, the impact to the local Commercial Fishermen's Cooperative
and the sheer mental stress on commercial fishers and their families.
It was clear from the evidence that the financial impact of the closures
on the affected commercial fishers has been immediate and severe. The Wild
Caught Fishers Coalition (WCFC) emphasised that an estimated 32 plus family
operated fishing businesses had been impacted by weeks of being unable to work. It described
the affected fishermen as having their livelihood 'stripped', income 'taken'
and generations of business growth 'wiped' and their local brand reputation
Similarly, the Commercial Fishermen's Co-op Limited (CFCL) outlined:
Fishers have had to remove children from child care, remove
all non-essential spending, they are struggling to put food on the table. Some
have mortgages on their homes, with repayments unable to be claimed, and many
other personal expenses that cannot be met.
Mr Robert Gauta from the CFCL the described the 'fishermen in this
industry [as] small cottage-based fishers; they are not big-turnover businesses'.
He noted that '[t]heir income is their major source of replenishment that they
need, and they are hurting since the first day of the closure'. The CFCL also noted that
it had suffered a 'significant decrease in income due to the fishing closures'.
It relied on 'commissions received from the product supplied by fishers to
operate, and any reduction equates to reduced operating income, however, fixed
The rigid nature of the commercial fishing industry was also a factor in
the impact of the closures. Several fishers highlighted that they had made
significant business investments or that the Hunter River Estuary Prawn Shares
they had purchased were not transferable. The difficulty for fishers to move to
other areas due to the closures was also emphasised. For example, Ms Beatty characterised
the management arrangements the fisheries, based on shares and endorsements, as
restricted and 'highly complex':
A fisherman who is endorsed to operate in one region is not
necessarily able to operate in another region.
Due to the closures,
fishers can no longer access traditional grounds. Some have advised that they
are unable to go to other grounds as their fishing businesses are set up for
that region. A fisherman might have a net set up for specific gear and for a
specific targeted species, and his whole business might be based on that
particular river. If he is told to go to another section....it may be quite
impossible for him to do so...
As you can imagine,
if you go fishing in one area all your life and you are forced to go to another
area, your business costs are going to be higher and your time fishing is going
to be longer, just to try to bring in the quantity again.
Stress and mental health impacts
The mental health impacts of the fishing closures were apparent in many
submissions. The WCFC stated:
Livelihoods have been heavily impacted and the extent is
dramatically showing. The emotional stress is taking a toll on each fisher
individually that is causing personal concerns and increased mental fatigue. It
has become evident that anxiety, depression and personal sense of self-worth is
increasingly challenged, coupled with the unknown facts that again cause direct
anguish to these men. Many fishermen are experiencing sleepless nights due to
worry, financial concerns and the uncertainty of what their future holds hence
the ability to fully be self-sufficient and provide for their families.
Ms Beatty from the PFA also highlighted the 'significant stress and
mental impact on fishermen and their families' and noted that fishermen who can
go into other regions are now forced to have 'significant time away from their
Ms Chantel Walker from the WCFC told the committee that while there had
been some drop-in sessions provided there were no free counselling services
available for affected commercial fishers in the Newcastle area.
The NSW DPI noted that it had arranged a meeting on 21 October 2015 at the Newcastle
Fishermen's Co-operative 'to provide social and financial support for fishers
impacted by the closures':
NSW DPI Rural Resilience, Rural Financial Counsellors, Rural
Adversity Mental Health Program (RAMHP), the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and
Human Services attended the event. NSW DPI has intervened on two occasions
seeking Salvation Army support for distressed families and on one occasion with
RAHMP. NSW DPI is offering training for fishers (funded by NSW DPI) and is
offering a two day overnight event for fishers wives or partners in January
2016 to assist them with developing skills and destress (funded by DPI).
A further consequence of the fishing closures was the impact on Port
Stephens' broader reputation as an area of food and seafood production. For
example the CFCL observed:
Due to the contamination and the precautionary closure of
commercial fishing in the area, consumers are now questioning the safety of
eating seafood from the region. Tests conducted have shown that this seafood is
safe to eat but the seafood loving public have justifiable concerns that are impacted
on the price and demand of seafood from the region. This in turn further
escalates the damage done by the contamination to the commercial fishing
community of the region.
The NSW Farmers' Association also noted the impact of the long term
brand damage to the region. It stated that although 'it has been established
that oysters do not present a health risk, the Tilligerry Creek Harvest Area
will have ongoing monitoring for six months and is currently suffering from
collateral "brand damage" because fishers continue to be subject to
It gave the example of an oyster business with a lease in Tilligerry creek
which reported a 30 per cent drop in sales due to consumer concern about the
contamination impact on Port Stephens oysters.
The closures had also created stress on the remaining fishing stocks
which could be accessed.
Mr Kevin Radnidge from the WCFC noted that following the NSW DPI's testing
of prawns, fishers were informed they could work an area 'between Hexham Bridge
and Raymond Terrace'. However, he stated '[i]t is not a very big part of the
river, and with 20-odd prawn trawlers up there we would probably wipe
everything out in two days, so sustainability just was not there'. The
possibility of temporarily opening new fishing regions such as the Karuah River
or Lake Macquarie to allow affected fishermen to utilise different areas had
been raised with DPI but had not been accepted.
Mr Gauta from the CFCL identified the uncertainty created by the
contamination as the key problem for commercial fishers:
Probably the biggest issue we have is that we do not know. We
do not know what you will get if you eat so many prawns or if you will get
sick. We do not know if this is the start or the end of the leaching or the
middle point of the leaching. That is what is hardest to deal with.
Mr Adam Gilligan from the NSW EPA observed there would be a need for ongoing
sampling in the fishing closure areas:
[E]ven where we have had oysters come back clear, we
understand that while ever there are contaminants continuing to flow into the
environment, the situation may change in those fisheries. And so even once we
have done a comprehensive set of sampling to understand the situation right
now, there will be a need to do that again into the future.
The related issue of delays in testing was also raised. Ms Beatty noted:
Industry has agreed
to close the river until results of further testing are deemed acceptable to
protect the brand of our seafood, which the industry is extremely protective
of. However, our agreement was that this was conditional on
continued testing, but that continued testing has not occurred. We are very
disappointed that the schedule for testing in the future has not been arranged.
Professor O'Kane, the Chair of the Expert Panel, hoped that some results
might be available before June but acknowledged that '[e]verything is slipping
a bit in time'.
This is why we are requesting that Defence do the exposure
pathway work, with the analysis and sampling we have recommended. That is why
we put that fishing ban on until the end of June 2016 because the timing needed
to go through all the samples and the limitation on machines and so on to do
the sampling, which is at least until the end of June.
On 4 November 2015, the Commonwealth Government announced it would
provide a financial assistance package to commercial fishers adversely affected
by the NSW Government's fishing closures at Tilligerry Creek and Fullerton
Cove. As part of the assistance package:
[C]commercial fishers who derive the majority of their income
from fishing in the areas affected by the bans may be eligible for an Income
Recovery Subsidy equivalent to Newstart or Youth Allowance, and Business
Assistance Payments of up to $25,000.
Commercial fishers who have experienced financial hardship as
a direct result of the closure of fisheries linked to the PFOS/PFOA
contamination around RAAF Base Williamtown may be eligible to receive the
Income Recovery Subsidy backdated from the date of the original fisheries
closure on 4 September 2015.
The Business Assistance Payment is a $5000 lump sum to
eligible businesses to assist with immediate costs. Affected businesses may
also be eligible for further hardship payments of up to $20,000.
The assistance package, which is administered by the Department of Human
Services, will be available until June 2016.
However, the financial assistance package provided to affected fishermen
was viewed as inappropriate and inadequate. For example, Ms Washington stated:
The financial assistance package which is now being provided
to commercial fishers took too long to be put in place given that their losses
were immediate and obvious. In addition, what was ultimately offered does not
in any way compensate the fishers for their actual losses and is merely an
offering that assists survival.
As a result of the financial strain on commercial fisher
families, an independent charity organisation, AussieCare, has stepped in to
assist families with groceries though the Christmas period is most welcome. But
the fact that this is necessary is clear evidence of the inadequacy of the
Federal Government has provided.
Moreover, the final package offered was not designed in
consultation with industry representatives or NSW DPI. As a result, the package
does not address the seasonal nature, and other unique aspects, of the
The Wild Caught Fishers Coalition stated:
Financial packages that have been released to commercial
fisherman are inadequate and the application process is lengthy and stressful.
There has been very little if any consultation in relation to the effectiveness
of these packages directly among those impacted. These packages do not provide
the assurances required and do not cover income that would normally have be
generated from a working business.
Ms Beatty from the PFA noted that due to the risk-profile of the fishing
industry many fishing families need to save significant amounts of money as
they did not have access to banking loans. This meant that many fishers were
unable to receive the financial assistance that was available because they had
too much money saved. She stated:
We had a lot of difficulties in accessing financial
assistance. The fishermen that I spoke to had never walked into a Centrelink
office, and they found it demeaning to do so. They are proud fishermen, often
fourth or fifth generational fishermen; they did not want to be demeaned by
asking for financial assistance.
Similarly the CFCL described the assistance packed as inappropriately 'geared
towards farmer-type costs being designed for the Northern Cattle Farmers during
their past export disruption':
The estuarine fishers from the specific region have, in
general, low business costs but a normally steady income. This package only
addresses assistance to business costs, not income. For income assistance the
impacted fisher must negotiate through a number of bureaucratic processes which
are asset dependent, often resulting in no assistance. To receive the
equivalent to the Newstart Payment was an embarrassment to fishers, who have worked
hard to provide for their families a lifestyle that reflected their effort.
The NSW Farmers' Association noted that their members, oyster farmers in
the Tilligerry Creek Harvest Area, were excluded from the Income Recovery
Subsidy and Business Payments schemes set up in November.
Mr Ian Lyall from the NSW DPI confirmed that financial assistance for
affected businesses had been raised with Defence. However:
On 4 November, Defence released their assistance packages for
fishers only—not for oyster farmers or the community. They developed that
package without consultation with DPI or the fishers, so there are some hiccups
NSW DPI also noted that it was 'seeking amendment to the Farm Household
Support program to get eligibility for fishers'.
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