FEATURE | Australian abalone fisheries: managing sharks in the workplace

John Minehan

Abalone diving has a reputation for being one of the most dangerous occupations on land or sea. The reality, however, is very different, says John Minehan, an Australian abalone diver and leading advocate for safer working practices in the industry.

Commercial fishing in open waters to collect abalone has many inherent dangers. Often the divers work alone, underwater, with a single deckhand on board a support vessel. Diving in dense kelp forests in cold water, the work is physically and mentally demanding. The divers are at risk of exhaustion and disorientation underwater as well as the very real threat of shark encounters.

However, John Minehan says that compared to other high-risk workplace activities, abalone diving should be seen as a low-risk occupation.

“Most operators would regard their job as relatively low-risk,” he said. “The reason for that is we have an exceptional safety record. There has been very little serious injury or death in the abalone industry, particularly in eastern Victoria. It compares very favourably with the risks you might face, for example, working on a construction site.’

AFCOL

John harvests abalone in Victoria’s eastern fishery for about six months of the year between April and November. He operates out of the small fishing town of Mallacoota near the New South Wales border along with several other abalone divers who collectively run AFCOL Australia (previously known as the Abalone Fishermen’s Co-operative) in Mallacoota.

Abalone harvesting is managed by a strict quota system, which determines how much each diver can catch every year, depending on what the reefs can sustain. Abalone caught in the East Gippsland waters are processed in Mallacoota at the AFCOL Australia plant, with the majority of product being exported to Asia.

Safety awareness

According to John, a key risk that abalone divers have to manage is the remoteness of their operations.

John and the other local abalone operators manage this in a number of different ways. Before heading out, all divers must log their destination with the processing plant and sign off again on their return. They also share their locations with other divers and, if more than one is operating in the same area, they maintain contact with each other while on the water.

“We’re all aware that as a group we have to look after one another so we do check in with each other regularly,” said John.

While emergency drills are the responsibility of the individual divers as part of their safety management systems, the industry also runs first aid courses with local paramedics and emergency services to give divers and their deckhands the skills needed to respond to an emergency situation.

John says safety awareness among divers is as much a habit as it is a list of do’s and don’ts. Regular inspection routines help to make safety second nature, always checking and double-checking to ensure equipment is working properly.

Boat construction has also contributed to improved safety in recent years with all boats now having to meet commercial survey specifications and be inspected every five years.

Weather forecasting has advanced immeasurably with information available via the official Bureau of Meteorology channels or a range of weather apps providing real-time data about conditions.

Shark attacks

There are also protocols for handling what, for many people, is perhaps the most alarming aspect of abalone diving—coming face-to-face with a shark.

“We’ve been fortunate in Eastern Victoria in that we’ve not had a shark attack since the early 1960s when diving first started, despite some encounters,” said John. “So the risk is very, very low.”

“Having said that, the number of sightings does seem to be increasing and if there were an attack, the outcome would likely be fatal, so it is something we take seriously.”

The safety protocols vary according to where the shark is encountered – on the bottom, mid-water or on the surface – and where the diver is in relation to the surface vessel.

Maintaining good communication between the diver and the surface vessel is important in all cases. For instance, when the shark is near the bottom, the diver can take cover on the reef and signal for the boat to be positioned above him. When it is safe to do so, the diver can then surface and be quickly extracted from the water.

Divers also use electronic shark deterrents, which are designed to cause discomfort to the sharks without harming them.

Mallacoota diver Wade Bowerman engaged in reef restoration. Photo: Holly Baird

Alongside safety, environmental awareness is an important aspect of the divers’ activities. Ensuring the ongoing health of the abalone’s eco-system is vital for the long-term survival of the fishery. Quotas play a key role in managing sustainability but the divers also undertake other conservation measures.

In recent years, the Victorian kelp forests, which are home to the abalone, have seen a massive decline partly due to over-grazing by sea urchins, which can reduce a healthy reef to a barren wasteland.

As a result, divers have been teaming up to carry out sea urchin eradication programs in a bid to restore the reefs to full health.

“It’s been a collaborative effort with pairs of divers working together and that’s helped to develop the organisational culture and the glue that holds it together,” said John. “It provides that informal forum for the sharing of information about dive practices.”

AFCOL post-fire

It’s been a tough few months for the Mallacoota abalone divers. The bushfire that tore through the town over New Year destroyed most of the processing plant, the town’s largest single employer. Road closures impacted on deliveries and then – just as recovery efforts were starting to get underway – the outbreak of coronavirus effectively closed down the region’s biggest export markets for abalone.

John Minehan acknowledges it’s going to be a long road back for the local industry to return to anything like business as usual.

“It means a lot of hard work for the industry to find a way forward,” he said. “It’s just a matter of us working together to do the legwork.”

Source: Australian Maritime Safety Authority Working Boats, May 2020.


Simon Enticknap

Simon Enticknap is a Sydney-based freelance journalist who has written numerous articles about recreational boating and commercial vessels in Australia.