by Jeni Bone
Esmay Hropic is the face of marine parks’ impact on our commercial fishing and prawning industry. Her entire town, Batemans Bay on the New South Wales south coast, is in crisis – and that’s not too extreme a word for it.
Batemans Bay - holiday haven.
The servo has closed, various other shops and essential stores, the iconic saw mill – the other main industry around which the town was created – has been forced to shut down.
'To say Batemans Bay is dying is no exaggeration,' she says. 'For 100 years, fishing, farming and forestry have been the life blood of this region and they are all suffering because our seas have wrongly been declared no-take zones.'
Batemans Marine Park was established by the New South Wales government in 2006 and covers 85,000 hectares, extending from Murramarang Beach near Batemans Bay in the north to Wallaga Lake near Tilba Tilba in the south. It stretches to three miles offshore and includes all the estuaries, creeks, rivers and lakes (except Nargal Lake) within the Eurobodalla region.
Esmay Hropic - professional prawner
According to Esmay and a host of professors and academics, including Emeritus Professor Robert Kearney and Ray Hilborn is a Professor in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington, the decision to lock up their particular patch as a marine park is based on flawed science.
'Our area is a traditionally recognised prawn trawl ground. It’s a soft sandy bottom with crashing rolling waves – there’s no sea grass at all and never has been because of the way it’s formed. There are no reefs where we trawl and we’re only out there for 30 minute shots, meaning they lift the nets up, put the prawns in ice water and then cast the nets out for another half hour shot.'
The boats are not set on auto pilot and they don’t leave nets in for long stints.
Esmay, supported by the local Member, Andrew Constance, who presented this view in state parliament, states that a major change from the 2006 draft was the complete removal of commercial trawling from the park.
'The corresponding section in Marine Parks Amendment (Batemans) Regulation 2006, the public consultation draft, contains no mention of trawling. It just appeared and we had to accept it.'
The buyout that ensued, which Esmay describes as 'compulsory acquisition' forced commercial fishers to hand over their livelihoods for a meagre $60,000 in compensation.
'Which is nothing when you consider the cost of a boat and all the equipment they carry. These are professional operations, not one man and his dog!'
Esmay is third generation professional prawner, while her husband, Emil and his family have been prawning and fishing for more than 50 years, and before migrating here, they were fishers in Croatia.
'We have a huge investment in modern technology, the latest methods and equipment. We still have a single boat, the ‘Mary Alice’, and our licenses, even though the boat is idle and we are locked out of the main prawning zone of Long Beach.'
Esmay estimates her family alone is losing $150,000 each season. The effect on the town of Batemans Bay, the closest beachside town to the nation’s capital Canberra, is immense.
'Tourists flow through town all year round and they ask for local seafood. We can help them with fish, which we catch 125kms from here, but we have to tell them there are no local prawns.'
What we consume in Australia, reveals Esmay, and with an ever increasing appetite, is massive quantities of largely unregulated foreign prawns – 446,000 tonnes in 2011, up by 10% on the year prior.
'They are cheap, mostly unregulated from farms in China, Thailand and Vietnam. Importers only have to provide testing on batches, so who knows what we are eating! In Vietnam, according to scientists at Sydney University, there is definite evidence of Agent Orange leaching from soils in to waterways and their seafood could well be tinged by that.'
In contrast, Batemans Bay, the jewel in the crown of 'Eurobodalla Natural Coast', is as pristine an environment as nature serves up. Clyde River oysters are acclaimed by gourmands as equal to the best in the world.
Just 280km from Sydney and 146km from Canberra, Batemans Bay has long been known as the holiday coast for visitors looking for a leisurely pace and a wholly marine-themed holiday. It is home to 16,000 people, the majority of whom are engaged in the three main activities which once drove the region’s economy.
'Today, it’s a ghost town,' laments Esmay. 'Maybe people driving through don’t notice, but tourists who stay a while feel it because many essential services are shut down,' she adds.
'One of the first things to go was Harbour Marine, the ships chandlery on the marina which used to sell diesel and bait. That was a huge loss. One service station closed down, the Go-Lo chain store shut, Ned Kelly Bargains another discount store, which had been there nearly 20 years, Splendour Homes which employed 70 or so tradespeople, Vision Windows, another big employer, cafes and real estate companies, and many more.'
Batemans Bay 1
These can all be traced back to the Marine Park, she states.
'It was a domino effect. They were all reliant on fishing as the heart of the town. Another big impact was on property prices, which went in to free fall. Now, it’s hard to even sell up and move out.'
Esmay she can recount many tales of divorces, suicides, depression, people taking a hit, dumping their homes and leaving town. 'The GFC might be over, but we are officially in a recession and the statistics for the region back that up.'
The town’s reputation as a peaceful seaside retreat is taking a battering. 'Visiting recreational fishermen have been fined by Marine Park Authority patrols for catches they have caught in other areas, but because they’ve drifted in to the park, they’ve been fined, heftily. One I heard of was $750, which ruined his holiday. He returned to the bush and told everybody not to come here. No amount of advertising can counter that bad taste in people’s mouths – their bad experience.'
'Then there’s the water police, DPI and Maritime Waterways all checking on people. It has damaged the town beyond belief.'
Esmay states that they can prove that modern methods do not impact adversely on the environment.
'We installed bycatch reduction devices known as 'batwing boards' in 1992 and made our mesh holes double the size they need to be so any small fish can escape. Our weights are 4.35kg which means they do not scrape the ocean floor, and there is no sea grass in that area anyway. These are very light weight nets. They don’t come in to contact with the sea floor biota.
'We are as sustainable as any industry in the country – that is our goal to ensure the future for our profession and that of the next generation of fishers. We just want permission to work.'
As Esmay recounts, the Batemans Bay Marine Park area was closed by using the Precautionary Principle, a document which was written after the Marine Park was signed off.
'Early reports outlined that Long Beach was closed because of damage to the sea floor and the removal of sea grass. There was no scientific evidence presented to local commercial shareholders at the meetings and no testing carried out with local commercial fishermen,' states Esmay.
Long Beach Batemans Bay
There has been no prawning in the abundantly blessed Long Beach area since 2007 when the Marine Park was declared, covering 85,000 hectares of water.
'The irony is, the adult prawns are going to waste,' explains Esmay.
Prawns enter the Clyde River or Creek to spawn, they live 12 to 18 months emerging to the sea to die at the end of their life cycle.
'And that’s where we catch them – at the end of their life cycle. They are there to be harvested and we cannot because of flawed science underlying these bans.'
In their election campaign promises in the lead up to the May 2011 state election, the NSW Coalition, led by Premier Barry O’Farrell, promised a review of the Marine Parks.
They overturned Jervis Bay and Solitary Island, so there is a precedence, Esmay says, ever optimistic.
'You can now trawl in marine parks including Great Byron Marine Park, Jervis Bay and Solitary Island in Coffs Harbour. But Batemans Bay is still pending, left to languish for another season. They haven’t contacted us, they won’t respond to our requests for a meeting.
'We send letters, emails and petitions to the Minister, Christina Hodgkinson but hear nothing back. Our local member, Andrew Constance is on side, but he has had no response either.
'Now it’s Christmas again and we are going to miss another year’s catch,' Esmay laments, referring to the September to April haul of prawns there for the taking.
A real issue, according to the fishing families of the south coast, is the demonization of fishing and trawlers.
'Trawlers have a bad name, and for no good reason,' she says referring to the Green-washing of some NGOs. 'Our methods are best practice and harm nothing. We are only out there for half an hour stints.'
To support his family the only way he knows how, Esmay’s husband, Emil, drives the 250km round trip to fishing grounds further south, past Bermagui where he works his 6m tinny undertaking estuary meshing, a sustainable method known as 'splashing'.
The Hropics have a license to sell seafood from their home and Esmay says, all of them ask for local prawns.
'We explain the situation and they are flabbergasted. They nearly always sign our petition which to date has nearly 2000 signatures from visitors and locals. The Aboriginal Elder in town, John Brierely, has given us his support in writing, stating the effects the marine park has had on the aboriginal community, tourism and entire south coast economy. The local people have fished and caught prawns since prehistoric times and commercial operations alongside them since the 1940s.'
The impact on the Hropic family is nothing short of 'devastating' both in terms of family cohesion and their income.
'We used to do six months fishing and six months prawning, but we have to rely on fishing now. We own the last trawler in Batemans Bay, and renew our licenses each year, but we want to know how long we will have to wait until this is all reviewed. The stress is phenomenal.'
Bermagui Fishing Coop
What the town wants is to form a co-op, like the good old days. 'We would do prawning and fishing for the town’s supply and for tourists. Right now, it’s like a death, a long slow death. We have done this all our lives. We have done the right thing, bought all the right equipment. Somebody needs to listen to us and realise the damage being done to our town and others like it, as well as the deception being practiced on the Australian consumer.'
Demand for seafood, touted as the healthy alternative to a diet high in red meat protein, is rising exponentially. Esmay says: 'It’s a religious rite in some cultures and for Catholics, to be able to eat fresh locally caught seafood caught in their own backyards. By locking up areas in Marine Parks governments are depriving Australians of their fair share of seafood, which is nutritious and recommended by medical experts for the Omega 3 they contain. People who can’t catch their own seafood are going without these benefits.'
For her part, after producing a thorough submission on the Independent Scientific Audit on Marine Parks, as requested by the state government, Esmay is currently undertaking a SWAT analysis on the economic consequences to her town, differentiating between pre-Marine Park and post.
In a new blow to industry, the New South Wales Minister for Primary Industries, Katrina Hodgkinson has proposed a raft of new reforms for the commercial fishing industry, citing the benefits for 'the long-term viability and sustainability of the State’s fisheries resources'.
Central to the changes are an initial fee increase from July 2013, moving towards fees based on resource access.
'A lack of investment, ageing commercial fishing fleets, too many fishers through poorly allocated fishing rights, and excessive red tape has stifled the industry,' Minister Hodgkinson said.
'With 85 per cent of seafood sold in NSW being imported, these new changes are needed to ensure that there is a continued availability of fresh, local seafood.'
Esmay’s take on the proposed reforms is vastly different.
'There are just under 1,000 commercial fishers in NSW, and the Minister is proposing cutting this by half in two years. Our fees going up 40% next year, then they will start charging us per share. The more shares you buy, the more nights you can fish. These are huge reforms that will impact on fishing families. It will drive people out of business.'
Esmay acknowledges that this could well be one of the reasons the Minister has been hard to contact.
'I’d say that’s the reason she hasn’t called us back. We are totally dumbstruck by this. This will be the end of the town and the whole south coast.
'The coops are on the brink, the ice works are close to going out of business, the diesel suppliers for the boats and the truck drivers won’t have work, and we will be importing 95% of our seafood.
'Once the fishers are gone, there won’t be seafood coming to the co-ops. The fishing licenses are going up 40%, which means it will cost them more to catch it and they will pass that price on to the public. People will then say ‘why will I pay $40 per kilo for local prawns when I can get imported stuff from Woolies and Coles for $15 a kilo’.
'People in small towns are struggling now without these so-called reforms. Fishermen are going to close up and say why bother? Those who do stay on, are risking their lives on the road driving 300km round trip to catch fish for their local community.'
Last weekend, Esmay arranged meetings with government officials – a Senator, local Member of Parliament and advocate for the fishing industry – who travelled from Canberra to Batemans Bay to discuss the prospects of handing back some fishing grounds.
'We want to work with them. We want to go to work, feed the community with fish and prawns that are fresh, local, clean and affordable.'
Some locals, like former fisher, Matt Barber, see the reforms as the first step in a larger 'conspiracy'.
'The fish stocks are there, we just can't get to them. Fishing underpins tourism.The attraction of little towns like Batemans Bay is for tourists to come and enjoy local seafood while they look at the water. They pull in on their boats, or drive in to town, buy fuel, bait, accommodation, meals, T shirts.
When they can't get seafood, and eventually, when there's no bait and tackle shop, no fuel, people will stop coming.'
Matt cites Batemans Bay Volunteer Marine Rescue figures that prove visitation to the marina has dropped dramatically, from 5,200 six years ago to 2,600.
Prawn trawlers now idle
Matt is already seeing this decline first-hand. As skipper of a Clyde River ferry that takes tourists 20km up the river and back again, he speaks with visitors who say they are planning to drive another 2 and a half hours south to Merimbula because they can fish there.
'I tell them they can fish in Batemans Bay, but only in certain places. But because there are 'invisible boundaries', nobody wants to risk it and get caught. There's that uncertainty. Nobody wants a $750 or $2000 fine.'
Matt's own fishing business went under a few years ago. Fishing since he was 17, alongside his dad, also a commercial fisher, he bought his own trawler at 24 with help from his mum and her retirement payout.
During the drought years, back to back El Nino conditions which impacted on the prawn breeding, Matt managed to make a living with other fishing methods.
'Then the marine parks came and we couldn't operate. We can't just relocate. We have thousands of dollars invested in boats and equipment. Now they want to increase the fees. Even if I could afford another $100,000, we’ve already invested so much and lost 8-% of our fishing area. It would be for no extra gain.'
The politicians, Matt states 'are not living in the real world'.
'How can you cut back, concentrate all the fishing in one area, raise the fees and expect the local industry to continue? There used to be 35 prawn trawlers in Batemans Bay, now there are none. There were 60 fishing boats, now there are five.'
Matt surmises that the government is aiming for 'five big operators', like the supertrawler.
'They've squeezed out all the smaller fishers and now they're going to price out those that are left. It will wipe out the industry and leave it open to the multinationals. We are selling ourselves out and if our forebears who fought and died for this country could see this, they'd be disgusted. Aussies have lost their rights to employment.'
He and many men like him, can’t just up and leave. 'Some of my mates in fishing and trucking have gone to the mines in Queensland, and there’s good money to be made there. But their wives aren’t coping. A couple of them have split up over it. I have a wife and four little kids in school and an elderly mum. I’m 42. All I have is the job on the ferry and even that is dependent on tourism.'
With everything against them, this tight-knit clan is showing a united resilience.
'We are trying to be optimistic,' says Esmay with pride in her fishing heritage. 'Fishermen have always had to develop attributes that others did not. They had to be skilled at their trade, knowing the when, where and why of their fishing. They had to be patient, not easily discouraged and strong, hard-working and community-oriented.
'As business men they have to be judges of character, savvy about the market, conscientious about their civil and religious responsibilities. They have to respect the law and operate within it. As fishermen, we have mutual respect for the ocean.
'We are speaking for our community who are asking us and fully supporting our cause to be able to get back access to go fishing and supply them with fresh local seafood, prawns, from the Long Beach area in Batemans Bay.
'We are asking for a review of the zoning, to be granted a permit to conduct independent scientific trials to prove there is no reason it should be closed, to prove that our modern methods are workable, sustainable and of benefit to the community.'