Australian fishermen blame costly tuna and scallop losses on seismic testing

Seismic testing in fishers’ sights Sydney Morning Herald Andrew Darby

April 24, 2013 – 4:33PM

Commercial fishers are asking for seismic testing in Australian waters to be declared an environmental threat, in a move opposed by the petroleum industry.

The fishers were spurred to act by costly losses including Bass Strait scallop mortality and disrupted migration of southern bluefin tuna, which they blamed on seismic testing.

The Commonwealth Fisheries Association is taking up a tool used against fishers in the past, and asking the federal government to declare seismic testing a key threatening process.

Seismic arrays towed behind vessels fire airguns to bounce bubbles off the seabed and return a profile of the geology beneath.

Testing by Geoscience Victoria for possible carbon storage below Bass Strait in 2010 is alleged to have cost scallop fishers 24,000 tonnes of the shellfish, worth $70 million.

“No other abnormal factor could have caused the deaths of these scallops,” said Bob Lister, executive director of the Tasmanian Scallop Fishermen’s Association.

A southern bluefin tuna survey in the Great Australian Bight to set fishing quotas for the threatened species showed numbers crashing at the same time BP conducted a seismic survey there for oil and gas.

“This was exactly the period when bluefin were on their migratory path,” said Brian Jeffriess, chief executive of the Australian Southern Bluefin Tuna Industry Association.

“They absolutely collapsed from around 22,000 tonnes to 3000 tonnes, and this year the raw data shows they are back up to 22,000 tonnes,” Mr Jeffriess said. “Fishers rightly say to me that it must be the seismic [testing].”

In BP’s Bight exploration program, the vessel Ramform Sterling towed 12 streamers, each eight kilometres long, making it Earth’s largest man-made moving object, the company said.

Together with scallops and bluefin, the CFA has nominated seven other species that could become vulnerable or more highly endangered: black jewfish, arrow squid, scampi, blue warehou, orange roughy, gemfish and the loggerhead turtle.

The CFA’s chairman, Martin Exel, said there was enough anecdotal and scientific evidence to seek a determination from the government that seismic testing did have an impact, requiring its use to take fishers into account.

“For whales and other cetaceans, already there is no question that they are considered,” Mr Exel said. “A human is not even supposed to be in the water within five miles of seismic testing.”

In Canada, seismic surveys must be planned to avoid dispersing spawning or migratory fish.

The Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association said it was surprised by the nomination, which was not supported by evidence or science.

“In fact, more than five decades of experience and research shows no evidence that sound from oil and gas exploration activities causes injury to marine species or ecological communities or behavioural effects that would affect the viability of any marine animal population,” an APPEA spokesman said.

“And unlike the activities of other industries [such as fishing itself], there is no scientific evidence that would suggest oil and gas exploration activity has detrimental impacts on fisheries or fish stocks.”

The CFA’s application has been lodged with the government’s threatened species scientific committee, which will consider making a recommendation to Environment Minister Tony Burke.