Seafood industry continues to call for Senate inquiry into seismic surveys
The Southern Bluefin Industry is concerned about the effect of seismic testing on marine ecosystems. (ABC News: Samantha Jonscher)
Members of the Australian seafood industry are persisting in their calls for an inquiry into seismic testing, despite the Senate having twice rejected the idea.
Seismic surveys, which are used to search for undersea oil and gas deposits, involve firing intense soundwaves into the ocean floor, which fishers worry could disrupt the behaviour of marine life.
Southern Bluefin Tuna Industry Association President Brian Jeffriess said not enough is known about the impacts of the practice.
“It disappoints me — why would parliament not seek to find out what is really happening and then come to some conclusion at least?” Mr Jeffriess said.
“If you look up the list of inquiries being held, how you could say that they are more important than this potential inquiry is?”
The surveys have become of particular concern to the seafood industry in Port Lincoln, South Australia, which, with its tuna, oyster, rock lobster and prawn fisheries, considers itself Australia’s seafood capital.
Norwegian oil company Equinor plans to drill an exploration well in the Great Australian Bight late next year in an area of the ocean that the city’s seafood sector also relies on.
Equinor has already carried out seismic surveys in the region, and fisheries remain concerned about both their immediate and potential impacts.
The Northern Rock Lobster industry is concerned about the effects seismic testing could have on its fishery. (ABC: Chris Lewis)
“I think the inquiry is a great idea — the effects of seismic surveys are still unknown, not just for us but all fisheries,” said Port Lincoln rock lobster fisherman Aaron Whittle.
“We know it has an impact, but to what extent we aren’t sure — the [scientific testing that has been] done, that’s been carried out in tanks, not in the open ocean yet.
Mr Jeffriess said the extent of the impact seismic testing can have on fisheries needs to be further investigated.
“There is no question in our mind that the science is now clear that there is an impact, and the more that is put under scrutiny the better,” he said.
“The bottom line is that a Senate inquiry can bring out issues and facts because of the access it has that isn’t normally available.”
Equinor is one of several oil companies with exploration leases in the Great Australian Bight. (ABC News)
Major parties voted down inquiry
The motion was first moved by Tasmanian Greens Senator, Peter Whish-Wilson, but failed to receive support from the major parties.
The potential inquiry would have considered the regulation of seismic surveys, taking into account the most recent scientific findings on the practice and the approval process for seismic testing.
A similar motion is not likely to be brought to a vote again in this parliament, as the inquiry will soon run out of time to report in time for the next election.
In a statement, Resources Minister Matt Canavan said the Coalition voted against the motion because it is “already funding extra research into the issue of seismic testing by the Australian Institute of Marine Science, and is also strengthening consultation and transparency requirements (with consultation on these changes at the moment).
“The proposal by the Greens for a Senate inquiry was about progressing their narrow agenda to shut down our oil and gas sector and make our country weaker.”
WA Labor Senator Louise Pratt spoke against the motion and was contacted for comment by the ABC but did not respond in time for publication.
More research needed
The National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) is aware of the seafood industry’s concerns.
Cameron Grebe, Head of NOPSEMA’S Environment Division, said at a Senate estimates hearing in October 2018 that “there are a range of initiatives that are being pursued to try to improve consultation.”
“I think that’s more about the information needed to consider what kinds of impacts may occur as a result of things like seismic [surveys], and then to develop plans to avoid or mitigate those, as well as improving the consultation between proponents from the petroleum industry and the fishing and seafood sector,” Mr Grebe said at the time.
Oil companies hoping to carry out offshore drilling and seismic surveys must first have their environmental plans assessed and approved by NOPSEMA.
Part of the North West Shoals to Shores research program is investigating the impact of seismic testing on pearl oysters. (Supplied: Cygnet Bay Pearls)
“If they cannot demonstrate, with sufficient certainty, that the activity can be conducted without unacceptable impacts to the environment, then the activity is not allowed to proceed in the way it was proposed,” A NOPSEMA spokesperson told the ABC.
“It is the responsibility of the seismic industry to understand the impacts of their activities on the environment, including marine biological receptors and the fishing industry, and then demonstrate to NOPSEMA how those activities will be managed in order to prevent unacceptable impacts.”
There are currently several Australian research projects considering the impact of the practice on marine life.
The most significant is the Australian Institute of Marine Science’s North West Shoals to Shore research initiative, which is studying marine noise, fish behaviour, and the and growth of pearl oysters in Western Australia.
Oil industry insists surveys are ‘low risk’
Matthew Doman, from the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, said the industry stands by the safety of seismic surveys.
“The fact is seismic surveys are low risk, it’s a well-understood technology and it’s the first step to understanding what is beneath the ocean floor,” he said.
“It’s been used in Australian waters for decades with no evidence of harm to the marine environment, and fisheries that host these activities continue to be some of the [industry’s] most productive.
“We also understand, however, that there are many people with questions and concerns, and we are committed to responding to them.”