FEATURE | Safety considerations for Australia’s Northern Territory Guided Fishing Industry Association

PASSENGER VESSEL WEEK

Australia’s Northern Territory’s selling points are iconic – Barramundi, crocodiles, sunsets, a laid-back attitude and plenty of fish to be caught from coastal fishing lodges, to billabongs, rivers and reefs. Bringing customers safely up close with this natural beauty involves a fair amount of safety planning.

The Northern Territory Guided Fishing Industry Association (NTGFIA) represents a significant number of the territory’s fishing tour operators – a hefty AU$34 million (US$24 million) industry. The active work of the association’s Vice-Chair Dennis Sten to promote safety and compliance practices in the guided fishing sector has seen the NTGFIA membership grow rapidly into a large and loyal network.

He explained that many of the association members are family operators who, when not conducting remote fishing tours, are busy doing their paperwork and getting ready for the next day’s activities. He sees his role as assisting members to find out what regulations and requirements apply to them so they can make sure they are safe and compliant while offering a top-rate service.

When the association and Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) Liaison Officer Steve Whitesmith met with operators across the territory to identify what information and guidance the sector required, operators openly discussed issues they faced.

Of particular concern for operators is the location of boat ramps open to the sea.

“Some vessel operators have to travel 150 kilometres per day just to go fishing, which gives rise to other risks,” Dennis said.

The obvious issue for operators doing this day after day is fatigue.

“For example, Darwin to Shady Camp is just over a two-hour drive each way. Add to that, eight hours of fishing, and that’s a long day considering four of those hours are spent traveling on a remote highway,” Dennis explained.

Another concern for operators is passengers who underestimate the potential dangers in and on the water.

As Dennis explained, operators provide clear safety briefings before tours start so passengers are aware of the risks, rules and safety requirements. Despite this, passengers forget or underestimate the risk, so operators take other precautionary measures to reduce the chance of passengers coming into direct contact with crocodiles.

Currently there’s a move across the Northern Territory to install pontoons with safety railing at all boat ramps to remove any risk of people coming into contact with crocodiles when embarking and disembarking vessels.

Dennis also said that when he ran his own operation, after dark he would take the tour group near the water, and point big search lights at the crocodiles to emphasise the clear and present danger of these prehistoric reptiles.

“The looming red eyes would glow in the night and I would warn them, ‘no swimming tonight fellas’,” he said.

The process of fileting fish off the back of the boat is also risky business. Safety measures are implemented to ensure the back of the boat is secure so the passengers can’t access or exit the back of the boat where they could come face to face with the feeding reptiles.

“Passengers can watch from a safe distance, but we don’t allow passengers anywhere near the back of the boat where the crocs might sneak up to feed off the parts entering the water,” Dennis said.

Dennis explained another key risk for operators, is clients who don’t disclose their medical history.

“Often passengers don’t disclose their medical issues – their motivation to do the tour often trumps the safety and logic of disclosing important medical information that could mean the difference between life and death in certain situations,” he said.

Under the general safety duties, operators are required to make sure their vessel and the people on board are safe. They do this by assessing and preparing for all the possible risks associated with the operation in their safety management system.

Risk assessment means being aware of what procedures are to be followed in the event of a medical emergency. Typically, measures would include first aid training, reliable communication equipment, medical supplies, and care flight plans.

CareFlight exercise

In October 2017, fishing tour operators took part in a CareFlight exercise in Darwin Harbour, to practice extracting a patient off the back of a mothership.

“We set up a dinghy from the back of the mothership and CareFlight observed how effective it would be to remove the patient from the dinghy in an actual rescue operation,” he explained.

“We found that for the patient to be successfully winched up, the dinghy had to be in a specific position in relation to the mothership, so now we know exactly what manoeuvres to do in an emergency.”

However iconic, laid back, and beautiful the Northern Territory may be, local guided fishing operators understand well that they can’t afford to take a laid-back attitude to safety. The territory may feel like the last frontier, but its multi-million dollar guided fishing industry has it covered.

with Sarah Cameron

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